The Heiress | Paramount | William Wyler | 1949
In 1949, several wayward forces were marshaled in service of one of those rare instances of Exquisite Cinema. Many great movies, even some masterpieces, are not quite exquisite, exquisite denoting the kind of film that exudes mastery, every shot a crystal shard flecked by genius and fused into a diamond-like design.
And so the ghost of Henry James bestowed his paranormal blessing on a project green-lit by Paramount, which beckoned William Wyler fresh out of the Goldwyn gates and Olivia De Havilland hot off a landmark lawsuit against the sinister studios! De Havilland, triumph channeled into ambition, alighted upon a play based on one ‘Washington Square.’ What better way to cut ties with the fanciful frolicsome Warner Bros work she was, and is still known for? Meanwhile, Monty Clift’s burgeoning screen career was busy astrologically aligning itself with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play an atypical (atypical in 1949, atypical in any time) character like Morris Townsend, a role that required a yet relatively unfamiliar screen persona capable of teetering on an ambiguous Jamesian precipice without losing its footing (to think that goddamned Errol Flynn was under consideration for this, oooooy). Ralph Richardson fit Dr. Sloper like a surgical glove. And Miriam Hopkins, well past her prime and all the better for it, rounded out the formidable cast.
Wyler, shedding the Oscar-baiting grandiloquence that could be said to be the only significant shortcoming of his work for Goldwyn (I’m not sure if I would be numbered among that particular chorus…Best Years pile-drives my heart every time 😥 ), kept his engineer’s precision intact while proving that subtlety, nuance, and the capability for zen-like engagement with a literary work — from which to extract not merely the shape nor the form nor the story but the very essence of what, in this case, ‘Washington Square’ is all about — were all in his estimable directorial wheelhouse.
All of which is to say that The Heiress is a masterpiece. As yet unaddressed is the fact that NO ONE EVER TALKS ABOUT THIS MOVIE. Which is why I, and my pal Tom, and my pal Brian, and my pal Zach, did just that. Enjoy!