The Heiress | Chicago Reader

The Heiress

William Wyler turns Henry James's Washington Square into a visually concise chamber drama (1949) that starkly renders the characters' cruelty and ambiguous motives. It follows the battle of wills between a homely spinster (Olivia de Havilland); her selfish and condescending father, who can't forgive her lack of grace (Ralph Richardson); and the dandyish suitor who might be after her fortune (Montgomery Clift). Always a confident handler of actors, Wyler exploits the leads' diverse acting traditions (Hollywood studio, Shakespearean, and Method, respectively) to sharpen the conflict and increase the psychological tension. (Both Richardson and de Havilland were nominated for Oscars, though only the latter won.) Wyler's deep-focus, long-take style turns the family's well-appointed New York home into a prison, and then a tomb; the poignant score is by Aaron Copland.

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