In the 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler and based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, it had to be a challenge to try to convey the deep psychological tensions that support the book and hence must support the original 1950 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, as well as the later movie. The play in written form could not convey the drama nearly as well as the book since the drama in so many cases is internal. In the movie, facial expressions and intonations of the various actors convey the emotions and internal drama. Amazingly enough Olivia de Havilland , who plays Catherine, and Ralph Richardson, who portrays Dr. Sloper, show us the basic psychology of the characters in their first extended scene together.
This is the scene in which Catherine shows Dr. Sloper her cherry red dress before they go to the engagement party at his sister's house. The whole movie as far as psychology is here in this scene. There is Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper, with his subtle condescension in his eye and voice, showing us that, while he may not despise his daughter as she would later conclude, he views her without high regard. His key moment comes after she points out to him that this is the color her mother used to wear. Richardson faces gives us a twinge of recognition as if he is searching back to a happier time. We can immediately tell he is still very much in love with the memory of his dead wife. He then with a kind look and voice points out to Catherine that her mother had been fair and that she had dominated the color. He says the last part with a gusto that shows that his passion for his dead wife still remains, but also shows that he fails to understand the needs of his daughter.
De Havilland is equally pivotal and effective. Her glowing look and unsure voice tell us all we really need to know about her character. She desperately needs approval, but is not sure if she will get it. We can tell that at this point she has great admiration for her father but that he intimidates her. Her key moment comes immediately after the doctor tells her, her mother had been fair. Her face goes cold but lightly befuddled. Its as if in her slightly slow mind it takes a second for her to understand the statement actually means her father does not think she is fair. The seeds are there for her later epiphany that her father despises her and for her willingness to accept the wooing of Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift).
The movie is not a long movie at all. Yet at the end the viewer feels that he or she understands all the actions of the characters and thus feels satisfied. With the deep undercurrents that run through the basic story of Washington Square, the ability of the actors to immediately connect with the audience is necessary. Fortunately, within five minutes from the beginning of the action the actors have done exactly that.