The 1949 motion picture The Heiress, directed by William Wyler based on Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, opens with a series of scenes as expressed in needlepoint until one particular lifelike piece blends into the opening shot of Washington Square itself. One must assume that these opening shots represent the handcraft of James's Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) the heroine of the story.
James's terribly shy Catherine is not really ignorant, though she is not terribly clever; the Catherine of the film is a different matter. She has some talents; she has learned from the suggested studies from her father; and on occasions she can be clever. Her main problem in the film is that, whenever she is trying to gain the approval of someone, she tends to mess things up. Examples of this are evident throughout the film. In the presence of the harp teacher from whom she wants lessons, she fails to show her ear for music. When dancing with Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), she has two left feet. However, when she is dancing with her aunt Lavinia's (Miriam Hopkins') friend, whom she cares nothing about, she dances really well. In the presence of her father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), whom she is always trying her hardest to impress or gain approval from, Catherine is incapable of performing the simplest of acts.
The one thing throughout the entire film that Catherine can perform well is needlepoint. She sees this as a type of retreat from a world of judgment. She captures passing moments in yarn, fixing the world on to a piece of material. These are enjoyable moments for Catherine to look back upon; a point in time where she was in control. Dr. Sloper notes that embroidering is the one thing she does well. He completely fails to realize that it is this way because this is the one time where she does not have to interact with his mean comments.
As the film progresses through the life of Catherine Sloper, she is witness to many injustices. She finds out that her father has always found her pathetic and that her lover loves her money more than her. As we see the film draw to an end, we witness a mature women that has the ability to face life as it is. When her old lover returns with the same old lies, Catherine does not hesitate to take charge and return the anguish that he had once given her. It is at that point that she informs the maid, Maria (Vanessa Brown) that she is finished with needlepoint. She snips the last yarn and, with that snip, starts a new life where she will not hide behind her hobby.