A Walk to Remember…Two Different Ways!

         Everyone at sometime in his or her life has to take that famous "walk of shame." This is that symbolic stretch of mile that represents one's failure in a certain area of one's lives. For Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) in The Heiress, filmed in 1949 by William Wyler and based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, takes such a walk up the staircase of her father's (Ralph Richardson) New York home after Morris (Montgomery Clift), her would-be groom, leaves her stranded, following his learning that she will no longer be her father's heiress if she marries Morris. The cinematography by Leo Tover showing her walking slowly up the dark stairs and looking up at them with horror gives the audience the impression that she has lost in life and therefore is filled with shame.

         Yet, at the end of the movie, when she is the one to leave Morris stranded in the street alone and angry, she again takes the exact same staircase with pride after her ultimate revenge. How it is that the exact same cinematic sequence can show two very different meanings may seem almost perplexing when thought of on a higher level, yet to the audience it is painfully clear the meaning addressed. In the second sequence the staircase is well lit, and the screen is expanded to show more of the hallway above.

         It is interesting to note that in early Christian churches the use of height and well-lit areas was thought to be places of goodness and divinity. This height, plus light, along with the way Catherine carries herself upright and with respect, gives the audience the understanding that she has finally triumphed over Morris. This, of course, is very unlike the first sequence, in which the scene is dark, severely cropped so that not even the top of the stairs are visible, and Catherine's posture is bent over with grief and lament.

         Thus the audience can understand instantly by the setting of the Sloper staircase the two very different meanings behind the same sequence of events.

Lynn Schentrup

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