18th Jun2019

‘The Heiress’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins | Written by Ruth Goetz, Augustus Goetz | Directed by William Wyler


Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted their own stage play (itself based on a 19thcentury Henry James novel) for this 1949 melodrama. Directed by William Wyler, just before his mega-budget 1950s period, it’s a small-scale play with big ideas. Like many films of the period, the setting is the high society of New York, except this time the period is the mid-19th century.

Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is an enigma. She carries herself with a boyish energy and disarming shyness, more interested in her embroidery than socialising. Socialising in this context means trying to bag a husband, of course. Catherine’s reclusiveness is more of an unwillingness to “present” herself in the cattle market of the upper social echelons. Then she meets the lithe, charming and persuasive Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). Catherine and Morris fall in love and wish to get married. But Catherine’s father, Dr Sloper (Ralph Richardson), is reluctant to give his blessing to his daughter marrying a man without wealth or career aspirations.

So far, so standard. But The Heiress goes further; goes deeper, crafting a trio of characters who feel like real, fleshed-out, self-contradictory human beings. It’s not that Sloper is just a resentful patriarch (although he is). He really does care for his daughter’s welfare. Why would he not be suspicious of a penniless lad who’s just spunked his inheritance on a trip to Paris? Sloper genuinely doesn’t care that Morris is penniless, only that his intentions might be malign. An impossible dilemma faces Sloper: He believes not unreasonably that Morris is a fortune-hunter, but he also cannot face breaking his daughter’s heart.

As the standoff between the father and the suitor solidifies, a deal is struck: Catherine will spend time in Europe with her father, and if Morris is serious about Catherine, he will wait for her. I’ll leave the plot there. Suffice to say, the final act is an inexorable shift into darkness and tragedy, exploring the way that broken promises can embitter the purest of hearts.

What we have is a love/hate triangle between Catherine and her father, and Catherine and her fiancée. Most intriguingly, the relationship between dad and daughter is given equal narrative weight and resonance as the relationship between the betrothed.

There are contradictions in Catherine. On one hand she possesses enormous self-belief and self-congruence; on the other she is naïve and too easily led into love. Her father is even more contradictory. On one hand he is attentive, and he desires the best for his daughter. But he is also critical and doubtful of her, cruelly comparing her to his late wife, rarely favourably. And then there is Morris, who’s a mystery – the contradiction exists in us the audience, as we swing between swooning and suspicion, just like in Catherine’s mind.

What makes The Heiress so compelling is that none of its moral arguments are clear-cut; there are no obvious heroes or villains, and no absolute proof of calculating evil on the part of anyone. It is a tremendously intelligent and very adult tale. Deliciously brutal and disillusioning. Love does not transcend all life challenges, it says, and money can turn love ugly.

De Havilland won the Best Actress Oscar for her role, and deservedly so. She is so focused and so exposed. Clift, meanwhile, finds the charm in a man on the cusp of charmlessness. A swaggering, sexually aggressive incubus, it is genuinely uncertain whether he means to do harm, and this is down to a measured performance (and fantastic hair). Finally, Richardson arguably has the hardest job of all, because Sloper is a sea of ambivalence.

The wickedly barbed screenplay needs a certain and subtle pair of hands and William Wyler is, quite simply, the man. It’s a talky film, but also sweepingly cinematic, particularly in the near-gothic scenes where the dim streetlamps glow through the rain-washed streets of uptown New York. The production design is lavish, and Wyler captures it all with fluid grace. Aaron Copland’s score is unusually emotive (dare I say, sentimental) for the period.

The Heiress is a timeless work of unsentimental brilliance. Mature, moody and arch, it’s a coming-of-age drama for jaded grown-ups – not something for which Hollywood is often known. It’s a treasure of American cinema.

Special Edition Features:

  • New conversation between screenwriter Jay Cocks and film critic Farran Smith Nehme
  • New programme about the film’s costumes featuring costume collector and historian Larry McQueen
  • The Costume Designer, a restored 1950 short film featuring costume designer Edith Head
  • Appearance by actor Olivia de Havilland on a 1979 episode of The Paul Ryan Show
  • Excerpts from a 1973 tribute to director William Wyler on The Merv Griffin Show, featuring Wyler, de Havilland, and actors Bette Davis and Walter Pidgeon
  • Wyler’s acceptance speech from the American Film Institute’s 1976 Salute to William Wyler
  • Interview with actor Ralph Richardson filmed in 1981 for the documentary Directed by William Wyler
  • Trailer
  • Plus: An essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson

The Heiress is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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