It’s a commonly held belief that a film adaptation is always inferior to the novel. It’s true that a film cannot enter the mind of a character, but it has a lot going for it. It can mainline emotions; that’s why people weep at films. The actors, the music, the lighting, the scene spread before our eyes — it’s a veritable assault on the senses. And much can be relayed about the inner life of the characters if the script and the actors allow for gaps that we, the viewer, feel we must account for. In trying to decipher the psychological forces at play in “The Heiress,” we’re asking why this tragedy has to take place.
Alfred Hitchcock said, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.” For the greatness of “The Heiress” I’m not assigning credit to Henry James; in Washington Square he gave us the story; Ruth and Augustus Goetz deepened that story, and added ambiguity. Their script is a marvel of intelligence. (And how often are we able to marvel at intelligence?) The director, William Wyler, did everything right in presenting this tale of love and hate (when the opening credits, which are shown as embroidered images, come to an end they morph seamlessly into life on Washington Square). The gorgeous black and white photography of Leo Tover can be fully appreciated if you get the remastered DVD. Olivia De Havilland, Ralph Richardson, Montgomery Clift and Miriam Hopkins made their characters live and breath, often painfully so. There’s a high degree of artfulness in every aspect of this film. And it was made with passion. I’ve felt that passion every time I see it.
Love and hate . . . Catherine Sloper is the only one who truly loves; that she loves Morris Townsend is undeniable. As for hate, no one in this film shoots or strikes anyone else; no one even raises his or her voice to another. Yet this is one of the most violent films you’ll ever see. It’s emotional violence — the terrible damage one person can do to another.
Some parents do not love their children.
This is a fact, though one that an unloving parent will usually deny. It’s the child, when they come to the realization that they are unloved, who will express their anger. For Catherine the realization comes late in her life, and is made clear to her, suddenly. Her father has been warned by his sister of the dangerous ground he’s treading: “You will kill her if you deny her this marriage.” “You forget I’m a doctor. People don’t die of such things.” “Be very careful, Austin. Morris may take good care of Catherine and her money and make her happy.” But the doctor ignores all entreaties. In a grueling scene — for it is unforgivable to crush someone as vulnerable as his daughter — he finally tells her the “truth” he has been hiding from her. About her forthcoming marriage to Morris: “You’ll be a most entertaining companion. And your gaiety and brilliance will make up the difference between the $10,000 you will have and the $30,000 he expects.” Catherine insists that “He expects nothing. He doesn’t love me for that.” “No? What else then? Your grace, your charm, your quick tongue and subtle wit? . . . A hundred women are prettier, a thousand more clever. But you have one virtue that outshines them all. Your money! You have nothing else!” Catherine looks at him, stunned: “Oh. What a terrible thing to say to me.” She had earlier asked her father, before he meets with Morris, “Father, tell him about me. You know me so well, it will not be immodest of you to praise me a little.” Pitiable words, considering that the only thing he can praise her for is, as he tells her cuttingly before he leaves the room, “I have known you all your life and I’ve yet to see you learn anything. With one exception, my dear. You do embroider neatly.” In the aftermath of her father’s words, the need to be loved, to be worthy of love, falls on Morris; of him she says, “He must love me! He must!” But in a matter of hours Catherine suffers a second hammer blow that will destroy the person she was. She is broken by pain and grief; but in the days that follow she reassembles herself, and what emerges is a woman consumed by a cold, implacable hatred. That coldness is evident in her voice, which at times is chillingly flat, dead. The shy, fearful and awkward girl, with all her neediness, is gone. The shrinking violet becomes an avenging angel who will wield twin swords with which she will exact revenge.
Hate gives one power, and hate needs to express itself in revenge.
Her gravely ill father asks to speak with her. She has denied him her presence since she went through the emotional cauldron of her terrible night; she spent her time doing what she does so neatly: embroider. And thinking . . . Her father looks into her face. “You are flushed. Your eyes look sick. You have been weeping . . .” He brightens: “You have broken your engagement. Oh, if you have, I must tell you, Catherine, that I admire you greatly for it.” “Do you, Father?” “I cannot begin to tell you how proud of you I am.” “Are you?” “Oh, deeply. Most deeply proud.” In that cold, dead voice she says, “He deserted me. Morris deserted me. Now do you admire me, Father?” There is something exhilarating in the attack that follows; she stalks the dying man mercilessly. When her father says, “Someday you will realize I have done you a great service” Catherine replies, “I can tell you now what you have done. You have cheated me. You thought any handsome, clever man would be as bored with me as you were. It was not love that made you protect me, it was contempt.” When he says that Morris Townsend didn’t love her, and that it was better that she know it now than twenty years hence, she answers “Why? I lived with you for twenty years before I found out you didn’t love me. Morris may not have hurt me or starved me of affection more than you did. Since you couldn’t love me, you should have let someone else try.” When he says that she will someday find an honest, decent man to a marry, that she has many fine qualities, she replies, “And 30,000 a year.” “Yes. That should make it possible for you to choose with discretion.” “If I am to buy a man, I would prefer buying Morris . . . I love him. Does that humiliate you?” “Promise me you are done with him!” “I won’t promise.” Catherine is telling her father a lie, meant only to hurt him; in truth, she is done with Morris. “Then, I must alter my will,” her father says. “You should. You should do it immediately.” Catherine gets paper from his desk and begins to write: “I, Austin Sloper, surgeon of 16 Washington Square . . . You had better tell me how you wish it worded.” “Catherine, I am ill . . . I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to disinherit my only child.” “I know that you don’t. You’d like to think of me sitting in dignity in this handsome house, rich, respected and unloved. But I may take your money and chase after Morris and squander it on him.” She is standing over her father when he speaks the last words he will utter in this film: “I don’t know what you would do, Catherine.” “That’s right, Father. You’ll never know, will you?” He looks up at her with amazement — and fear. As he rises from his chair and slowly leaves the room her eyes follow him with a predatory intensity. It will be the last time she looks at the man. She’s sitting in the park when the maid rushes out; her father’s death is imminent: “He wants you, miss.” But what does he want of her: her love, her forgiveness, a promise? She will not give him anything that would bring him peace. “I know he does,” she says. “But it’s too late, Maria.”
As for artfulness: three times Wyler shows Catherine coming up the staircase. Each time the camera looks down as the ascending figure comes closer. The first time she rushes up, joyful, believing in a favorable outcome in the meeting between Morris and her father. The second time, after that long night in which all hopes are vanquished, Catherine labors up the stairs with her two suitcases, and the expression on her face is past desolation. The last time, with candlestick in hand, she slowly ascends as Morris’s voice calls out her name.
“The Heiress” is a rich and moving film. The excerpts I’ve given you provide only a taste, one that is wholly insufficient: you have to hear how Olivia De Havilland and Ralph Richardson deliver the lines, have to see the expressions on their faces. And, if you give the film a chance, maybe, when it’s over, you can decide if something that is reiterated three times, by three different people, is true: if Catherine had married Morris, might they have been happy? Watch that scene in the rain . . .