Freeing the Heiress

William Wyler’s adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square into his 1949 film, The Heiress, emphasizes the constrictions on the protagonist, Catherine. His camera work and set construction are used to create a constant awareness of her ensnarement. The set of her home is created with many framings. Many shots are of Catherine being seen through the mirror on the stairway landing or framed by the stone archway behind the house. Those framings are used to visually encase her within the home. That is reflected in the way Catherine is constantly restrained by her father and the way he mentally abuses her and tries to mold her into a daughter that would be shaped like the former mistress of that home.

The camera work is also employed to emphasize Catherine’s daunting lifestyle. Wyler often uses deep angles with his cameras. From the first introduction of the house when the dress is delivered for Catherine, rather than using medium shots to encapsulate the exchanges of dialogue between the maid and the dressmaker as well as between the maid and Catherine, Wyler instead places the cameras at the bottom of each stairway and uses low angles. It is almost in a way to show how high Catherine is placed on the social ladder and how far she has to fall. That is contrasted to the final scene when the positions of Catherine and the camera are switched. Catherine is seen ascending the stairs with the camera at the top of the steps and viewing her with a high angle. It is symbolic of how she is finally free to climb up now that she is free of her father and Morris. She is finally an heiress detached of any men to pull her down.

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One thought on “Freeing the Heiress

  1. I’m very aware of the steep angle shots on the stairs of the town house, but not of the mirror shots. I even wrote to one of the authors of a paper on mirrors in The Heiress and other films that I posted to BlackBoard, because what he called the “iconic” shot of Olivia De Havilland carrying a lamp along with her image in the hallway mirror was not a screen capture from the film, it was a studio still that was distributed as publicity for the movie. There are a couple of places where we see characters in mirrors–one I recollect is of Mrs Penniman coming downstairs, where we see the lamp descending before its bearer emerges at the bottom of the stairs. The other Washington Square film has what is for me a more interesting use of mirrors (as when we see Morris in the mirror when he is arguing with Dr Sloper in the dissecting room), because in that film Morris claims that he loves Catherine precisely because she feeds his vanity.

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