The Heiress - CoverThe Criterion Collection’ have recently released a digitally remastered version of the 1949 classic, ‘The Heiress’. It was directed by William Wyler; it starred Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, and Miriam Hopkins; and it lasts for 116-minutes. Plus, as an extra added bonus, the Blu-ray edition comes with a number of featurettes, interviews, and presentations, focused on the actors, the director, and the costume designer, along with the original theatrical trailer and a one-on-one conversation between Jay Cocks and Farran Smith Nehme. Please enjoy.

The Heiress [The Criterion Collection]

Ever since my dearly departed wife tragically passed away, both me and my sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) have tried our best to advise and educate my one and only daughter, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), in order to stop her from behaving awkwardly around strangers.

So, as you can imagine, I was slightly taken back when you entered her life, Mister Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift)! Not only because you’re a very charming and charismatic fellow, but in addition to this, you also have no money, no career prospects, and no real way of supporting my daughter now you want to marry her! 

Well, that’s unless you’re banking on our vast fortune? Which I hope you’re not, otherwise, what next transpires may take a trip overseas when I say to myself, 'Doctor Sloper (Ralph Richardson)! Let’s go to Europe!'. As a father and a daughter sail off like a shark - a fiancé's ego gets taken apart - the death of a loved one isn’t very smart - and at the end of the day, please remember, it isn’t easy mending a broken heart. 

Despite being set in another time (the 19th century), another place (New York City), and another social climate (high society), overall, I’d say ‘The Heiress’ was a surprisingly relatable film. Not too relatable, mind you, but relatable enough so we can at least partly understand the motivations expressed by most of the main characters.

The Heiress - Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift
Well, in many ways, this melodrama is about a curious romance between two people. One of them was played by Olivia de Havilland, Catherine Sloper, who’s a socially awkward wallflower from a well-to-do family; whereas the other was played by Montgomery Clift, Morris Townsend, who’s a charismatic vagabond that’s fallen in love with her! Or has he? Has he fallen in love with her? Or is he just saying so for the sake of gaining access to her vast fortune? Either way, those are the two main motivations behind this movie, and to some extent, they drive it forward at a fairly steady pace, along with the motivations also perpetuated by Ralph Richardson’s character, Doctor Austin Sloper.

You see, Ralph plays Olivia’s Father, and for reasons that haven’t been made entirely clear, he blames her for the loss of his dearly departed wife. But, instead of expressing this in a straightforward and direct fashion, what he’d rather do is coldly berate her for her homely looks, her odd behavior, and what she hasn’t been able to accomplish! Namely, find a man to marry. However, when this man does finally show up -- in the form of Morris Townsend no less -- he doesn’t like the look of him due to his lifestyle and his status, which eventually causes friction between everyone involved.

Now, on a conceptual level, try to think of this scenario as a Tom and Jerry cartoon featuring Spike the dog. Although, in this instance, Tom is Morris, Jerry is Catherine, Spike is Doctor Sloper, and the story involves the three of them verbally chasing each other around, and around, and around, until eventually, they all fall over, one by fate, one by whim, and one by choice.

The Heiress - Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, and Miriam Hopkins

Not in a bad way, mind you. If anything, I thought this divided conflict nicely defined the characters and elevated the dramatic tension, especially when you take into consideration that this was a period piece which featured Victorian costumes, ornate furniture, lavish backdrops, and beautifully composed camerawork that elegantly framed the 'cat and mouse' nature of the overall narrative. A narrative, I hasten to add, which progressed in such a bold fashion that I was genuinely surprised how quickly the time flew by.

The Heiress - Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson
Anyway, that’s enough of that for the time being, because now I think we should sit back, relax, and check out the following filmic facts: (1) ‘Paramount’ first released this production in New York, New York, on the exact same day the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. It was on the 6th of October, 1949. (2) This film was based on a stage play that was adapted from a novel written by Henry James. The play was also called "The Heiress", it came out in September, 1947, and it starred Wendy Hiller and Basil Rathbone playing the two main roles. Whereas the novel, on the other hand, was called ‘Washington Square’, and was published by ‘Harper & Brothers’ in December, 1880. (3) Loosely translated, this project was entitled ‘The Successor’ in the Ukraine; ‘The Heir’ in Portugal; and ‘The Inheritance’ in Lithuania. (4) One of the taglines used to promote this picture, states, ‘When a Woman Loves a Man, She Doesn't Want to Know the Truth About Him!’. (5) The majority of this movie was shot inside ‘Paramount Studios’, located at 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles. (6) In 1996, the ‘Library of Congress’ selected this film to be preserved by the ‘United States National Film Registry’, because of its ‘cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance’. (7) During different stages of pre-production, Cary Grant and Errol Flynn were both considered to play the part of Morris Townsend, whereas Basil Rathbone was considered to play the same part he once played on stage, Doctor Sloper. (8) Near the end of the film, we see Olivia de Havilland’s character gallantly walking up a spiral staircase. But, unfortunately for her, she had to do it thirty-seven times, because the director, William Wyler, wanted her to look exhausted in the final shot, which she did.

The Heiress - Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery CliftIn closing my review of ‘The Heiress’, I would just like to say how much I loved watching the performances given by all of the principal actors. Montgomery Clift, for instance, plays Morris with the right amount of ambiguity that we can never be totally sure of his true motivations. Whereas Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins, on the other hand, each play the yin to the others yang, keeping in mind that they're both people of a certain age who’ve lost loved ones, even though Miriam is still a hopeless romantic while Ralph isn’t. And as for Olivia de Havilland? Well, what can I say about her magisterial performance? Apart from the fact that she does an amazing job of acting with her eyes! So much so, in fact, she actually won an Academy Award for it! Seriously, folks, if you ever get the chance to watch this magnificent movie, just concentrate on the way that Olivia uses her eyes to convey love, fear, anger, and regret, while using her body to complement whatever emotion she is trying to convey. This is particularly apparent when you compare the first half of the film to the last half of the film, simply because at the beginning her eyes are more open and forlorn (like a lost deer), whereas at the end, her brow seems to narrow and her stare seems more penetrating (like a wounded fox).

Actually, while I’m on the subject of how this film ends, that reminds me, do you think Catherine made the right decision or not? I mean, to some degree, I can kind of understand where she was coming from because you need to be able to trust someone when forming a relationship. Furthermore, she’s also a very wealthy individual, and if she puts her mind to it, I’m sure she can defy expectations.

Having said that, though, Catherine does seem like the type of person who’s set in her ways, so it seems more realistic that she would dedicate herself to finding a profession -- like her father before her -- rather than finding anything else. In any event, all in all, I would just like to say that this was one brilliant film, which had an elegant style, an emotional story, and a certain 'je ne sais quoi' which you don’t always find in cinema today. A classic.


THE HEIRESS (1949) THE HEIRESS (1949) Reviewed by David Andrews on June 17, 2019 Rating: 5

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