The Heiress: A Cruel Inheritance

On Film / Essays — May 7, 2019

“The emotion and conflict between two people in a drawing room can be as exciting as a gun battle, and possibly more exciting,” wrote William Wyler on the release of his film The Heiress in 1949. This tenet is fully borne out in the film, with its bouts of genteel but bruising domestic warfare staged within an elegant Manhattan town house. In fact, Wyler put this philosophy into practice throughout his work, which is synonymous with economical classical Hollywood filmmaking, his often inconspicuous style capable of staging moments of deep emotional resonance—and like Henry James, whose novel Washington Square forms the basis of The Heiress, he found high drama in domestic tyrannies. In his directorial arsenal, he counted such weapons as the careful blocking of scenes, the skillful use of depth of field in his compositions, and indefatigable discipline in his work with actors. With those tools, he could stoke almost unbearable tension within his confined interiors—no one has ever made better cinematic use of staircases. The one in The Heiress becomes a battlefield.

The director, known for his adaptations of theatrical and literary works, had come to James’s crisp and precise 1880 book via a stage play, also called The Heiress, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz (the couple would also cowrite the screenplay). For James—whose novels are celebrated for their penetrating psychological realism—as for Wyler, incident and character were wrapped up in each other. “What is character but the determination of incident? What is inci­­d­ent but the illustration of character?” the author wrote in his essay “The Art of Fiction” a few years after publishing Washington Square, adding: “It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be hard to say what it is.” Distilled to its bitter essence, the story of the book, the play, and the film is about a woman standing up, in her own house, and looking out at the people closest to her, the world she lives in, in a new and certain way. 

“For years, The Heiress was considered a remarkable exception to the rule that James’s novels were unfilmable.”

In the middle of the nineteenth century, a naive young woman, Catherine Sloper, lives with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, in a fine house on New York’s Washington Square. Dr. Sloper considers his daughter dull and unattractive, especially in comparison with his late wife, her mother. His sister, a widow named Lavinia, also stays with them. When a handsome but hard-up young man, Morris Townsend, begins courting Catherine, she falls deeply in love, but Dr. Sloper intuits that Morris’s motives are mercenary, and resists the match. The rest of the story involves Catherine slowly losing her illusions about the esteem both her father and lover have for her. It’s a bleak scenario, but one with a richly nuanced climax that sees Catherine claiming her full inheritance, both material and emotional, with the cool line (invented for the film) “Yes, I can be cruel. I have been taught by masters.” The final images are of Catherine ascending the stairs of her house alone, while Morris fruitlessly batters the front door. It is one of the starkest endings in golden-age Hollywood, a caustic and complex act of revenge that reveals Catherine’s inner steeliness. It’s an act of empowerment too: with each step, Catherine asserts her ownership of herself, her home.

For years, The Heiress was considered a remarkable exception to the rule that James’s novels were unfilmable. But that is not to say that it’s a particularly faithful adaptation: Wyler’s movie deviates substantially from the author’s plot and text. It even differs, especially in its transformative finale, from the play it is more closely based on. The Goetzes had added one abrupt jilting for the stage version, and they added another for the film. Like Catherine responding to the emotional knocks dealt by her father and lover, the story toughened up with each retelling.

Early in Wyler’s career, after graduating from silent westerns, he had proved himself to be a sharp director of comedy, but it was with “women’s pictures” such as Jezebel(1938), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Letter (1940), as well as the social realism of films like Dead End (1937), that it became clear where his truest talent lay: in creating psych­ological “gun battles” between characters. The Alsace-born director had been deeply affected by both his childhood experiences during World War I and his time spent in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Both during and directly after the latter conflict, in two Oscar-winning fiction films, he interrogated the domestic impacts of war. Mrs. Miniver (1942) dramatizes the pressures of life on the British home front; The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the painful reintegration of American military men into civilian life in peacetime.

It may have been Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941), another saga of psychological militancy in the domestic sphere, that actor Olivia de Havilland had in mind when she called the director in 1948, urging him to see The Heiress on Broadway. That same year, the French critic and theorist André Bazin published an influential essay in which he singled out Wyler as one of the key figures of a return to realism in American filmmaking, and celebrated Wyler’s particular genius for filming stage drama (he made twelve films based on plays in the course of his career). Bazin finds an inspired simplicity in the unobtrusive choices Wyler made in adapting The Little Foxes from Lillian Hellman’s play of the same name. He barely changed the dialogue and refused to bolt on unnecessary exterior sequences, or to move the camera or vary the camera angles much. “It is upon these paradoxical premises that Wyler has built one of the most purely cinematic works ever,” writes Bazin. “Insofar as Wyler has never attempted to hide the novelistic or theatrical nature of most of his scripts, he has made all the more apparent the cinematic phenomenon in its utmost purity.” In The Heiress, interior sequences in rooms bounded by sliding doors, windows, and fireplaces provide an almost stifling air of theatricality, while mirrors and deep-focus staging allow for the foregrounding, replication, and diminution of characters to evoke James’s insistent psychological realism.

“The story’s theme of an oppressed figure who chafes at being underestimated, unappreciated, and controlled likely resonated for both director and star. ”

Wyler and de Havilland also knew each other socially, since she had had an affair with his close friend John Huston. What she may not have known was that Wyler had kiboshed producer Samuel Goldwyn’s suggestion that she star in The Best Years of Our Lives. However, de Havilland’s renown was growing, thanks to her acclaimed performances in To Each His Own (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948), and she had also recently filed suit to get out of her contract with Warner Bros., where she had often been stuck playing Errol Flynn’s love interest—much as Wyler had freshly liberated himself from the notoriously controlling Goldwyn to join Frank Capra, Samuel J. Briskin, and George Stevens as one of the partners in the short-lived independent production company Liberty Films. After Paramount bought Liberty in 1947, Wyler, like de Havilland, was under contract at that studio. Her purpose in contacting Wyler was simple: she wanted to play Catherine, and she wanted him to direct. The story’s theme of an oppressed figure who chafes at being underestimated, unappreciated, and controlled likely resonated for both director and star. 

Wyler loved the play. He met with the Goetzes to sort out exactly how The Heiress could work on-screen. After three hours of talking, Ruth Goetz recalled, there was admiration on both sides. “We knew he wanted us,” she said. “I thought he was first-rate.” Paramount poured money into the production. Harry Horner was hired to design the sets, including the house itself, dominated by that crucial staircase, and the mirrors that capture some of the Slopers’ painful moments. For Catherine, the sight of her own image calls to mind her father’s criticisms of her. We first see her reflected in a mirror as she descends the stairs, hurriedly; she allows herself only a fleeting moment of self-admiration in the hall mirror even after Morris’s proposal. And in the final stages of the film, when their relationship has been torn to shreds, she addresses her father not to his face but via his reflection in the mirror.

De Havilland was locked in as Catherine, and Wyler also had the insight to hire Ralph Richardson to give an eerily dexterous performance as Dr. Sloper, a role he would also play in the London production of the play in 1949. Many contemporary reviews of the film praise Richardson above all his colleagues; his consummate skill results in a rigorously controlled performance, his character’s minute gestures and ironic inflections undercutting Catherine’s confidence at every turn. Richardson’s genius is partly in playing Sloper not as a villain but as a man damaged by grief and self-pity, entrenched in the certainty that he has been cheated out of a good wife, with only a bad daughter to show for it. 

There’s a generational conflict at the heart of The Heiress, reflecting James’s preoccupation with painful shifts in manners from one world to the next (here represented by the guardianship of the house, transferred from parent to child), and that is underscored in the casting of Aunt Lavinia, starry-eyed and meddlesome but not unperceptive. Wyler chose Miriam Hopkins, a pre-Code star who carried with her a whiff of the faded glamour of Hollywood’s romantic indulgences of the thirties, somewhat out of place in this somber forties piece. Fittingly, Lavinia coaxes Catherine to behave like the heroine of a love story, which this film patently is not. 


Conversely, Catherine’s shifty suitor was played by a rising star, a late-forties matinee idol destined to become a fifties icon: Montgomery Clift, whose casual manner and polished handsomeness make Morris Townsend both enigmatic and tantalizingly desirable. Wyler defended this casting choice to the end of his life, saying in 1973: “I don’t agree with the critics who said that Montgomery Clift was too nice and pleasant to play the fortune hunter Morris Townsend. In the play, he was so obviously a villain . . . In the film, because Clift was so sympathetic, people were horrified when he jilted her.” The relationship wasn’t always smooth during filming, though. Clift was apparently like a small earthquake on set, the picture of a temperamental movie star, sequestering himself with his personal acting coach between takes, and openly disdainful of de Havilland’s talent. Wyler hired a tutor to teach the young actor how to adopt the posture of a man born a hundred years before he was, and let Clift’s evident arrogance bleed into his portrayal of the smooth-talking Morris, while the tension between the costars festered. Clift looms over the shrinking de Havilland in their love scenes in a manner that appears more violently coercive than romantic.

Meanwhile, de Havilland, besides the discomfort of working with Clift, was struggling to play Catherine to her director’s exacting standards. Looking back, Wyler would theorize that perhaps her looks got in the way of her portrayal: “Here you have one of the most beautiful women in the world playing an ugly duckling,” he said. “We did everything in our power to make Olivia homely, but it didn’t work.” In fact, there’s real substance to de Havilland’s Catherine. Wyler always had schemes to jolt a performance out of an actor, and endless patience for retakes. In one scene, in which Catherine is wearily climbing the stairs after being jilted, the director forced de Havilland to go up the steps again and again so many times that she threw her suitcase at him. When he realized the case was empty, Wyler had it filled with books and commanded de Havilland to do another take, in which she finally appeared to be authentically fatigued enough to satisfy him. Even with unplucked eyebrows and pale makeup, de Havilland is a too-beautiful Catherine, it’s true, but her clumsy mannerisms and gauche bursts of emotion go a long way toward creating a character who can believably be dismissed by her own father as an “entirely mediocre and defenseless creature without a shred of poise.” As Catherine toughens up, de Havilland notably deepens her voice, and her famous sweetness dissolves.

De Havilland would deservedly win the Oscar for playing Catherine. Beginning with Melanie in Gone with the Wind, the actor had excelled at playing women who were ostensibly overshadowed by others yet exerted their own compelling magnetism. Watch her opposite Bette Davis in In This Our Life (1942), or opposite herself, as the more reserved twin, in The Dark Mirror (1946). Catherine, too, is struggling with another, overpowering woman—her own mother, who died giving birth to her (although this is made explicit only in the novel). Her father measures his disappointment when she dresses for a ball in a gown of cherry red, the color of her mother’s favorite hair ribbons. “But your mother was fair; she dominated the color,” sighs the doctor. Implicitly, the color, so completely associated with her mother, overwhelms timid Catherine, whose unsuitability as mistress of the house is established early on when we see that she is too sensitive not to flinch when the fishmonger decapitates a fish, and too unrefined to know that she shouldn’t bring the fish into the house herself. By staking her claim to the home at the end of the film, Catherine finally replaces her mother and silences her father.

To stiffen its structure, The Heiress makes a motif of a pastime mentioned only briefly in James’s novel. The embroidered alphabet that Catherine patiently toils over is begun and completed over the course of the film. Dr. Sloper sneers that he hopes it won’t be her “life’s work,” but she snips the final thread on the letter Z with a flourish before climbing those stairs at the conclusion. In this choice of a thoroughly feminine, thoroughly domestic pursuit, which is pointedly the domain of spinsterhood (taught by aging unmarried women to little girls), there’s a hint that this film is not intended to be a mere James adaptation at all, but rather that very forties cultural artifact, a women’s picture. De Havilland’s glamour fits more comfortably into this reading. Catherine is the heroine of her own tale of liberation, of upsetting patriarchal tyranny and becoming, whatever the cost, the victor on the battlefield, the mistress of her own realm, and, very possibly, the end of her own poisoned family line.