Phenomenal, Frame by Frame

         A film's brilliance is based upon more than dialogue and acting skills. Though those two aspects are very important, a truly magnificent film incorporates detailed cinematography into the mix. This allows the film to entice visual and auditory senses to the max.

         Many mainstream film companies release movies as if they are on a factory line. Rarely is anything unique in the screenplay, merely dull shots with little thought involved. The production companies' main goal is to get the films to the market as soon as possible to begin reaping the benefits.

         The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square and directed in 1949 by William Wyler, is everything but run of the mill. Right from the start originality shined through. The fade-out of the embroidery of Washington Square transforming into the actual town was a great first impression to the film.

         Throughout the film, Wyler, in conjunction with his cinematographer, Leo Tover, took great strides into making every frame unique and as detailed as possible. For instance, I was amazed by how he used the lighting in the film. The fact that he made the shadows key elements in the film was very fresh even in today's terms. Perhaps the most powerful use of lighting was that of the last scene. Catherine's (Olivia de Havilland) light fades into darkness through the window over the front door, which informs Morris (Montgomery Clift) that he has been abandoned just as he had abandoned Catherine the night of their planned elopement.

         In addition to utilizing shadows, Wyler and Tover integrated mirrors to reflect different emotions of the characters. Emotions, such as Catherine's dislike for her father (Ralph Richardson) and Mrs. Pennimann's (Miriam Hopkins) haste to be meddlesome with Catherine's every move, were revealed through the mirrors.

         The camera shots and focus methods in the film were astounding in their own rights. Wyler encouraged Tover to use deep focus in The Heiress (as he had done with cinematographer Gregg Toland in the 1939 Wuthering Heights), which suited the film, since a great part of the visual components of the film were catching the reactions of the characters interacting. Wyler also had a very inventive way to include the citizens of Paris, France, into the film. Opposed to showing them directly, they could be seen in the reflection of the café window behind Dr. Sloper and Catherine. Camera shots were quite unique as well; as opposed to employing shots taken at regular viewing level, Wyler incorporated shots from above and below, which added a different feeling to the scenes.

         Wyler, along with Tover, did a beautiful job of putting his visions on the big screen. Everything from the lighting to the mirrors expresses his unique creativity and ability to convey amazing imagery onto film. Frame by frame this film is phenomenal.

Holly Gray

Table of Contents