**This is my contribution to the Miriam Hopkins blogathon over at Silver Screenings. Check out the other amazing entries in the blogathon here!***
It’s interesting that this film has been recommended to me by Netflix for months and I always ignored it. This proves I’m an idiot as The Heiress is superb. A tale of love grown cold, literally, that is dominated by a calm and composed Olivia de Havilland and a charming and sexually charged Montgomery Clift. I expected to enjoy this movie, but figured it couldn’t compare to Wuthering Heights…dare I say I find them to be equals now?
Heiress Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is a shy girl who doesn’t possess the poise and grace expected of her by her cold father Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). When the charming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) professes his love for Catherine it’s obvious to her father that the suitor is only interested in her inheritance. As the two lovers are pushed apart Catherine comes to a wealth of realizations about her father, her lover, and herself that changes the course of their relationship.
On the surface The Heiress plays out as a bastardized version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, eschewing modern murder for sumptuous Gothic golddigging. In many ways the comparison does apply right down to Olivia de Havilland playing the same mild heiress desperate for love as her sister Joan Fontaine did in Hitchcock’s work. Where the two differ is in the psychological game at play in Wyler’s film. Instead of focusing solely on Morris’ intentions and their secret relationship, the film delves deeper into why Dr. Sloper is so against the relationship and placing the audience in Catherine’s position of determining whether Morris is a fortune hunter. None of the characters in the film truly have Catherine’s best interests at heart so no matter what happens, Catherine should expect some form of disappointment. Her aunt (Miriam Hopkins) simply wants Catherine to marry so she doesn’t die a spinster, while her father doesn’t want his money to be squandered.
The relationship between father and daughter is Freudian in a way, a classic Electra complex. Catherine is constantly compared to her mother by her father and the young woman is aware that her father doesn’t truly love her. Catherine is a disappointment to the man, not at all versed in the proper way to converse and is horrible at music (despite the fact her mother had a great ear for music). In many ways it appears Dr. Sloper is looking for a replacement wife (creepy). Catherine herself finds the attention and love she craves in Morris and yet Morris himself doesn’t seem to truly love her placing him in line with Dr. Sloper! Oh what a tangled web we weave. In fact at one point Morris says him and Dr. Sloper “don’t like each other but we like the same things!” In fact it’s Dr. Sloper who is able to peg Morris as a golddigger which opens the door to whether Morris truly is or Dr. Sloper wants to keep Catherine at home (the creepy vibes are set to 11 in this film).
The two actors are just phenomenal playing outright pricks! Ralph Richardson gets the juiciest one-liners, especially when he’s putting down Morris (“yes you speak very well”). I’m a fan of someone who can insult elegantly. Yet while he’s putting down Morris he’s breaking the heart of his daughter, openly telling her she doesn’t compare to her dead mother. When Catherine shows up in a red dress and asks her father how she looks he bluntly says she doesn’t “dominate” the color like her mother (dude, don’t you know women!). Even then it’s apparent to others, specifically Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia, that Austin has “idealized” his wife and that he’s set up Catherine for perpetual failure.
Out of the all the actors in this group I found myself drawn to Montgomery Clift as Morris. I’ve seen two of Clift’s films at opposite ends of his life, A Place in the Sun and The Misfits (which I reviewed during My Month With Marilyn) and while he was good, I wasn’t drawn to him or found him particularly special. Boy, did I get that one wrong! Clift could sell ice to an Eskimo (I did mention to my family he’d make a fine drug dealer for a more modern reference) because he is smooth! He oozes sexuality from the minute he first introduces himself to Catherine and I don’t know what it says about me or his acting but I would be completely happy to lose all my wealth to him! He’s incredibly sweet to Catherine when they first meet to the point that I couldn’t stop myself from saying “aw.” He knows exactly what to tell her which is what makes him so dangerous. As he becomes bolder in his overtures to Catherine you can see he makes her nervous (she starts fanning herself rapidly) and he constantly stands too close for comfort to the point she recoils. Catherine finds herself special in his company, “he’s everything a woman could want. And he wants me!” I adored Clift in this and it saddens me to know he hated this role, maybe it had something to do with him playing the same type of character in A Place in the Sun only two years later? Clift is also said to have disliked Olivia de Havilland but trust me that doesn’t show in the film, they have definite chemistry.
I’ve save the best for last in discussing our title character played by Olivia de Havilland. As I found with Clift, my original views on de Havilland have changed. I found her to be a total doormat in Gone With the Wind and haven’t seen much else (although that should change as I have a few additional films of hers). Here you see the most stunning transformation in a character I’ve seen. Catherine starts out as a meek woman who can’t even look at a fishmonger chopping the head off a dead fish. When it happens she turns away and flinches. She can’t stand to see the “suffering” of something that’s not even alive anymore which makes her actions in the films final seconds so poignant. Catherine also doesn’t act like an heiress should. She’s personable; doing her own shopping and enjoying her time alone. Despite the fact that “father would like me to be composed” she doesn’t enjoy having to be fake with others (which makes her inability to see Morris for what he is so sad).
The actress was 33 when this was released and yet acts like a young girl in the way she talks and carries herself and it adds an element of humor to the film. Catherine may not be able to joke with others but when Lavinia mentions her dearly departed husband watching them, Catherine jokes that it depends on where he is (with the implication that he’s in Hell). The fact she abruptly hides her face is hilarious as it’s obvious she finds this hilarious and it is! Even when Morris asks to call on her, the shock on Catherine’s face is blatant. She has no idea how to act around him and devolves into a teenage girl asking her aunt “what do I talk to him about?” She generally takes to avoiding Morris and there’s a lot of subtle humor around their courting. When Morris is looking for reassurance about talking to Catherine’s father she can’t even do that right saying “My father won’t abuse you. He doesn’t know you well enough.” De Havilland is a breath of innocence in a den of snakes which makes her change in the end imply the end of an era.
Eventually Catherine turns cold to love, and to Morris, and you can’t blame her at the end. She’s been passed off, ignored and abused by the suitors in her life due to her appearance, her lack of “breeding,” and when she finally finds a man she wants he doesn’t truly love her. There’s debate if in the end Morris did love her but it’s apparent that having been fooled and lied to by so many men, even her own father, she’s lost all trust. You can see her heart turn to ice as she ascends the stairs, away from her last chance at love (in my opinion) and it’s all due to the “masters” who prevented it (namely her father). As mentioned above, no one truly has Catherine’s best interests so in the end the only person she can truly rely on is herself in this harsh world. In the end watching The Heiress is akin to watching a bird get its wings clipped. Catherine is forever stunted.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.