William Wyler's 1949 The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. We see Wyler at his best when he has a wonderful setting, strong script, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on their 1948 play, The Heiress, and skilled actors to help him execute his vision. We see wonderful scenes that are not only well acted but also well paced.
Not only do we enjoy wonderful acting but some of the most beautiful aspects of the film itself simply stand stationary in the background. We observe the house itself as a character in this film. We see the vastness of the Sloper house as a way to show how empty these people are.
At one point, the broken Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), clad in black as she trudges up the many stairs, lugging that suitcase packed with what would be her honeymoon apparel after waiting for Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), her fiancé, that would never come. In the end we see her in her white Parisian gown, as she mounts the same stairs in a moment of triumph as Morris beats on the door. We see the vastness as a way to show how empty these people are.
Wyler does an impressive job of taking a cast of characters that in print seem to simply be waiting for a leading character that never comes onto James's stage. Wyler works with the script to direct a cast that is not only a pleasure to watch but also truly draws the viewers into the story. Morris is not only handsome and charming but the viewers find themselves really wanting to believe him when he says he loves her. No matter how well the viewers the story, they still want to believe it. Dr. Sloper is well acted by Ralph Richardson as a character and carries himself in the manner I envisioned he would. The beard that was square but round was also a nice touch on Wyler's part. Catherine is not dim because she seems to be very quick witted at times with some people she knows well, but she just seems to be a very nervous individual that is shy around most other people especially men, like her overbearing father and Morris at first.
Wyler's stunning interpretation of Washington Square gave
birth to The Heiress, one of the most enjoyable films I have seen.