Olivia de Havilland's performance in William Wyler's1949 The Heiress adds another dimension to the defiant-yet-compliant Catherine of Henry James's 880 Washington Square. Granted, her dull gentleness conveys the ox-like harmlessness James intended; and, with the exception of her occasional, private wit, she is true to the heroine of the novel for the first part of the movie. However, her post-jilted personality transforms her character into a lady with a commanding presence.
Of all the riveting scenes and character interaction, the scene most imprinted on my mind is that of Catherine seated in her white French dress, working on her needlepoint as she awaits Morris' (Montgomery Clift) return. Her hair is elegant; her brow is serene; her stony silence is more charged than Morris' wildly desperate knocking in the end. De Havilland alone make the moment what it is-a climactic stillness, charged like the calm before a storm. The power of that scene lies largely in her appearance. It is not only her sophisticated hairstyle or the subdued loveliness of her gown but also her face. She demonstrates an amazing ability to transform her facial features, and this ability contributes to the noticeable change in her character. Whereas the once-naive Catherine had a unflattering smile of exaggerated eagerness, her smile is now taut and controlled. She holds her chin erect, and looks coolly down her nose. The deepening of her voice is a drastic change as well, which demands respect.
Catherine's chilling demeanor is one factor that renders more human the character of Dr. Sloper. Ralph Richardson plays Dr. Sloper with the stoicism established by the novel; however, his distant civility melts into affection when Catherine boldly declares the hurt he has caused her. The Catherine of the novel never does possess the nerve to confront her father or arouse anything in him besides distaste and a slight amusement over her stubbornness. Catherine's callous reaction toward her father's impending death increases his pain, and Richardson's evident vulnerability arouses pity.
Catherine's revenge on Morris, however, does not increase viewer pity for him. While Montgomery Clift's charm makes Catherine's gullibility more believable than in the novel (where it is not visible), he fails on his return to erase the wrong from her mind or the viewer's. This could be, in part, due to his blatant deception of Catherine; at least in the novel he verbally breaks the engagement Whatever the reason, Catherine's shadowy descent up the staircase amid the noise of his knocking is a pleasing "wrap up" of her revenge.
Olivia de Havilland's Catherine deals more kindly with Aunt Lavinia, whose character nevertheless does not deviate from her character in the book. She does, however, prove more endearing in the film. The secret lies in the sparkling eyes of Miriam Hopkins. The harm of her conniving, God-playing games diminishes somewhat beneath her sparkling, almost childlike veneer. Few actresses could have done the character the same justice.
While Washington Square is more complex and provides lingering food for thought, The Heiress has all the entertaining elements of a good film: a circular plot and basic but believable characters. The heroine gets her revenge, and viewers are left with a sense of justice that the book does not provide.