The Heiress (1949)
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Ruth and Augustus Goetz; based upon Washington Square by Henry James
Cinematographer: Leo Tover
Producer: William Wyler
by Jon Cvack
I'm not a fan of most drama films that take place in the 1800s. They often exist in the privileged upper class worlds where righteous white people commit tiny acts of deceit; failing to acknowledge what is often the greatest crime of character which is complete indifference to the lower classes. Rarely do we hear these characters discuss the bondage all around them. If people of color are in the film, they’re often in positions of service as though normal.
The story’s focus and structure embody the moment of history it exists in. I’m not sure why but when I see the name Henry James, I lump him together with Jane Austen, whose four books I read embody these ideas (I struggled to follow; but that’s more because of my disinterest in the plot than because I think she’s a bad writer, which I don’t), and so I went in with expectations to be bored out of my mind. Instead, I discovered a thrilling, Hitchcockian-lite story in which it seems Henry James completely upended the genre's tropes; making me recall that he was the one who wrote “The Turning of the Screw” (1898), which is often the top horror novels ever written. Fortunately, I didn’t know this before going in.
The story follows the gawky 30-something Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) whose father, the wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), has grown embarrassed and disappointed over his daughter's awkward inability to find a suitor; often disparaging her which Cather fails to notice, blinded by her loving affection toward him.
When the family attends a party, Catherine meets the charming and attractive Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), whose mysterious past adds to his allure. For the first time, Catherine finds herself helplessly in love and the pair decide to get married, much to the chagrin of her father who refuses to believe that such an attractive young man could be attracted to his awkward daughter for any purpose beyond her money. Catherine refuses to believe, planning to elope with Morris until her father then refuses to pay out the dowry unless Catherine joins her on vacation in Paris for a month; with the hope that she would soon forget Morris.
When they return, Catherine finds Morris eagerly awaiting her return; ready to run and get married the moment she walks through the door. Dr. Austin's suspicions fail to subside, and he declares he’ll disown her. Catherine informs Morris of her father's decision and how they’d lose everything but should still get married. Morris agrees and says he'll return later that night; never returning and corroborating Dr. Austin's fears and then breaking Catherine's heart.
Time passes, and Dr. Austin grows sick. He self-diagnoses himself in a heart breaking scene, and later explains to Catherine that he has only a brief time to live. She implores him to write her out of the will in order to be able to pursue Morris. Her father refuses, leaving Catherine his entire estate and dying shortly after.
It’s only after you think about this scene that you realize how powerful it is. The father in this film begins as a foolish conservative figure, disregarding his daughter’s affection. In the end, my view completely shifted, regarding him as noble and wise. To then think he died believing his daughter would marry the wrong man, and that the man might steal all Dr. Austin had built is a harrowing thought.
Years go by and Catherine has grown increasingly recluse, working on her needlework alone, with only the occasional visitor. Morris then returns; now sporting a mustache and wanting to resume their plans for marriage, especially now that her father is out of the picture. Catherine again agrees, explaining that he should come back that night. Once again Morris returns, begging to be let in while Catherine heads upstairs; likely to kill herself and yet we never see the final piece. It’s one of the best endings I remember from the era; leaving just enough ambiguity to keep you thinking about the film for days.
Given that I was expecting some complicated romance, it wasn't until about two thirds of the way in that I suspected that Morris might actually have nefarious intentions; made all the more complex by Montgomery Cliff boyish looks and uncorrupted persona. It reminded me of my experience watching The River Wild (1994) for the first time as a kid; not knowing anything about the story, having no clue of Kevin Bacon's villainy; seeing him as an otherwise charming man for the first time. Makes me wonder if it was inspired by this film.
Yet it's Olivia de Havilland's performance that stands out above all; especially given the era when I can’t recall many peculiar leading women. So often their paragons of beauty and virtue. The willingness to portray herself with all of the wrinkly crow's feet around her eyes (and this was mentioned on the DVD feature) and inject a courageous amount of awkwardness into each and every scene, all while retaining a modicum of charm and beauty. It created enough complexity to make me wonder what exactly Morris saw in her without making his intentions out of the realm of possibility. For a film about a period I often get bored with, it's one of the best I've ever seen.
BELOW: Olivia de Havilland on her co-stars
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