The Heiress: A Cruel Inheritance

“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.”

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

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