Those of you who have studied the shorthand of the old cinema will know by now that any mention of perfume spells either luxury or trouble. Preferably both. Before cinema, the stage: Shakespeare soaked his Cleopatra’s sails with scent centuries before Theda Bara bared her bosom in the silents. He showed us Lady Macbeth’s murdering hand – the smell of blood triumphing over all the perfume of Arabia: both equal accoutrements of evil and ambition.
Old cinema, being simultaneously daring and deeply conservative, has little to say on the subject of men and scent except for a visual footnote (usually in costume pictures) on the degeneracy of a character – we think, say, of wicked Basil Rathbone’s beauty routine in A Tale of Two Cities. But there is a wonderful sharp use of smell in William Wyler’s magnificent The Heiress (1949), an adaptation of Henry James, in which a plain, naïve but very rich spinster Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is preyed on both by her father (Ralph Richardson) and by a charming fortune hunter (Montgomery Clift as Morris).
Some critics have found Clift, then at the apogee of youth and his weird dazzling beauty, almost TOO convincing as Olivia’s mercenary suitor; they don’t know whether to boo or hiss. Such confused viewers prefer things spelled out in black and white: they like the modern movies. But both actor and director know exactly what they are about. Twice in the screenplay we hear that Catherine is making Morris a gift of buttons – she means dress-studs of diamonds and rubies; but for a flash we see the flicker of disappointed greed and baffled dismay in Clift’s eyes as he thinks of bone or wood shirt fastenings. Stars had faces then, all right; and like Norma Desmond, Clift can say anything he likes with his eyes. (Interestingly he had already turned down the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard on the grounds that his fans would find the character sexually unsavoury).
But the canny viewer has already been offered a broad olfactory clue as to what’s going on: when Catherine’s father comments on the powerful sillage of Morris’s bay rum cologne we know something is badly awry chez Sloper. A penniless overly handsome young man, reeking of scent in a professional gentleman’s house? a gauche daughter upstairs of maybe perfunctory hygienic habits? – we have had a glimpse of Catherine’s lick-and-a-promise preparations for a ball. Surely this must be a recipe for total disaster. And so it proves.
Image from cinema-fanatic.com