William Wyler’s Subtly Cinematic Take on the Chamber Drama
The Heiress, one of the most intense psychological dramas to issue from 1940s Hollywood, unfolds almost entirely under one roof: that of the well-appointed Manhattan town house where tremulous Catherine Sloper (an Oscar-winning Olivia de Havilland) lives with her domineering father (Ralph Richardson), and is courted by a strapping young man (Montgomery Clift) of uncertain intentions. Though the 1840s-set film, based on a theatrical adaptation of Henry James’s Washington Square, seldom strays from this single location, director William Wyler and his cast use the subtlest of gestures to construct a world that doesn’t feel the least bit stage-bound. As screenwriter Jay Cocks and critic Farran Smith Nehme observe in the video above, taken from a supplement on our chock-full new edition of The Heiress, the movie’s unostentatious camera movement invites viewers into the action rather than simply punctuating it. Cocks and Nehme also go on to discuss how Wyler and de Havilland transform one particular borrowing from James’s novel—Catherine’s embroidery—into a brilliantly piercing visual motif.