The film The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler, is based on the 1880 book Washington Square by Henry James. In the novel, the narrator has the ability to get into everyone's heads. The reader then knows Dr. Sloper's true feeling about his daughter even when Catherine does not. The reader also knows how Morris feels about Mrs. Penniman. The narrator's ability to tell the story allows the readers to catch foreshadows and predict what is going to happen in the end. Watching the movie, however, the viewers are left on their own to make their own judgments. The opening scene is probably long forgotten once someone has seen the movie all the way through, but if the viewer were to go back and look carefully, he or she would see a lot of similarities and foreshadowing. In fact, the way Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) orders the fish and shows it to her father (Ralph Richardson) could symbolize the entire movie all together.
First things first--Catherine has to order the fish from the man who owns the fish stand. Because it is a male she is addressing, and someone other than her father, her approach is shy and reserved. This reveals exactly how Catherine acts when she is first introduced to Morris (Montgomery Clift). In fact it could represent almost their entire relationship because, even though Catherine becomes more comfortable with Morris, as she is with the "'fish guy," she is still timid. Even when she knows that she wants that fish, it is her nature to be in an anxious state.
As in the book Catherine goes though a character change in the movie The Heiress. Looking back, one can see that Catherine goes through a small character change right there with the "'fish guy." Once she has ordered, she looks away and has the man cut off the fish's head. Now some could argue that that does not mean anything because most people cut off the head of a fish before they cook and eat it. But upon a second look, it actually reflects Catherine's relationship with Morris. She looks away almost before she asks for the action, which is precisely what she does with Morris. Even when most people are suspicious of Morris, she turns her head and remains loyal. She does not want to see the cruelty even though it is Morris being so cruel to her.
Furthermore, Catherine still asks for the head to be cut off, and more importantly than the act of or the reason why she does it, is the manner of how she does it. She asks for the fish's head to be cut off in a direct and almost confident manner. It seems as if anyone making that kind of decision better be sure because there is no way to reconnect it once the "'fish guy" has swung his knife. It is the same way when Catherine makes her decision that she is going to let Morris believe she will go with him and then abandon him just as he had years before. Once she has made her decision, she was sure that she did not want it any other way, because there would be no going back once she closed that door.
Finally, Catherine takes the fish and walks away from the cart and shows her father the fish with no head. This is a direct reflection of Catherine's stubbornness later when she refuses to deny Morris. Even though she knows in her heart that she would never marry him, she will not admit that to her father. So after she gets even with Morris and gets him out of her life for good, it is just like rubbing it in her father's face. She risked not getting the inheritance, although Dr. Sloper backed down, and still did not marry Morris. She sure showed him, just as she showed him the fish with no head.
In conclusion, the readers in Washington Square had clues the entire time about what the characters were thinking and how they might act. But the truth is so did the viewers of the film The Heiress; all they had to do was listen to the fish.