Film Review: The Heiress

Oh, the weather outside is frightful but the fire is so delightful, and since we’ve no place to go, we may as well watch a good ol’ movie. And so it was that, from a storage box rediscovered during an impromptu search for something entirely unconnected, I unearthed this DVD of a film I’d not seen before.

The Heiress is a 1949 drama based on the 1880 Henry James novel Washington Square. It was directed by William Wyler and stars Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper, Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper and Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend.

Catherine Sloper is the daughter and only surviving child of the highly respected surgeon Dr. Austin Sloper and they live in opulent splendour at 16 Washington Square, New York City. Catherine is a rather plain and terribly shy young woman who, unlike her deceased mother (Dr. Sloper being recently widowed) is completely lacking in social charm and graces, a fact that her father is all to often reminding her of. All the same, despite her awkwardness at the various parties she and her father attend, Catherine thinks the world of him.

Then one day, she meets the very charming and handsome Morris Townsend and is immediately besotted with him and his efforts to woo her. She falls in love with him and they announce their engagement. Her father believes Morris to be nothing more than a fortune hunter and threatens to disinherit her if she marries him and even takes her away to Paris for a few months in the hope that her naive romantic feelings for Morris will cool but on their return, the young lovers plan to elope.

Just as Morris is about to head off to pack and procure a carriage for their flight, Catherine tells him of her father’s intention to cut off her inheritance. And so that night, all packed and ready to head out with the man she loves, she waits…and waits…and waits. Cue the sound of a heart breaking.

Shortly after, her father dies and Catherine inherits his entire estate but a life of spinsterhood seems likely to be hers. But several years later Morris returns from California and again professes his love for her with claims that he left her behind previously because he couldn’t bring himself to be responsible for depriving her of her inheritance. Catherine pretends to forgive him and they resurrect their old plans of elopement for later that night. Morris leaves to pack but when he returns with a carriage Catherine exacts her revenge. She calmly has the door bolted leaving Morris outside shouting her name and banging his fists against the door as she silently ascends the stairs to her bedroom.

One look at the credits for this film and the amount of talent involved is obvious. From the writers Ruth and Augustus Geotz who based the screenplay upon their own very successful stage play of the novel to William Wyler and his exquisite direction (let’s not forget this is the man who gave us among others Ben-Hur, The Big Country and Roman Holiday) to the wonderful performances from Richardson and de Havilland. Ralph Richardson had already played the role of Dr Sloper in London’s West End and the fact that he inhabits the role as comfortably as one might their own slippers makes this quite evident. Clift’s portrayal of the young man hoping to secure an easy ride for himself is fine but he’s perhaps a little too relaxed in his deportment and doesn’t quite convince me as do his co-stars. Olivier de Havilland on the other hand, gives the performance of her life. She starts out as wonderfully mousy and self-conscious and you almost cringe at her nervous social exchanges with the opposite sex but then, once love gathers her up in its arms and sweeps her off her feet, she’s suddenly filled with light and almost becomes someone else. In act three she changes again with the hardening of her heart as she realises that both male figures in her life (father and lover) have lied to her and let her down. Truly wonderful acting. No wonder she went home with the Academy Award and the Golden Globe the following year. It’s worth watching just for her. Miriam Hopkins who plays Lavinia Penniman, a widowed aunt who lives with the Slopers as a kind of chaperone and guardian to Catherine is worth a mention too. She adds a layer of humour to the film and often offsets Richardson’s austerity with her rather childish romantic prattling.

Overall, it’s a compelling and powerful drama that will grip you, as it did me, from start to finish.