Academy Award winner Olivia De Havilland and Montgomery Clift light up the screen in this spellbinding, landmark drama. De Havilland is Catherine Sloper, an aristocratic young woman living under the scrutiny of her malevol... more »ent father. When a handsome but penniless suitor proposes, her father believes he could only be after her vast estate and threatens disinheritance. Can she be rich in love and money? Based on the stage version of Henry James' renowned novel Washington Square, this is the "****" (Leonard Maltin) winner of four Academy Awards, featuring an all-new, digitally remastered picture. A masterpiece of love, deception and betrayal, The Heiress remains a shining example of a true cinematic achievement.« less
Lewis P. (Turfseer) from NEW YORK, NY Reviewed on 8/31/2010...
Conflicted father figure steals the show
*** This review contains spoilers ***
Who is the main antagonist of 'The Heiress'? Is it Dr. Sloper, who continually humiliates his daughter because she can't measure up to his deceased wife but ends up leaving his fortune to her anyway? Or is it Catherine, whose self-esteem growing up, takes a beating at the hands of her father, only to transform herself later on into a calculating independent woman who coldly fails to visit her father on his deathbed and takes revenge on a conniving suitor? Or is it Morris Townsend, the ne'r-do-well who brings a little excitement into the life of the socially backward Catherine but all along is simply after her inheritance? It is precisely these ambiguities that have sparked so much discussion on the internet regarding this flawed but fascinating film classic.
Many internet posters consider Dr. Sloper the true villain of the piece. But is he? By the standards of the 21st century, some view him as a classic misogynist. But in terms of when the story is supposed to take place, the 1840s, he's actually a true man of his times. When Catherine brings the fish she's bought from the fish vendor into the house, Dr. Sloper gently reminds her that she's failing to follow the typical class protocol of the time--which is to have the vendor bring the fish into the house. But does he run down the street and thrash the vendor with a cane because the man failed to assist his 'social betters'? The vendor's 'faux pas' along with Catherine's, hardly concerns the good doctor.
But there are those who fault Dr. Sloper for being violent on the inside--the way in which he inflicts grave psychological harm to his daughter. He tells his sister, Mrs. Penniman, that he considers Catherine "mediocre" and "lacks poise" but on the other hand, gently reassures her to her face that "she's not a disturbing person". Today, young people who are developmentally disabled are not stigmatized the way they were 160 years ago. They see psychologists or go to special schools. But in 1849, there were no shades of gray when it came to mental health. Those who were considered 'slow' or 'childlike' had to 'sink or swim'. Dr. Sloper's patronizing attitude toward his daughter was a mixture of both contempt and true parental concern. In a sense, Dr. Sloper was a 19th century advocate of today's 'tough love'. He 'expected' his daughter to adjust but when he saw that she didn't have the insight to see through Morris, he didn't forbid her never to see him again--rather, he judiciously suggested a compromise where he took her to Europe, where he was hoping that she might come to her senses.
After their return to New York, Dr. Sloper made some hurtful, inappropriate comments to Catherine after she informs her father that she hasn't changed her mind and still intends to marry Morris. He tells her that she has nothing to offer and men will be only be interested in her for her money. Clearly, he's frustrated with her since she can't see through Morris and leaves her with the famous line that her only real talent is her neat embroidery. Catherine's emotional transformation from naive waif to the steel-hearted heiress in a heartbeat is perhaps the least convincing scene in the movie. But hey, that's what melodrama is all about! To confess, I liked Olivia de Haviland in the second half where she's much better at playing a Cruella de Ville than a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
As for Catherine, it's clear she's depicted as a tragic figure, incorporating all of her father's bad points and becoming even more inflexible than he. When Dr. Sloper is dying, he's even willing to praise her gumption in deciding not to go with Morris. But as he reaches out, Catherine falsely tells her father that she's still in love with Morris, just to get back at him even more. The coup de grace is when she fails to visit her father on his deathbed. I would say a majority of people when they get older, forgive their parents and acknowledge that they tried their best. But not so with the embittered Catherine.
Finally there's Morris Townsend whose character was modified to be more benign from the original source material of the play the movie was based on. This was done at the behest of the film's producers, who felt that the public would not accept a romantic leading man such as Montgomery Clift, as a malevolent villain. Morris is the weakest of the three principals, precisely because we find out so little about him. He's a charmer and has a nefarious plan and that's it. And while he deserves his comeuppance when Catherine locks him out of the house, I found the way in which she takes revenge to be rather a dull and unoriginal plan. There needed to be something a little more dramatic and clever for the finale, instead of Montgomery Clift locked out of the house and simply banging incessantly on the door.
I would be remiss if I also failed to mention the comic relief of the story--and that's Aunt Lavinia Penniman. She's also an ambiguous character in that she's quite supportive of Catherine but undermines her at the same time due to her support of Townsend. Penniman's problem is she's addicted to romance novels. So it doesn't matter whether Townsend is a scoundrel or not; her need is to live vicariously and have her 'fix' of romance--blinding her to the reality of Townsend's scheme which ultimately contributes to Catherine's heartache, by egging her on into the lion's den.
Has Catherine actually turned a new page in her life after taking revenge on Morris? Like so many other scenes in this film, it's ambiguous. But it's really the dynamic father-daughter relationship which makes the film so compelling and has led to so much stimulating discussion about it on the internet.
1 of 2 member(s) found this review helpful.
Perhaps one of the finest screen performances ever
Jay Dickson | Portland, OR | 07/01/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The recent unsatisfying film adaptation of James' WASHINGTON SQUARE starring Jennifer Jason-Leigh only shows how wise William Wyler was to film the Goetz's stage version rather than retain James's original storyline. James's little novel about an Old New York heiress, Catherine Sloper caught in a tug-of-war between her heartless father and her fortune-hunting suitor (Morris Townsend) ends with a very Jamesian ending: Catherine learns to grow beyond her father's and Morris's petty battle, and in so doing shows her superiority to both of them. In adapting this novel for the stage, the Goetzes decided that such an ending (admittedly sublime on the printed page) would be hard to do onstage, and instead retain the Balzacian melodramatic air James drew upon by allowing Catherine her vengeance on father and Morris alike. The result is spellbinding. William Wyler crafted out of this melodrama one of the most hard-to-forget films of the Hollywood era, a masterful little exercise in emotional cruelty that has been championed by (among others) Martin Scorsese, who regularly lists it as one of tyhe five films that most influenced his own work.The sets are superb, and there's a lovely film score by Aaron Copland. But what really makes the film is the acting. There are only four major performers--Olivia De Havilland as Catherine, Sir Ralph Richardson as her father, Montgomery Clift as Morris, and Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Penniman--and all four give their best performances ever here; they seem to spur one another on to better work than you'd imagine them capable of doing. De Havilland is the one who most stands out: at first, though suitably old, she seems too beautiful to be effective as Catherine. But her fine portrayal of Catherine's crippling shyness makes her unattractiveness to both Morris and Dr. Sloper exceptionally believeable. When Catherine undergoes her awful education, De Havilland very bravelly allows herself to change a great deal so that while she's still Catherine you're aware of how radically she's changed. The highlight of the entire film is Catherine's showdown with her father, when she more than outmaneuvers him and utterly devastates him: De Havilland here does some of the acting the screen has ever seen. The scene begins with De Havilland's words "Morris jilted me," which she manages to deliver with about a hundred different levels of feeling, from shame at herself to almost bemused exasperation at Morris's shallowness to fury at her father. It ends with her dramatic (and surprisingly terrifying) declaration to her broken father, "That's it , Father--you'll never know, will you?", which leaves you aware not only of how thoroughly Catherine has beaten her father but at what a cost to her own soul. I can't imagine even one of the great stage actors doing more with this scene than De Havilland does. It's the performance of a lifetime."
'Bolt the Door, Maria!'
Martin Asiner | jersey city, nj United States | 02/23/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"THE HEIRESS is a surprisingly complex drama of paternal brutality, starry-eyed love, and bitter revenge. Director William Wyler adapted Henry James' short novel WASHINGTON SQUARE and during the film's nearly two hours managed to convey the collision of conflicting dreams. Each of the three major characters: Ralph Richardson as Doctor Sloper, Olivia de Havilland as his dowdy daughter Catherine Sloper, and Montgomery Clift as the mercenary Morris Townsend all dance a three-partnered minuet in which emotional ties clasp and unclasp in ways that are suggested more by gentle innuendo than by overt deed. Doctor Sloper is a uncaring brute who rules his house with vicious wit and the threat of withheld inheritance. To him, there are two kinds of men: those who have already made their mark in the world (like him) and those who have not (like Morris) but seek to obtain it deceitfully through marriage to plain but rich women (like Catherine). The more Sloper puts Catherine down with harsh barbs, the more he increases the inevitability that Catherine will someday rebel by latching onto the first glib male golddigger, thereby proving himself right all along. Sloper's problem is that his paternal tunnel vision does not allow the possibility that Catherine might be more than a one-dimensional stick figure forever doomed to spinsterhood. For Catherine, life is a gilded cage, plenty of the physical necessities, but not a whit of the emotional ones. The more she is starved for affection, the more she will reach out even to those men like Morris who are likely mercenary. One of the film's bitter ironies is that her father's oft repeated warnings about Morris's motivations might yet be valid. When Morris promises to elope with her, then abruptly changes his mind after finding out that Catherine will be disinherited, his disappearance results in one of filmdom's most tragic of underplayed scenes--that of her waiting forelornly for a doorknock that does not come. For Morris, his motivation as a gigolo is not crystal clear. He may very well be as mercenary as Doctor Sloper accuses, or he may humanely have concluded that it is better to dump Catherine at the mock alter of the Sloper door than to risk leaving her destitute. THE HEIRESS is a movie of several memorable scenes, nearly all of which take place within the Sloper living room. When Morris fails to appear, Catherine expects a modicum of understanding from her father. Instead he delivers yet his most vicious of cutting remarks. Catherine replies that she would have married him anyway, knowing that he did not love her, if only he would have offered the illusion of warmth and human contact. The closing scene in which Catherine orders her maid 'Bolt the door, Maria,' shows that the passing of time has done more to harden her heart against a man who just may be as greedy as charged--or perhaps his earlier explanation that he wished not to impoverish her may be true. We never know his motivation, but THE HEIRESS makes clear hers. When she defends her decision to seek revenge against Morris, Catherine replies coldly, that of cruelty, 'I have been taught by masters.' The bolting of the door is the symbolic equivalent of the closing of her heart. It is no surprise that Morris's loud pounding on the Sloper door does not resonate with a heart that has learned only too well the lessons taught by Doctor Sloper."
Lyle Stevens | ames, ia United States | 01/21/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
""The Heiress" is William Wyler's screen adaptation of Henry James' novella, "Washington Square." For a modern viewer trained to seek out heros and villains in any story the structure of this film might be summarized thus: The insecure and none too bright young woman played by Olivia de Havilland does eventually get it through her thick skull that her father (played by Ralph Richardson) has a deep-seated contempt for her and that her suitor (played by Montgomery Clift) is after nothing but her fortune. Newly armed with this knowledge she is able to see her father's threat to disinherit her as the bluff it is and call him on it, and to close the door on Montgomery Clift's advances. Someone inclined to see the movie this way would thrill to our heroine's triumph over the two villainous men in her life while reserving a little sadness for the fact that she's resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood.The film is well worth watching even if you choose to read the film this way because the performances by the three principal actors are a beauty to behold (de Havilland won an Oscar for her performance) and Wyler's cinematic story telling techniques are so accomplished. For instance, watch Ralph Richardson open and close those pocket doors between rooms. It lets Wyler move seamlessly from cut to cut while appearing to maintain the flow of a long scene while at the same time suggesting Richardson's controlling nature.But a more careful look at the Clift and de Havilland characters is what gives this film the richness and subtlety of a five star movie. In the opening minutes of the film we see a short interchange between de Havilland and a servant in the household which reveals de Havilland to have a clever sense of humor. It's her insecurity with her father and with social situations with strangers that freezes her up and makes her appear much more dimwitted than she is. Likewise, shortly after Montgomery Clift appears at a party we see the revealing crack of insecurity in his facade of charm when he fetches de Havilland a drink and momentarilly thinks he's been ditched when he returns (nicely mirroring de Havilland's experience of being ditched by an earlier party companion). So what we see when we look closely is a woman with an insecure exterior who has an inner capacity for charm that dovetails with Clift's public charm, and in Clift a man with the potential to discover and appreciate those hidden charms even though his overwhelming initial motivation is that of a male gold-digger.It's that vulnerable charm of Clift's that makes him much more than simply a cad. And Clift's subtle portrayal of that unexpected depth and vulnerability is what's so often missed by viewers. I think Clift was the greatest actor of his generation and the upwardly striving, vulnerable charmer role is suited for him perfectly (see his more famous performance in "A Place in the Sun"). It's that possibility that this imperfect man, for all his mercenary motives, might be de Havilland's best, though slight, hope to find a soul mate that makes that locked door between them at the end of the movie as tragic as it is."
I Can't Praise this film highly enough! (contains spoilers)
Adam Bernstein | Northwest, USA | 06/28/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The Heiress is the poignant 1949 film which won Olivia de Havilland a well deserved Oscar for Best Actress. Based on the book "Washington Square" the story is set in the 1840s, focusing on Catherine (de Havilland), a timid naive woman who happens to have an inheritance of $10,000 a year from her mother, and $20,000 a year after her father's death. Ralph Richardson also gives an outstanding performance here as the father who holds her up to the standard of her late mother. His view of her not measuring up is one thing that keeps her down.
Montgomery Clift plays Morris, the man who courts her. She falls in love with him, while he's more in love with her money, though she doesn't suspect his alterior motive until it's too late. Throughout we get sharp witted dialogue, sometimes leaving us subtle between-the-lines clues. For instance when Morris echoes Catherine's thought that when alone with her Aunt Lavinia he is more eloquent (this implies Lavinia told him of her similar thoughts). And when in Paris she tells her father that her Aunt's letter gives a first hand account of Paris (implying her Aunt has been talking to Morris). Her father finally tells her how worthless he feels she is, but for her inheritance, so she then puts all her faith in Morris. They set the time for him to come and take her away to elope, fueling her romantic fantasies of the relationship and she tells him of her falling out with (and apparent disinheritance from) her father, then goes to pack. The scenes that follow are some of the most moving and disturbing ever set to film. As she waits for Morris with elated anticipation, her Aunt tells her of her belief in Morris' money motive. Catherine denies this: "Morris will love me, where others did not." After the set time for his arrival comes and goes it dawns on her what has happened and she breaks down. In the morning she is completely transformed, older, bitter, and drained as she slowly drags her suitcases back up the long dark stairway. For the rest of the film she "finds her voice" as her father says, a lower toned, darker, disillusioned, and bitter voice. And her father and Morris both find that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Another Oscar went to Aaron Copland for the excellent film score. If you know the song "I Can't Help Falling in Love", you'll notice it's a rip off of this score. Overall one of the top 5 films of the 1940s."
Olivia Embroiders Neatly
Dennis J. Pauly | Evanston, IL USA | 11/15/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Possibly Olivia de Havilland's greatest performance is finally going to be available on dvd. It is amazing to watch her play a wallflower who falls in love with Montgomery Clift and how she changes right before our eyes. And later she does another amazing transformation. Olivia certainly deserved her second Oscar for this and she is ably abetted by Clift, Sir Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins. This dvd is long overdue so a big thanks to Universal."