You Don't Stand a Chance

     Cinematography is the formation of the shots within a movie. It creates the feel of the scene to the viewer. It allows the viewer to grasp and interpret what moods and sensations the actors and the director want to portray. Within his 1949 movie The Heiress, based on the 1948 play of the same name by Ruth and Augustus Goetz and the 1880 novel, Washington Square by Henry James, William Wyler does an excellent job of this. At many of the most crucial confrontation scenes in the movie, Wyler and his cinematographer, Leo Tover, will use camera angles to visualize for the viewer who has the advantage. The taller one character seems to the other, the more control the former has over the situation.

     One of the first true conversations of the movie is evident when Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) calls in Ms. Montgomery (Betty Linley) to question her of Morris' (Montgomery Clift) background. For the beginning of the conversation both are seated, and the camera is at an even horizontal shot; but, as Dr. Sloper begins to push the issue, he rises up out of the chair, and the camera angle will switch. It begins to change from normal to one of Ms. Montgomery, but from the angle of Dr. Sloper, that is, one which is looking down at Ms. Montgomery as she begins to fail at defending Morris. Here Wyler has shown the advantage Dr. Sloper has gained by Tover's staging the camera from his perspective, looking down on Ms. Montgomery and her arguments to Morris'good heart.

     Another major conflict is depicted when Morris asks for Catherine's hand in marriage. In the beginning, both Dr. Sloper and Morris are seated facing each other. When Dr. Sloper begins to accuse Morris, the camera angle does not change because Dr. Sloper has not yet gained advantage. Yet, when Morris begins to retort and defend himself, he stands up. After this Dr. Sloper stands also; and, while both men appear to be nearly the same size seated, Morris now appears to be nearly a foot taller. Wyler has shown the advantage Morris now has by having Tover make the camera depict Morris towering over Dr. Sloper. Wyler has done this by merely switching the camera angle and, therefore, the mood of the argument.

     Perhaps the most important use of switching of camera angles appears during the last scene. When Morris is looking up at the fading light as Catherine ascends up the stairs, we look down at the door from the stairs themselves to hear Morris pounding below. This final switch of angles shows how Catherine has triumphed over Morris and his pettiness. One leaves the movie with Morris looking up in anguish and Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) looking down in disgust.

     Wyler and Tover made excellent use of cinematography and rotating camera angles to let the viewer know who was dominating the scenes of The Heiress. The taller the characters appeared, the more in control they were.

Shawn Rainey

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