This powerful and compelling drama, based on Henry James's 1881 novel Washington Square and the successful Broadway play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, owes its triumph to the deft hand of director William Wyler and a remarkable lead performance by Olivia de Havilland.
Set circa 1850, the film casts de Havilland as the plain-looking daughter of wealthy, widowed doctor Richardson, with whom she lives at their home at 16 Washington Square. Life is uneventful. Richardson is a tyrant at home, dictating his daughter's every move and cruelly telling her that she bears
no resemblance to his dear departed wife, who was beautiful and charming. Suitors shun de Havilland--who is awkward in her movements, conversation, and manners--until she receives some unexpected attention from Clift at a ball. He flatters her and asks to call on her, news that is derisively
greeted by Richardson, who tells de Havilland that Clift must be a fortune hunter, and will break her heart.
This was one of de Havilland's greatest roles; Wyler finally breaks her of her habit of sweet smiles (she'd later revert) and her transformation from docile emotional victim to rational, resolved adult is a masterpiece of acting. Ralph Richardson is equally good, injecting a majestic presence into
his portrait of a hateful man who is really so fearful for his daughter's future that he will incur her permanent loathing to protect that future. Miriam Hopkins is fine, too, as the one eternally bright spot in de Havilland's life, but Clift is surprisingly weak.
Wyler worked hard to produce this masterpiece. He had requested Gregg Toland (with whom he had collaborated memorably on films like WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and THE LITTLE FOXES) for his cinematographer, and instead got Leo Tover. When Wyler asked for a setup calling for deep
focus, Tover took half a day to make preparations, where Toland would have achieved the setup in an hour. The director did score a coup, however, when he secured Aaron Copeland's services as the film's composer. Copeland had written memorable music for such films as OF MICE AND MEN, OUR TOWN and
NORTH STAR but had gained a "Red" taint as a result of his involvement in the last and, in the suspicious climate of 1949, Wyler had to argue heavily with Paramount executives to retain Copeland who came through with a haunting, telling score.
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