The Heiress (1949)


Film review of the melodrama about a wealthy and naive young woman who is pursued by a handsome fortune hunter, starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

Director: William Wyler. Paramount. (U)





Cast & credits

Producer: William Wyler.
Writer: Ruth and Augustus Goetz.
Camera: Leo Tover.
Music: Aaron Copland.
Sets: Harry Horner.

Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, Vanessa Brown, Betty Linley, Ray Collins, Mona Freeman, Selena Royle, Paul Lees, Harry Antrim.


Young and naive Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is a wealthy heiress who meets with and is courted by the handsome but penniles Morris Townsend (Clift), much to the consternation of her emotionally neglectful and overbearing father, Dr Austin Sloper (Richardson).

ReviewThe Heiress poster

Agnieszka Holland created a more cinematic and psychologically nuanced adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square novel in 1997. A film that, on its own merits, is worth a look.

But who cares about psychological nuance when one has movie-magic, sweeping melodrama and romance by the bucket-load? For that, one needs look no further than a DVD of producer-director Wyler’s acclaimed 1949 take on the story with Oscar-winning de Havilland on tip-top tear-inducing form.

Wyler opts for a straight, one could say straight-laced,  approach to relating this story. This is a beautiful but decidedly no-thrills production, shorn of flashy camerawork or mise en scene, giving us an uncomplicated, linear account of the events that transpire.

Cinematically, it is quite a plain film, a single camera set-up, as if filming with exactitude the stage version starring Wendy Hiller that toured Broadway and the West End in the late 1940’s.

That de Havilland matches this perfection goes without saying, in what could be the greatest performance she has ever given in front of a camera.

Of course this is melodrama so there are some stunningly obvious tonal contrasts (her light and high pitched girlish voice during the early scenes drops several octaves lower when Morris jilts her), but the performance as a whole is finely judged and heartbreaking. To begin with, she is invigoratingly innocent, wide eyed and sweet. At the end, a woman emotionally crushed by the double-whammy of Morris’ desertion and her father’s loathing of her.

There is nothing more adorable in the whole of cinema than seeing de Havilland’s face light up from within when she looks upon Clift. This is a masterclass in classic American cinema acting.

She is matched by the rest of cast, led by Richardson’s chillingly austere Victorian father, an astute and exact study in patrician paterfamilias. Emotional neglect is difficult to portray on screen, but with a few eschewing summations and looks, he manages to pummel his daughter into unrelenting nothingness.

Clift looks lovely and trim as Morris and persuasively inhabits the hinterland of the narrative,  in which one is never entirely clear of his motivations. With his broad shoulders and slim waist, he is a ravishingly beautiful man, but also cultured and verbose, so not the typical money hungry chap to sweet talk a girl such as Catherine.

Rounding off the excellent acting is Hopkins, who made a film per decade for Wyler from These Three (1936) up until The Children’s Hour (1961) as Lavinia Pennimen, Catherine’s vivacious and witty aunt, who encourages the relationship with a vicarious view toward recreating her own long since widowed marriage. It is a charmingly horrific, torturing performance, she is one of the ‘master tormenters’ Catherine notes in a scene together.

Wyler was an intelligent director to make so much out of such a comparatively bare set-up. What movie flourishes there are, are few and far between, but still effective. He uses pin points of light on de Havilland’s eyes, a vague bit of brightness and hope amidst those dark oil spills. Catherine’s costumes reflect her mood: when she prepares for her nighttime elopement, she wears a black cloak. When Morris returns, she opts for a bright dress.

The comparatively normal filming style means that when de Havilland fully rejects Morris, retreating upstairs as she leaves him banging on the front door in impotent rage, makes the denouement even more devastating.

There are touching intimacies one could easily glance over; Catherine places her hands on Morris’ gloves. Her father later sits in the parlour considering his reaction to this romance, Catherine’s embroidery sits ominously in the background.

A knockout film that deserves to be seen not once, but any number of occasions.

Watch the official trailer on Youtube.


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