Welcome to 1949. It is always a pleasure to start a new year and look at all the wonderful (I hope) films before me. I start with “The Heiress” and what a good way to start.
I had been warned. This was supposed to be THE great movie with Olivia de Havilland. Still I am not sure I was entirely prepared for this. She knocked my socks off. Dammit, that was a strong performance. It earned her an Academy Award and well deserved it was. Yet, looking back now at the movie I think the most remarkable element would have to be Montgomery Clift and his character. I will get back to that shortly.
“The Heiress” is in many ways a classic costume drama as they come by the dozen. It is of course placed in the mid-nineteen century, pre-civil war period since this is a period where you can dress up the women in over the top voluminous dresses and the men in tight fitting suits and top hat. A lot of people are suckers for that and it is also the easy way if you are aiming for the Academy’s costume and set design awards. I have simply lost count of the movies I have seen placed in that era.
Never mind, that is not important at all. What is important is the story around the four characters of the film. In the house of Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) lives his daughter Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) and his sister Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). The doctor is well off so they are not lacking anything and more importantly Catherine stands to inherit 30.000 $ per year in income. Yet all is not well. Catherine is a shy woman without confidence and with no prospects of finding a husband (oh horror) and the doctor and his romantic fool of a sister do all they can to encourage her to socialize in the hope that she will find someone.
It is no wonder the girl is like that. Dr. Austin sorely misses his wife, who over the years have grown into an angel with super powers. He keeps comparing Catherine to his late wife and note with visible bitterness how much of a lesser person Catherine is. Of course living in the shadow of such a deity would make any person lose confidence and Catherine is good and proper down beat. She is by all means the most anonymous girl imaginable.
That is the situation when Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) appears. No doubt Clift was the teenage idol of the late forties. A dashing young man who only needed to smile to make women feel wobbly in the knees and that is exactly the talent he employs here. In record time he has declared his love for Catherine and charmed her to an extent that she is hopelessly in love. Catherine is deeply flattered by this attention and she is totally defenseless against Morris’ charms. Also Lavinia is infatuated by this man and does everything she can to urge them on. Only the good doctor is not impressed. Or rather, he is a little too impressed. He sees him for what he is, a gold digger, and does all he can to prevent this union.
A few years later and maybe even back in the forties this setup could easily be constructed as a youth rebellion theme. The young people are in the love, the father (or mother) does not approve, but love wins and the young couple finds a way to be together and all ends well. This is how good Clift is. He manages to convince not only Catherine but also us that he is sincere and I had to quickly look in the book to see if there was something I had misunderstood. Dazzling he is.
But the doctor is right of course. The fact that he is destitute might be acceptable, but this guy with his good looks and manners could charm the skirts off any girl and her parents too. Why of all people would he choose someone as anonymous as Catherine Sloper? And why the rush? The doctor sees this and tell her in no uncertain terms. The aunt knows this, but choose to ignore it because the 30.000$ must be her asset and if that can buy love then good for her, and still we doubt them. Only when the young pair decide to run away together and Catherine reveals that her father may disinherit her, we see it. The look of dismay across Morris face. It is only a split second, but in that moment we learn what really matters to him and of course we are confirmed when he shortly after burns her and leaves for California.
That has got to be the second best moment of the movie. The best must be Catherine’s moment of revenge at the end of the movie.
But as I already mentioned a large part of the movie is de Havilland. She undergoes one of cinema’s great transformations as she evolve from shy and self-effacing through silly girl in love to strong and controlled. Anyone who saw “The Snake Pit” would know she could do this, move through different sentiments and states of mind, but the remarkable thing in “The Heiress” is that she can be perfectly believable across that wide a range and still remain true to the character. Although the shy girl and the confident woman is about as different as possible we never doubt that this really is Catherine Sloper and that events, not artifice formed her. I am gaining a lot of respect for de Havilland.
The remaining question is whether I liked this film. No doubt I am in awe of the acting of the two leads, but that does not make a movie on its own. Well, this is not a movie with a big story. It actually feels a bit drawn out with very long scenes and that pacing may be a bit of a problem. Also I am getting sick of these period pieces whose only real excuse is that the need to show off some big gowns and let people feel guilty for their feelings. Yet despite all this I find that I liked this film and that is a lot down to the turn it takes under way. You might say in retrospect that Morris deception was telegraphed and frankly it ruined it a bit for me that I had already read about this in the Book, but Clift is so damn convincing that even I wanted him to be true. Up to the point of his retreat we are led to think that this is one kind of story (parents in the way of a marriage) and then it slaughters that theme in an eye blink and becomes a story of revenge. That clarity that Catherine experiences when the world suddenly falls into place is just brilliant.
What a delightful revenge. Hammer away, Morris, you asshole.