…Olivia de Hallivand nips out from her father’s house in Washington Square to buy the fish¤ for Papa’s favourite chowder: another vain effort to please him. This is the fifth scene of THE HEIRESS (1949), a cinema masterpiece of pyschological and sexual neuroses derived from a novel by Henry James. Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is plain, gauche and apparently unmarriageable. But on the death of her doctor father (Ralph Richardson) she will have an income of thirty thousand dollars per annum – and this, as the opening title tells us, is “a hundred years ago”:
“She will be immensely rich”.
At her cousin’s engagement party Catherine meets the irresistible, charming and impossibly handsome – but of course penniless – Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) and the stodgy routine of the Sloper household is seismically disrupted. But with the fish incident our impeccable director William Wyler alerts us to the imminence of disaster only two minutes into the movie. Throughout the film, Wyler makes liberal use of the classic sexual symbolism of canes, umbrellas, top hats, cigars, endless pairs of gloves¤¤ and here already we have another – a large dead fish, beheaded by the fishmonger in the street while the flinching Catherine averts her gaze.
The head is thrown to a presumably female cat – “kitty !kitty! kitty!” – below the barrow and Miss Sloper makes off with her purchase like Salome with the head of the Baptist, only to be snubbed by her father for betraying her class: “next time let the man carry it into the house”. This droll little sequence of symbolic castration is framed by the dreadful ending of THE HEIRESS – another, far more dramatic emasculation: unheeded thundering door-knockers and sharp dainty embroidery scissors wielded like the shears of The Fates. In this early scene, too, we glimpse that humble though Catherine may appear, she nevertheless has it in her to defy her morbidly tyrannical parent if only in small ( and deliberately irritating?) ways.¤¤¤
Wyler is one of the satisfying and thorough of directors: he makes further play with this poor old fish. Fish is one of those things – like a rose, an ordure, a loaf of fresh bread – which is immediately suggestive of smell to even the most olfactorily inhibited. So it is highly suggestive that our next sight of Catherine is upstairs, dressing for the party. We are told she’s spent the afternoon with the hospital committee – a line which suggests over-heated stuffy rooms sprinkled with disinfecting sulphur and vinegar, filled with hot ladies in sturdy clothes. She must be quite impregnated with dubious odours – and has she still fish scales under her finger nails? We see later in the film that Catherine is prone to perspire mightily in moments of crisis and her hygiene routine is exiguous to say the least.
We and her merrily widowed Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) ¤¤¤¤ discover her in her bedroom, making a few sketchy dabs with a sponge and photographed to look moist, dishevelled and grubby. She has not removed her stays or shift, and her undressed hair looks greasy in a lank plait. Hitchcock used to regret that the old production codes ruled out his using the lavatory in story lines; but here I think the immensely detailed and thoughtful Wyler is hinting that he, at least, fears that poor Catherine may probably smell a bit, in addition to her many other disadvantages.¤¤¤¤¤ The genius of costumier Edith Head provides hugely heavy and over-elaborate silk and satin gowns (hauled over grubby petticoats?) while de Havilland’s naturally ivory skin is stained apparently with walnut juice (o.n.o) like some degraded heroine from a fairy tale – the deposed princess in The Goose Girl, or Cinderella sat among the ashes. Like Bette Davis in JEZEBEL, Olivia goes off to the ball in a great crimson gown – almost a character in its own right – photographed stunningly in black and white and the object of one of the monstrous Dr Sloper’s most evilly withering put downs:
“It’s cherry red. I believe…my mother used to wear it…”
“Ah yes. But Catherine, your mother was fair. She DOMINATED the colour”.
Wyler returns to the sense of smell later in the film, offering it again as illumination of character and another clue as to the honesty of Morris Townsend’s intentions. When Catherine’s father comments drily on the powerful sillage of Morris’s evidently costly bay rum cologne we know something is badly awry. A penniless and overly-handsome young man, to come reeking of scent to a professional gentleman’s house, to seek his daughter’s hand?
Morris does the decent thing:
“Permit me to share it with you?”
“Thank you, very kind but I can hardly let you do that”.
Is it possible that Wyler has at the back of his mind the idea that Morris might even be capable of seducing Dr Sloper himself, like the Michael York character in BLACK FLOWERS FOR THE BRIDE? As Richardson later wryly asks, of Clift:
“Is he upstairs, in my bed?”
Townsend is invading Dr Sloper’s house as would a predatory feral animal, marking it with his scent just as he turns over pieces of porcelain in a casually proprietorial manner, and helps himself to Sloper cigars, alcohol and womenfolk. Note the scene in which Morris comes to No 16 Washington Square for the first time. In the foreground of the shot we see a footman leading a bulldog into the gardens to do its business and mark its turf. And then, as Morris enters into Catherine’s home, the camera lingers long on a large sentimental painting of a child with a woolly dog as big as itself. Later in the film, as calamity looms, this picture appears again, fallen into deep shadows.
A parade of symbolic motifs pervade this most adult of films. The staircase which Catherine flies down like a carefree schoolgirl, and climbs as though it were a mountain or – in the final scene – the way up to Heaven. The perpetual closing of doors, reminding us of the adult conversations of our childhood – and we shut out: whispers, listening, misinterpretations. Mirrors, of course, plenty of them, attempting to reveal the truth or multiplying illusions. And then candles and, especially, lamps, the old ubiquitous oil lamps that required constant tending and trimming (like modern perfumed candles) to prevent smoking and disagreeable smells. Here their tall glass chimneys rising from the shades provide not only another phallic symbol but suggest reflections on light and enlightenment: Catherine’s emergence from cloistered spinster darkness into the radiance – “I’ve never seen her this way before” – of a supposedly recipricocated love affair, and the scales falling from her eyes (that fish again) when she finally realises the full extent of Morris Townsend’s treachery. And then that climactic shot of Catherine ascending the stairs, holding her lamp aloft, is an enactment of that chilling parable of the wise and foolish virgins: “at midnight there was a cry made, behold! The bridegroom cometh!” But in THE HEIRESS, as in the fairy tales, we have a False Bridegroom, the Robber Bridegroom, locked out and cast into the outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth*.
And then there’s the business of Catherine’s embroidery – her sole enthusiasm and interest before the advent of Morris. The opening titles of THE HEIRESS are composed around the stylised image of a tapestry which then dissolves into the “real life” of Washington Square. Miss Sloper is like an ironical view of Penelope, weaving and unravelling her work to postpone a proposal of marriage from unwelcome suitors; or another Lady of Shalott, shut away from the world, creating pictures with a web of coloured silks, half aware of a doom to come upon her.
Richardson, De Havilland and Clift all give the most extraordinary performances perhaps stimulated by the reputedly disagreeable atmosphere on set. Richardson despised Hollywood and its culture. De Havilland loathed Richardson and accused him of continually trying to upstage and distract her**; the introverted Clift preferred to whisper in corners with his personal acting coach rather than take direction from Wyler. Hopkins who had toured the USA for years playing Catherine in the stage version of THE HEIRESS resented being relegated to the role of the aunt. From all this mistrust and dislike comes a chillingly authentic study in cynicism and cold hatred: a film about the saying of “terrible things”. A father who loathes and despises the clumsy daughter who killed her mother in childbirth; that unreal wife who has become entirely idealised in his mind, to the point of bathetic grotesquerie: “she used to tune her own pi-ahno!” And of course the daughter, Catherine, who is empowered by a final disappointment to realise her own lifetime’s detestation of her cold parent. De Havilland seems to grow physically in the final scenes, she fills out, becomes taller as well as icily composed and implacable as winter. The tiny brown elf is transformed into a statuesque Galatea: but a Galatea who has turned from warm flesh into cold marble. Her voice deepens and roughens into sarcastic steel as she distributes her snubs impartially.
“Can you be so cruel?” asks the aghast Aunt Penniman
“Yes I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”
No wonder Olivia swept off with the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. But how the commercial DVD cover can now boast that this film is suitable for universal viewing is beyond me. Keep your copy on the top shelf. Richardson plays a man who, when his daughter continues to defy him, appears to will himself to die from sheer spite. And that death then brings the daughter to life – of a sort:
“You have found a voice at last!”
Now, sit back and enjoy the picture!
OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND b.1916
MONTGOMERY CLIFT 1920 – 1966
RALPH RICHARDSON 1902 – 1983
¤ symbol also of faith ( which we are about to see destroyed) and mutability. In ancient Talmud tradition the fish is said to ward off the Evil Eye: as a Jewish refugee from Germany Wyler may well have known this.
¤¤ hand in glove: the iron fist in the velvet glove; handle with kid gloves etc. De Havilland complained that Richardson was always trying to put her off her stride with glove shtik. And keep an eye, too, on Catherine’s reticule – stuffed with cash – & the tricks Wyler has her play with it, worthy of a rude Rowlandson or Gilray cartoon.
¤¤¤ she can be easily and acidly witty with her flighty aunt from whom she has nothing to fear.
¤¤¤¤ at her considerable Deep Southern best, with her old friend Wyler knowing how to drill and control her.
¤¤¤¤¤ De Havilland does not seem THAT unattractive to the viewer – but it’s clear that $10,000 p.a. is not enough for Clift to take her on. It’s the full Monty of $30,000 or nothing.
* in another New Testament reference Aunt Penniman recalls her late husband’s sermonising the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes: “you could practically smell them!”
** he certainly tries – see the business with a spoon and a cup of chocolate at a Parisian cafe – but Olivia is tougher than she looks; more than equal to him.