In William Wyler’s astute and pointed masterpiece, The Heiress, we find pleasure in what I would call the art of simplicity. Here we have a film that relies upon the foundation of a great script, solid dramatic acting, observant deep-focus cinematography, and a score that heightens the tension. I had never seen this film before until recently. I was aware of it’s status as a solid dramatic film from the 1940’s, and of Olivia de Havilland’s performance. What I wasn’t so prepared for was how solidly and assuredly the film is put together. Wyler has a great knack here for heightening dramatic effect through the observance of behavior within confined spaces. He essentially made a “chamber drama”, which Bergman in subsequent decades would perfect. Wyler allows the acting to develop through each scene, giving each actor time to create the moments within the scene, without cutting them short.
This film is based on the stageplay from 1947, which was based on the book, Washington Square by Henry James. Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a woman with very little experience in the matter of love or relationships with the opposite sex, but she possesses quite the inheritance from her deceased mother and also which will come from her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), whom she lives with, along with her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins). Catherine is starting to get some wrinkles around her eyes, and is past her prime for getting the attention of men. Her father is possessive of her and critical. Her aunt pressures her to try to meet people. They attend a dance party where Catherine meets a handsome younger man named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). He pursues her rather heavily despite her shyness and timidity, soon proposing marriage to her. In the process of Morris asking Dr. Sloper for permission to marry, it’s clear that Dr. Sloper feels that Morris is only out to marry Catherine for her money, and threatens to withhold her inheritance. Catherine feels this is her only chance at marriage. Her father feels she is going to be robbed of her money and true love.
What I find so mesmerizing about the plot, is the fact that we really have no idea what Morris's intentions are. There are certain scenes where I am sure that he’s up to no good, and then there are other scenes where I’m sure that he is nothing but completely sincere in his love for Catherine. Clift plays the role magnificently, keeping us completely in the dark about his motives until we absolutely can’t stand the suspense any longer. His role is the key to making the chamber drama work. He is the one through which the plot engine churns. It’s his subtle nuances that count here most of all. I am also impressed by Olivia de Havilland, who is able to make me believe that she is the naïve, timid woman at the beginning of the film, and also the rather moody and direct woman she is at the end. Ralph Richardson is also terrifically curt, suspicious, and rather spiteful as the Dr., a man with deep-set flaws regarding his perfectionism and greed. Miriam Hopkins also provides a breezy counterpoint in several scenes that is most welcome here.
Deep-focus cinematography by Leo Tover is incredibly engaging and adds to the dramatic tension. I like the way that characters are framed in the classic dramatic triangle, with three people standing at different points within the frame, allowing us to see each one at the same time. Aaron Copland's score is also a tremendous asset to this film as well, adding the underpinnings and exclamation points to key moments. It’s the kind of score that doesn’t call too much attention to itself, but you notice that it’s working well with the film and enhancing it. In thinking about William Wyler’s ability to wring dramatic moments from his actors and focus on the drama of the scene (a la Dodsworth), I find a bit of a kinship with Sidney Lumet, who also got the best from his actors and from a focus on the essential elements of the film, a simplicity if you will. It’s something to think about anyway when we try to categorize Wyler. By any standard, though, The Heiress is one of the great
pictures of the 1940’s and not to be missed.