#328 The Heiress

(1949, William Wyler)

“I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters”

The trailer for this movie (above) is very keen on informing us that The Heiress is an absolutely marvellous piece of cinema that’s going to shape the future of cinema, but the fact that I hadn’t heard of it until now makes me question those studio-appointed accolades. But, it could still very easily be a good movie, even if it didn’t set the world on fire in the way the dramatic announcer above seemed to wish it would. Let’s find out.

Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper, the plain and naïve daughter of a rich and successful doctor (Ralph Richardson). She is despised by her father, who constantly compares her to her late mother and finds her physically and emotionally dull, and considers her to be an embarrassment to him. Catherine soon finds an emotional connection in a man named Morris (Montgomery Clift) and hopes to marry him, but Dr Sloper suspects him of trying to muscle in on her future inherited fortune.

This film really doesn’t stand out all that much at first, if I’m honest. It’s a fairly standard drama movie based on a stage play, pretty standard fare for 1940s cinema. It features a muted romance censored somewhat by the Hays Code and a tale of old-time values and concerns. It doesn’t really do anything unique or revolutionary.

However, this isn’t to say it’s a bad film. Far from it, in fact. It is fairly standard 1940s fare, but it’s so masterfully done that it’s hard to not find it charming. It tells a simple story but it does it well, and sometimes that’s all you need.

Part of this stems from the close-knit performances of the cast. Morris is an intriguing character thanks to Clift’s suitably odd performance. It’s hard to tell if he’s a sneaky chancer after an heiress’ money or a slightly awkward but well-meaning lover. I can’t help but be reminded of Gaslight and how the new husband there was outright villainous throughout, so to see Morris played ambiguously was refreshingly different, and I much preferred it.

Richardson, on the other hand, was villainous, but in the sense that Dr Sloper was a broken man as a result of his wife’s death and can only seem to cope by taking it out on his daughter. He has moments of warmth and concern, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if he cares about his daughter or is worried about the money he intends to leave her. Either way, it’s an excellent performance that can seem obviously evil on the surface, but there are plenty of nuances to elevate it higher than that.

But, of course, the star of the show here is de Havilland, who’s always been an excellent actress in other movies I’ve seen her in, but here she’s allowed the chance to truly shine. It’s easy to like Catherine, a young woman who just wants to feel loved and doesn’t get this emotional connection from those she should be able to get it from. She’s a flawed but sympathetic character and de Havilland put in an excellent performance here. Catherine’s later transformation into a cold, heartless character trodden on by those around her is chilling too, and further proof of the acting skill at work here.

The movie is also full of nice ambiguities as well as great performances, and it’s this mystery that drives the film so well. We never truly find out Morris’ intentions, and to be honest, I’m glad we don’t. We as the viewer are left to make our own minds up, and so we’re torn between cheering and feeling sorry for him in equal measure at the film’s conclusion.

I didn’t expect to enjoy The Heiress, but I definitely did. It’s an excellently-produced piece of cinema, even if it’s not exactly doing anything its contemporaries weren’t.

Starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift & Ralph Richardson
Written by Ruth & Augustus Goetz
Produced by William Wyler
Music by Aaron Copland
Cinematography by Leo Tover
Edited by William Hornbeck

Favourite Scene: The ending is fantastic for how much it twists and turns the audience’s expectations.
Scene That Bugged Me: While it was in the original novel and play, the scene where Dr Sloper takes Catherine to Europe felt kind of tacked on.

Watch it if: You like well-acted and well-scripted drama
Avoid it if: You want a happy love story

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Posted on December 12, 2014, in 1940s, Drama, Romance and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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