The Heiress, 1949. 9/10

A very sumptuous production, with excellent performances from Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift. The roles of Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend seem ready-made for these two stars. The attention to period detail, helped by the black & white cinematography, brings the Victorian Age back in full. This is hardly a sentimental romance; Catherine is manipulated both by her father Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and her suitor Morris. The drama consists in how Catherine turns the tables on each of them.

In the process Catherine has a fairly sudden awakening: rejection by Morris devastates her. The benefit for her, though, is that it then becomes much easier to tell off her overbearing, demeaning father. From a mousey spinster, she’s turns to stone, refusing to see her father as he lies on his death bed, calling for her. He almost seems to have enjoyed belittling her; after praising her appearance in a new dress, he can’t resist a harsh quip that she compares unfavorably with her deceased mother. She has nonetheless made a social void for herself–early on her father suggests she go out with some friends for lunch, but, no, she has embroidery to catch up on.

The party scene is the visual highlight of the film; it sets in motion Catherine and Morris’ courtship. It’s a bit funny how she playfully recoils from him when he subsequently calls on her. This early part of The Heiress is innocent. Morris then proceeds to lay his cards on the table (a weak hand at that) at dinner with her family. He’s incredibly quick to make his ‘play’ for her. The subject of money always seems on his mind. He’s underhanded in how he lets her break the news of their engagement to her father. Dr. Sloper returns the favor by talking to Mrs. Montegomery, Morris’s sister. Actually, that’s smart, as she damns Morris with faint praise by saying that she thinks of him as her ‘child.’ In addition, she thinks out loud that Catherine’s inheritance is indeed a lot of money, as though she’s calculating. In other words, Catherine’s father, while he’s been cruel with her, isn’t evil. It certainly looks like Morris is a gold-digger. “You’re in the wrong category” is a harsh way to put it, but it’s not far off–it’s not that Morris isn’t wealthy, he just doesn’t seem to care about making a living.

The two aborted elopement scenes are equally powerful, but for different reasons. The sight of Catherine, clutching her luggage, waiting as the night wears on, is so sad–characteristically, Morris passively just no-shows.. At the end, it’s her turn to shut the door, literally. Another cruel display. Just as Catherine convinces herself that everything’s going just so the first time, Morris, deploying his instant sincerity years later, thinks he has it made too. The ending is perfect: shocking, sudden, and absolute for Morris. She certainly has her revenge, but her bitterness prevents her from finding happiness.
Definitely worth seeing for the period-correct setting, and Clift, de Havilland, and Richardson at the top of their games. 9/10.

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