The only son of wealthy widow Violet Venable dies while on vacation with his cousin Catherine. What the girl saw was so horrible that she went insane; now Mrs. Venable wants Catherine lobotomized to cover up the truth.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
In the mid-1800's, the wealthy Sloper family - widowed surgeon Dr. Austin Sloper, his adult daughter Catherine Sloper (Dr. Sloper's only surviving child), and Dr. Sloper's recently widowed sister Lavinia Penniman - live in an opulent house at 16 Washington Square, New York City. They have accrued their wealth largely through Dr. Sloper's hard work. Despite the lessons that Dr. Sloper has paid for in all the social graces for her, Catherine is a plain, simple, awkward and extremely shy woman who spends all her free time alone doing embroidery when she is not doting on her father. Catherine's lack of social charm and beauty - unlike her deceased mother - is obvious to Dr. Sloper, who hopes that Lavinia will act as her guardian in becoming more of a social person, and ultimately as chaperon if Catherine were ever to meet the right man. The first man ever to show Catherine any attention is the handsome Morris Townsend, who she met at a family party. Catherine is initially uncertain as to ...Written by
During the spiral staircase scene, Producer and Director William Wyler made thirty seven takes with Olivia de Havilland. Only after the last one, when she fell of exhaustion, Wyler declared that was the one he wanted to keep in the box. See more »
In the very last scene when Morris is pounding on the door after the door has been bolted from the inside you can see the keyhole has no hole in it. It is clearly a facade. See more »
Terrific melding of story, acting, and directing--a gem!!
The Heiress (1949)
Another gem from William Wyler. This is the director of so many sparkling, flawless interpersonal dramas it's hard to believe he isn't lionized alongside more famous greats. The problem (as he admits in interviews) is he had no real style of his own. And yet, as the years go by, his "style" begins to clarify a little. Watch "The Little Foxes" or "Detective Story" or this one, "The Heiress," and you'll see an astonishing, complex handling of a small group of people with visual clarity and emotional finesse.
There is no overacting here, and no photographic flourishes to make you gasp. There are no murky shadows or gunfights or even ranting and raving. No excess. What you have here is terrific writing (thanks in part to Henry James who wrote the source story, Washington Square) and terrific acting.
The three leads are all first rate actors, surely. Montgomery Clift a young and rising star, Olivia de Havilland already famous for earlier roles (including a supporting one in "Gone with the Wind"), and the terrific stage actor Ralph Richardson, who received an Oscar nomination for his role. It is de Haviland who is the heiress of the title, and she does tend to steal the show with a performance that you would think would tip into campy excess but which just veers this side of danger and makes you feel for her scene after scene. And she took the Best Actress award for it.
A good director manages to bring the best from the actors, which Wyler clearly does. But he also finds ways to make those performances jump out of the film reality into the movie theater. His fluid, expert way of moving actors around one another, of having them trade positions or look this way or that as they deliver some intensely subtle comeback line, is really astonishing. And easy to miss, I think, if you just get absorbed in the plot. So watch it all.
The story itself is pretty chilling and oddly dramatic (dramatic for Henry James, not for Wyler, who likes a kind of soap opera drama within all his focused restraint). The heiress (de Havilland) is being pursued by a fortune hunting and rather handsome man (Clift) and she doesn't realize his love isn't for real. But the father, with his slightly cruel superiority, sees it all and tries to subtly maneuver his daughter to safety. The result is a lot of heartbreak and surprising twists of motivation.
By the end almost anything can happen, within this upper class world of manners and appropriate reactions, and de Havilland rises to the challenge. It's worth seeing how. Terrific stuff from the golden age of the silver screen, for sure.
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