The Heiress (1949) Poster


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Outstanding Henry James Adaptation
dglink28 April 2007
Certainly among the finest literary adaptations, "The Heiress" was based on Henry James's novel, "Washington Square" and features arguably Olivia de Havilland's finest screen performance. Morris Townsend , a handsome young man with ambiguous motives pursues Catherine Sloper, a plain spinster, who is slightly past marriageable age and possesses limited social skills. The young woman, who is the heiress of the title, is vulnerable prey for a penniless fortune hunter.

However, Montgomery Clift plays Townsend in an enigmatic manner, and viewers can debate his true intentions. Catherine's father, played by Ralph Richardson, and her Aunt Lavinia, played by Miriam Hopkins, take opposite sides in Townsend's pursuit of Catherine. Although both her father and her aunt appear to see through the handsome suitor, Aunt Lavinia is practical and sensitive to her niece's emotional needs, and she counsels compromise in pursuit of happiness, if only fleeting. However, Catherine's father is unyielding and essentially unloving in his opposition to the match. Throughout, Dr. Sloper compares his daughter's virtues to those of his late wife, and Catherine comes up lacking in every quality that he values. Sloper threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries the suitor.

Montgomery Clift may appear shallow and transparent to some, but in essence those are the traits of his character. While Morris is slick and obviously fawning, he is not intelligent enough to be totally deceptive. Only someone as naive and needy as Olivia could fail to grasp that Morris may want something more than her love. Olivia de Havilland transcends her other performances and skillfully and convincingly evolves from a shy, introverted girl into a strong, vengeful woman. De Havilland has often portrayed women who appear genteel and soft on the outside, but whose hearts and backbones can harden into pure steel (e.g. Gone with the Wind; Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and Catherine Sloper is the finest of those roles. With able support from Richardson and Hopkins, Clift and de Havilland make the most of an outstanding screenplay, which was adapted from a stage play. William Wyler directs with a sure hand, and the atmospheric cinematography captures 19th century New York life. Period films are often unraveled by their hairstyles, which generally owe more to the year in which the film was made rather than that in which the story is set. However, even the coiffures excel in "The Heiress." De Havilland's hair looks authentic 19th century and underscores Wyler's fastidious attention to detail.

With an award-winning de Havilland performance, a handsome Montgomery Clift on the brink of stardom, and an engrossing Henry James story, "The Heiress" is one of the finest films of the 1940's. Without qualification, the film holds up to and merits repeat viewings if only to better argue the underlying motives of Clift and the fateful decision that de Havilland has to make.
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If I could choose one word to describe this film, it would be "masterpiece"...
Peter Andres4 December 2006
Along with THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937), PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943), and PETER IBBETSON (1935), this is one of my favorite films set in the 19th Century. It's a truly excellent film that won tremendous critical acclaim upon its release but was a box office failure in comparison to the enormous success of Paramount's other film of 1949, SAMSON AND DELILAH. Whereas Hedy Lamarr's magnificent beauty and screen presence were the only redeeming features of SAMSON AND DELILAH, THE HEIRESS is a dramatic masterpiece and a film that has withstood the test of time. Its star, Olivia de Havilland, went home with a deserving second Best Actress Oscar for her outstanding performance as Catherine Sloper, the naive and plain title character.

The direction, acting, casting, writing, production values, and music score of this film are perfect. I have no complaints whatsoever on any of these departments. However, others have criticized these departments of the film and I would like to point some of these criticisms out. Some have remarked that Montgomery Clift's performance as Morris Townsend is "too modern," especially in his speech. I found his performance authentic to the period—how else would a charming 19th Century New York gentleman act, let alone a crafty fortune hunter? Others have also criticized the film as a "melodramatic soap opera." This film is a breath of fresh air amongst the vast crowd of heavily melodramatic films that were a trademark of 1940s cinema—the sincere performances are subtle and underplayed here, as is the Oscar-winning Aaron Copland music score which rarely reaches the level of "melodramatic musical cue" throughout the film. Due to the film's level of excellence, the film is timeless and could be viewed comfortably amongst many members of today's generation despite its meticulous black-and-white cinematography by Leo Tover. I have seen this landmark film three times so far and it improves with each viewing—I am also ready to buy the upcoming DVD of the film in early 2007. Although I'm not a huge fan of William Wyler's other films, including the hokey "British" wartime melodrama MRS. MINIVER (1942), THE HEIRESS is one of the few films of his that belongs on my shelf sometime soon.

Although this is generally a thinking person's film, the story is simple and I suppose all of us could relate to Catherine Sloper in a way. All of us have faced the dominating, somewhat emotionally abusive presence of our parent(s) at some point in our lives, especially when the parent(s) disapproves of the new friend or intended future spouse we have discovered. However, Catherine's father (Ralph Richardson) proves right in a shocking revelation here. As with Catherine, I can't help but despise Dr. Sloper despite his correct views on Morris Townsend.

Next to the wholly convincing performance of Olivia de Havilland, my favorite element of the film is the haunting music score by Aaron Copland. It's a tragic yet beautiful score that stirs the emotions in all the right places in the film. As I may have said before, the score is used sparingly and rarely reaches a sentimental level.

In short, this marvelous film is a timeless masterpiece. And who could not forget the ambiguous and abrupt ending?
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Fantastic Film, fantastic Olivia!
sarahlouise773 December 2004
I saw this film about 10 years ago and have never forgotten it. Why it is not available on DVD - I just don't understand it.

Olivia de Havilland is heart-breaking as the woman who is so badly treated by her suitors and her father. I felt the portrayal of her father and the cruel way he treats her was so well played out and you could see how her soul is slowly being crushed.

I was so amazed and touched by the film, I went and got the book it is based on, Henry James' Washington Square. It was superb but nothing will make me forget the look on Olivia De Havilland's face at the end of the movie where you can see her features harden and all her youthful sweetness is gone.

Brilliant film!
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"Her father had broken its spring . . ."
eadoe29 May 2006
One of my favorite movies, based on one of my favorite books. Henry James sitting in the audience would have been proud of this insightful filming of his novel, "Washington Square," because the film retains so much of the subtlety of his own writing. Usually, Hollywood eliminates any of the subtlety of a great author's voice (see the recent remake of "Washington Square" if you want to see a real Hollywoodization of a novel – it actually depicts a young Catherine peeing her pants in public – an inane "Animal House"-type Hollywood requirement that degrading a woman by showing her peeing is an erotic boost for any movie). But "The Heiress" is pure James. Olivia de Havilland is perfect as James' unlikely heroine, going from an awkward gawky girl eager to please her beloved father, to a simple, loving young woman who steadfastly stands by her lover, to an embittered middle-aged woman who understands that, as Henry James says, "the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring."

If you liked this movie, read the novel. Listen to James' descriptions of Catherine and her father and see if this isn't exactly what Ralph Richardson and Olivia deHavilland portrayed:

"Doctor Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter; but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine."

"Love demands certain things as a right; but Catherine had no sense of her rights; she had only a consciousness of immense and unexpected favors."

" 'She is so soft, so simple-minded, she would be such an easy victim! A bad husband would have remarkable facilities for making her miserable; for she would have neither the intelligence nor the resolution to get the better of him.' "

"She was conscious of no aptitude for organized resentment."

"In reality, she was the softest creature in the world."

"She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride . . . Poor Catherine's dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far."

Clifton Fadiman, in his introduction to "Washington Square," says that the novel's moral is: "to be right is not enough. Dr. Sloper is 'right'; he is right about the character of Townsend, he is right about his own character, he is right about the character of Catherine. But because he can offer only the insufficient truth of irony where the sufficient truth of love is required, he partly ruins his daughter's life, and lives out his own in spiritual poverty."

Dr. Sloper's contemptuous "rightness," penetrating and accurate as it is, is no substitute for the kindness and love his adoring daughter craves from him. In "The Rainmaker," a great Katharine Hepburn movie, also about a plain woman seeking love, only this time with a loving father, the character of Hepburn's father sums up this moral that "to be right is not enough" when he says to his self-righteous son: "Noah, you're so full of what's right that you can't see what's good!"
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jemmytee9 April 2004
To call this film well-acted is like calling "Citizen Kane" a nice movie and Alfred Hitchcock an "okay" director. William Wyler was known for eliciting excellent performances from his actors (he's responsible for them receiving a record 14 Oscars in acting; more than twice as many as any other director) and in "The Heiress" he's in top form. This movie should be played in every acting class ever taught to show the brilliance of subtlety and range of expressions possible when one is conveying a character's inner emotions.

Olivia De Havilland is a beautiful woman, but you believe she's an ungainly bundle of shy awkwardness in the role of Catherine Sloper. And her transformation to a cruel wounded creature is perfectly believable. And Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper and Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lavinia are letter perfect beside her. Sir Ralph (at least, I THINK he was knighted) can do more with stillness and a flick of an eyebrow than any actor I've ever seen (including Brando, Penn and any other method actor you care to toss into the mix). He was robbed at the Oscars.

Montgomery Clift was beautiful and seductive and, except for a couple of moments where he seemed too 1950s instead of 1850s, just right for the part. He almost holds his own with Sir Ralph when they meet to discuss him marrying Catherine, but he did do better work in "A Place In The Sun" and "From Here To Eternity."

Wyler's simplicity and grace in directing only enhanced the story. The use of mirrors to deepen emotional content (as in when Dr. Sloper, now ill, goes to his office after getting the cold shoulder from Catherine) is stunning. So is his willingness to let a scene play out rather than force along the pacing of the moment, as so many directors do, today (as in when Catherine offers to help her father rewrite his will).

There are no easy answers in this movie. You can think Dr. Sloper is right about Morris and only wants to protect his daughter, or you can see his actions as those of a vindictive man who blames her for the death of his beloved wife (in childbirth). Morris could be a fortune hunter, or he could be a man who does care for Catherine, in his own way, and would make her happy. Or all of the above. The whole movie is so beautifully composed, it's breathtaking. A definite must see for anyone who appreciates great stories well-told.
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Brilliant superb astonishing movie
jacques muller16 March 2005
I had the pleasure to watch again "The Heiress" 1949 movie tonight, and it is absolutely brilliant! ; what a gem! the script, the directing, set designs, lighting, but above all the acting, are all extraordinary. The performances by the three main characters are simply superb. Olivia De Haviland is utterly convincing in her transition from a, not so young, unwanted and unloved woman, into 3 different phases of her personality as the plot unfolds ; all her acting is beautiful. Montgomery Cliff delivers a great performance and mastery at portraying deceit with a charming smile. Ralph Richardson commands respect and holds an air of definite authority as Catherine's father. His aristocratic demeanor is also very well portrayed for a prominent New York gentleman of the late 1800's. The human tragedy of miscommunication between beings unfolds with impeccable timing. The film by today standards may be considered as slow, but underneath is found a study of characters that runs very deeply. The contrast between the real Love and the pretense is striking. You cannot help but feel sorry for the way the characters are held captives to a set of stiff conventions and untold feelings. A human tragedy at its best.
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theowinthrop17 March 2006
Because he so identified with England in his last thirty years (and even became a British citizen during World War I) people tend to forget that Henry James was an American - as American as his celebrated psychologist/philosopher brother William (the "good" James Boys, as opposed to their non-relatives Frank and Jesse), and his fellow Gilded Age novelists Sam Clemens/"Mark Twain" and William Dean Howells. His early writings, including "The American", "The Portait Of A Lady", and "The Europeans" were written while he was an American citizen. His later classics, "The Spoils Of Poynton", "What Maisie Knew", "The Ambassadors", "The Golden Bowl", and "The Wings Of The Dove", were written when he resided in England. The novels he wrote through 1897 ("What Maissie Knew" being the last of these) were short and controlled in terms of descriptions. But his final set of novels (beginning with "The Ambassadors")had a more flowery writing, as James struggled to find "le mot juste" in every description. Many like this, but I find it a peculiar failure. It takes him three pages of description in "The Wings Of The Dove" to show Mily Theale is looking down from an Alpine peak to the valley thousands of feet below.

"Washington Square" was written in the late 1870s, and was based on an anecdote James heard about a fortune hunter who tried to move in on one of James' neighbors in Manhattan. The neighbor, when a young woman, was wealthy and and would be wealthier when her father died (she was an only child). The father did not think highly of the daughter's choice of boyfriend, and a war of wills between the two men left the young woman scarred. James took the story and fleshed it out.

One has to recall that while ultimately this is based on James' great novel, the film proper is based on the dramatization by the Goetzs. So there are changes (one of which I will mention later). But the basic confrontation between the father and the suitor remains true. On stage the father was played by Basil Rathbone, and in his memoirs ("In And Out Of Character"), Rathbone makes a case that Dr. Sloper (his role) was not the villain in the novel - it was Sloper who was trying to protect his naive daughter Catherine from the clutches of fortune hunting suitor Morris Townshend. It's a nice argument, and one can believe that Rathbone/Sloper was less villainous than Morris. But his desire to protect Catherine does not prevent his cold and aloof treatment of her - he has little respect for her personality. This is tied to the Doctor's constant mourning of his wife (Catherine's perfect mother). It enables Dr. Sloper to compare and belittle his daughter.

The Goetz play and screenplay show (as does the novel) that the battle of wills between the two men only hurts poor, simple Catherine. There are only two major changes from the novel. First, in the novel Dr. Sloper does not discover how his contempt for his child loses her love. He only sees that Catherine will not see reason about what a loser Morris is. So he does disinherit her (she only has her mother's fortune of $10,000.00 a year, not her father's additional $20,000.00). Secondly, when Morris does return in the end in the novel, years have passed, and he is a querulous fat man. The dramatic high point when Catherine locks the door of the house on Morris is not in the novel.

Olivia De Haviland's performance as Catherine is among her most sympathetic and satisfying ones, as she tries to navigate between two egotists, and manages to avoid a shipwreck that neither would totally disapprove of for their own selfish reasons). Her second Oscar was deserved. Ralph Richardson's Sloper is a curious combination of cultured gentleman, egotist, and caring father, who only realizes what his behavior costs him when he is dying and it is too late. Montgomery Clift's Morris is a clever scoundrel, able to hide his fortune-hunting tricks behind a mask of care and seeming devotion to Catherine. Only when he learns that she has broken with her father does Morris show his true colors - suggesting that a reconciliation may still be possible. Finally there is Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Penniman, a talkative blood relative who does have a sense of reality and romance in her - she does try to make a case with Dr. Sloper that he accept Morris for Catherine's emotional happiness, but Sloper rejects the idea because he distrusts Morris so much. These four performances dominate the film, and make it a wonderful, enriching experience - as only "the Master's" best writings usually are.
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Catherine Under-rated
lord woodburry2 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I have seen this film many times and each time draw a new facet from the Catherine - Dr Austin Sloper - Moris Townsend non-love triangle. But it is my opinion after all these years that everybody underrates Catherine. Many children grow up in the shadow of an esteemed parent whose legend reaches near mythical proportions. Certainly that's Catherine's misfortune. While her mother was not a world famous starlet, she was worshiped by Dr Austin Sloper and even rambling air-headed Aunt Pennyman cautions Dr Austin that he has elevated Catherine's mother to near Goddess stature to which no woman dare compare.

Yet in spite of his open wound constantly gnawing at him whenever Catherine cannot ascend to her mother's level, Dr Austin sees himself as a pure rationalist, one who even contrives to control his own death and the security of Catherine's fortune thereafter.

But here's how everyone underrates Catherine: everyone looks at the hard lesson she's dealt without excusing her youthful inexperience and almost no one sees how she's able in the ante-bellum period to be an independent woman, to run a household, give commands to subordinates including the interfering Aunt Pennyman and interact with Maid Moriah (called Maria in the credits but consistently pronounced Moriah in the film) taking charge without talking down to her. Her true voice comes out in the foiled elopement but it is her father's voice: rationality and command.

Her father was waiting in vain for her mother reincarnate.

She is her father's daughter, without the musical talent of her mother or her mother's sociability (then called gaiety in times spoken of.) Catherine even inherited her surgeon father's talent for stitch-work which is put to embroidery.

The costuming and music is fantastic. The love song though composed for this film sounds like a tune from the ante-bellum era.
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Multi-layered masterpiece
icblue021 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
It is often said that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That may be so, but there are exceptions to every rule. THE HEIRESS is certainly cause for exception.

This film carries with it an emotional power that is unequaled by so many films in the history of American cinema. There really are no bad roles in this film, and all of the supporting players turn in good performances with what they are given. Miriam Hopkins and Montgomery Clift give tremendously adept performances as Aunt Penniman and Morris, but the film is carried to completely different heights by Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson.

As Catherine walks up the stairs after being abandoned by Morris, it is wholly possible for the viewer to feel the weight of her pain and the burden of her struggle. It almost seems like the staircase is interminable, and that she will never make it to the top. When Catherine fumbles around for her dance card, nervous and excited due to Morris' attentiveness, one might be able to sense her giddiness, and want to reach through the screen and assist her. So real and so palpable is de Havilland's performance, that even her most seasoned fan can watch this film and completely forget that he is watching Olivia de Havilland; this film is about Catherine Sloper, and she is the only one de Havilland presents from the opening frame to the end credits.

Ralph Richardson gives a performance of equal magnitude in his portrayal of Dr. Austin Sloper. Richardson creates a rather believable, rather human duality in the character of Dr. Sloper -- after countless viewings of this film, I am still not completely sure if he is more guided by love ("I don't want to disinherit my only child!") or spite ("Only I know what I lost when she died...and what I got in her place."). Richardson tackles each facet of the character with great integrity, never once wavering in his skill and performance.

On a technical note, this film is fascinating for director William Wyler's use of space. When several people are conversing in one area, he does not always have them relating to each other all on one level. In the bon voyage scene, for example, Dr. Sloper stands nearest to the camera, gazing away from the action happening to his left. The viewer then has the opportunity to see Morris and Catherine's tender parting moment, Sloper's disgusted reaction, and Aunt Penniman's giddy/uncertain response. Numerous things occur simultaneously, just as they would in a real-life situation. The multiple layers of action allow even someone who has seen the film countless times to spot something new and different with each viewing. Further, Wyler's use of mirrors and lamp light is stunning as well, and serve to set the mood in a rather large, rather empty (physically and emotionally) mid 19th century home.

I have said so much already, and I know I could say much more in praise of this film if I allowed myself. Suffice it to say, this film is a must-see for all classic film fans, and even for people who don't know they are. It is certainly one of the finest in Hollywood history, and I am confident it will be discussed for many years to come.
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Meticulous adaptation
kenjha7 March 2007
Henry James novel of spinster daughter of wealthy doctor being wooed by a fortune hunter is meticulously brought to the screen by Wyler and a stellar cast. The beautiful de Havilland, made to look plain and dull, is quite good in her Oscar-winning title role. Also fine are Clift as the gold digger and Hopkins as de Havilland's understanding aunt. However, the best performance is given by Richardson as the cold, domineering father who wants to protect his daughter but also despises her meek existence. Brown, who plays the maid, looks like a young Grace Kelly. The cinematography is excellent and there's a fine score by Copland.
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