The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)


It’s not Noir and it’s not neo-realism; in fact, in sheer aesthetic affect William Wyler’s Paramount drama The Heiress is very much a Hollywood period drama — yet few other films made within the studio system seem so determined to puncture and annihilate the mythmaking narrative conventions of American movies. The climax of its biting, acidic rejection of genteel social mores and cruel chauvinism is in its very last scene, when an entitled brat bangs on a door that will never open yelling a woman’s name with increasing desperation, two decades before The Graduate; but this tragic yet oddly cheer-worthy finale requires two hours of careful characterization and the gradual crumbling of morale to reach its haunting, ice-cold crescendo. What takes us there is not so much the great director William Wyler — whose greater skill set of conveying warmth between very vivid people to audiences (Dodsworth, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives) is not put into service here — as the film’s star, Olivia de Havilland, who ties together an intricate, chamber-piece narrative with the nuances of her eyes, voice and body language.

Playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted Henry James’ Washington Square for the stage under this title; after their play attracted the attention of de Havilland and Wyler, they in turn formed it into a screenplay while streamlining it to fit Wyler’s cinematic purposes. Much of James’ dialogue is retained, and the period setting (the 1840s in New York) is treated with great reverence and authenticity — with all of the new scenes, like an extraordinary series of encounters set at a wedding reception ball, impressively organic to their context — but the more intriguing context in which The Heiress fits is with the increasingly street-smart cynicism the better Hollywood films attained a few years after the war. It isn’t a long leap from the darkness and downbeat, realistic conclusion of this film to those of All the King’s Men (which competed against it at the Oscars), Ace in the Hole, Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. This last example is particularly relevant because it hinges similarly upon the transformation of a single character (there, Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington) from wide-eyed and naive to cold and calculating. The chief difference, however, is that in that film the evolution of the character is simply the unveiling of a conniving snake who’s covertly stood before us the entire time; the transition of de Havilland’s Catherine Sloper is more soulful and heartbreaking because her eventual viciousness is entirely justified by the cruelty we see visited upon her.

If you’re the sort who scans classic films for signs of subtext about the abusive patriarchal system under which the trains ran in the 1940s, The Heiress is a goldmine, only it’s barely subtext at all here, which is a trait it shares with a number of other major late 1940s-early 1950s titles in both England and America. Presumably one reason the film’s enjoyed such a recent revival in popularity is that it’s so uncompromising in its inspiration of righteous indignation on behalf of a clearly neglected and badly treated woman. It’s a razor-sharp indictment of the brutal, harsh parenting of Dr. Sloper, a well-off and snide brute who takes his grief over his long-deceased wife out on a daughter who’s always disappointed him simply by not sufficiently resembling her mother in physical characteristic or personal nature. Catherine later defines the experience of lovelessness in her household as being marked by the feeling “when a person speaks to you as if they despise you”; it is little wonder she yearns to be taken away, and begs the man she wishes to do so, whom she says will love her for all those who didn’t: “you must never despise me.” For Catherine, the idea of love is tied almost strictly to personal security. She has become a perpetually intimidated, subservient mouse less out of genuine insecurity than because she’s been given the feeling that this obvious terror and obedient quiet is what others want from her.

From the outset, Catherine is resistant to making any sort of mark or claim for herself, reluctant to create any disturbance or ripple in the world around her; while this is undoubtedly the result of her impatient, chilly treatment at the hands of her father — the sort of man who thinks he is home free as a parent simply because he has provided material comfort — this personality itself has now seemingly become tiresome to those around her, namely her father (Ralph Richardson), her kind aunt (Miriam Hopkins) and the various denizens of the doctor’s social life. For Dr. Sloper, Catherine’s inadequacy as a potential bride to some “worthy” suitor is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy; while he complains about it outwardly, he seems to delight in an almost sinister fashion at the notion that he’s raised a spinster who will die alone. Some critics of the time complained that de Havilland, who sought the role herself, was miscast because she is simply too “beautiful” to be so unwanted a woman; even Wyler himself later conceded that this may have hurt the film at the box office (it failed to make back its budget, but was universally acclaimed and won de Havilland her second Academy Award). But this in fact is ingenious casting if we take the film straightforwardly as a portrait of a toxic home: Catherine has become a shattered, damaged, “unlovable” person because that’s what she constantly was made to believe she was.

The film makes much of social quirks in Catherine that would just be bits of comic business and quirk in, say, a Lubitsch movie (thinking specifically of the plucky heroine of Cluny Brown): she’s less excited about a new evening gown that arrives specially for her than about returning to the respite of her embroidery, she flinches when watching a street monger cut a fish for her and is then so unladylike as to carry the fish into the house herself, and her awkward, terrified movements on the dance floor at the ball are heartbreakingly believable (no mean feat for so accomplished and long-established an actress as de Havilland). Wyler and the Goetzes brilliantly set Catherine up not as an alien figure but as an embodiment of the deep insecurities and long-buried embarrassments of every audience member; we are consistently and completely in her corner, right down to the heartbreak of her facial expressions when the second man leaves her to find “claret cups” and she visibly believes he won’t be returning. When alone with an attractive man, once she gets over the disbelief that he’s interested in her (again, the result obviously of parental neglect and spitefulness), she wonders aloud desperately what she should talk about. When challenged on her social abilities, she defends herself by stating that she “made notes of the things I should say and how I should say them” (without making this too personal, that one gets me right in the gut!). And when even a gorgeous Montgomery Clift is the one approaching her, she constantly leans away as if in fear of being attacked; her response to some drooling flirtation on his part is, unforgettably, “I am not very good at this kind of conversation.”

We’re only directly privy to the very recent history of Catherine and her father. Whereas James notes that her mother, so beloved (or at least performatively beloved) by the doctor, died in childbirth, the film omits this detail and never lays out the specifics of the late Mrs. Sloper’s death, only that she lingers as a shadow looming above Catherine like the first Mrs. de Winter. Richardson’s salty and cutting portrayal of Dr. Sloper is painfully believable, with none of the one-dimensional villainy that, say, a Rex Harrison or Charles Boyer would have brought to the part; taking pride in his own stoic and unfeeling nature (diagnosing himself with illness near the end of the film and matter-of-factly announcing “I shall not recover”), he turns on a patronizing tone each time Catherine enters the room. While we’re predisposed almost from the start to being disdainful of him, he is a good enough judge of character to immediately see through the charades of Catherine’s young suitor, the faux-classy layabout Morris Townsend, but seemingly little realizes that it’s his own behavior that has set his daughter up as a victim to such a creature. His every remark to her is marked by disdain or backhanded condescension; when she appears in a beautiful dress, Henry James gives him the unforgettable review “You look as if you had $80,000 a year.” He openly and repeatedly compares her unfavorably to her mother, both to her face and in front of others. And it’s not merely Catherine to whom he is a dry, unpleasant figure — in the space of just a few minutes he informs two different people that they are “without dignity” and “beneath contempt” — but only she is actually in a position to be damaged by it.

When he first meets Townsend and notes that he seems intelligent, Catherine’s overenthusiastic “oh, yes!” is met with a murderous glare. It may be that he recognizes Townsend’s pending abuse of his daughter because it is the only motive related to her that he understands; that the boy may genuinely love her never even crosses his mind, and while this may allow a certain protectiveness to set in — making a show of announcing her vulnerability to Townsend’s sister, then taking his daughter away to Europe for a spell to delay their marriage — it’s only ever under the terms of “love” in which the young woman is his own property that he is unwilling to share. He is far more troubled by the notion that Townsend will spend all of his money than he is by the idea that he may be a bad husband to his daughter, for he sees her as so subhuman that he cannot fathom her having any sophisticated relationship in the first place. It is, of course, entirely because of the inadequacy he’s baked into her personality that she is so easily swayed by a powerful, sexy con artist like Townsend; but as she later points out, would a life with Townsend, who is affectionate toward her, not potentially be at least a little better than one in which she already is unloved with no possibility of redemption?

Making all this worse is that of course, for at least the first half of the film, Catherine adores her father, and this despite already enduring decades alone with him: you can see it in the loving way she looks at him, never returned in kind. That’s not to say she is unaware of how ashamed he is of her, only that she truly seems to believe she is at fault. At one point, she breaks her cultivated exterior just enough to ask him to be kind to her, to promote her to her potential husband: “Praise me a little,” she pleads. And in that unmistakable manner in which victims of unloving households seem so conscious of their miseries yet so unaware of how unnecessary and inexcusable they are, she once nonchalantly, and not a little hilariously, tells Townsend: “My father won’t abuse you. He doesn’t know you well enough.”

The collateral damage in all this is Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia, the film’s most easily likable character, who’s a tireless supporter of Catherine — the “cool aunt” character familiar from numerous other films, but so much more painfully realistic here because the shortcomings of such a confidante are made very obvious in the course of the narrative. Her hopeless romanticism bonds her to her niece but also blinds her to the self-serving motives of both Dr. Sloper and the young Morris Townsend. Neither the film nor Catherine judge her for her naivete, which is treated as the great flaw of a life of relative peace and kindness unknown to the Slopers. Lavinia is the widow of what seems to have been a good, loving marriage, an experience that has left her eager to impart its joys to others and in eternal disbelief that a less pleasant experience with matters of the heart is even possible. She chides the doctor for his treatment of Catherine but never rebukes him for it; and she seems more upset by Catherine’s eventual rejection of Morris than she is by Morris’ own cruelty to her. She is a lovely human being who is also an enabler — and, thanks to all involved but especially the great Hopkins, such an insightful and witty actress for decades running (it’s fun to think of her happy simultaneous carousing with two different men in Design for Living while watching this), she serves as the true beating heart of this picture, the audience vessel who badly wants everything to work out and will come away frightfully disappointed by the fickle terrors of everyday life.

As for Montgomery Clift, this was only his third movie after distinctive, searing appearances in the trifling The Search and the extraordinary Red River, and as usual his brooding and passionate personage burns into the rest of the film harshly. Left unchecked, he could be a distracting Method showboat, but Wyler handles him correctly by helping to render his Morris as both a clearly desirable object of adoration and potential escape for Catherine and a believable master grifter whose eager, fiery poetics come across as just overwhelmingly heartthrob-ish enough to read as appropriately ridiculous and even slightly comic. (The moment when he speak-sings his way through the English translation of “Plaisir d’amour” is straight out of some misguded Keanu Reeves-led romcom from sixty years later.) That said, Clift’s portrayal is just ambiguous enough that there is every reason to believe he is actually attracted to Catherine and, when he abandons her upon learning she won’t receive her inheritance, it’s a matter of survival from a classless sort whose lifestyle is totally alien to the Slopers. This doesn’t excuse his actions by any means, but it adds a helpful lingering doubt that makes the film’s conclusion that much more potent in its uncompromising anger; The Heiress would seem all too one-dimensional if Morris was not, at times, as relatable as Catherine — for instance, when he too seems to be jilted on the dance floor by Catherine much as she was minutes earlier by a clearly disgusted young man, or in the tentative private kissing he shares with her in which he seems as scared as she does, or most of all in the awkward dinner scenes that will be familiar to anyone who’s tried to impress a new boyfriend or girlfriend’s skeptical parents. You can even be kind enough to sort of admire his live-for-the-moment philosophy that led him to use an inheritance to parade around Europe buying gloves rather than plan for the future, but we do finally get a glimpse of his true colors when, with Dr. Sloper deceased and Catherine rich, he reappears on her doorstep with new mustache and smugly surveys the premises in her brief absence, totally convinced it’s all soon to be “his.”

But it won’t be, because in one of those wonderful moments in classic cinema when we don’t think an old film is quite “with” us because of cultural changes but in fact is ahead of us, Catherine has already seen through the man’s lies and is intentionally putting him through the same wringer she knew not so long ago. As soon as Morris, in the joyous fits of a new courtship, has left the house to go get a coach (again), we quickly discern that Catherine — who’s made her parting gift of ruby buttons from Paris already — has no intention of going anywhere with him, or of ever speaking to him again. The Catherine that Morris has encountered now is a changed woman. We have watched her cycle in real time out of her naive hopefulness, through the pain of realizing her father never loved her then that no man has ever truly loved her, and into an peaceful independence and finally a deliciously vengeful defiance, an assertion of self at last. The second and third acts conclude with de Havilland’s ascensions of the house at Washington Square’s formidable staircase: lugging the suitcases she intended to take on her honeymoon with Morris, she appears defeated and inconsolable. Clutching a lamp and heading upstairs to bed in the final scene, something very different — but far subtler — is taking place.

The transformation begins with the quarrels between Catherine and her father just after their failed European trip; all of a sudden, Catherine wakes up, and not merely because Dr. Sloper suddenly lays out his opinions of her explicitly at last, then has the audacity — when she very straightforwardly responds with “what a terrible thing to say to me” — to accuse her of being cruel to him. The relationship does not recover; after this initial attempt at communicating her humanity to him, which receives no apology in turn, she understandably becomes curt and avoids seeing him whenever possible, brilliantly calls his bluff on writing her out of his will, and indeed refuses to visit him on his deathbed. There is a case to be made that this fissure is a flaw in the film; while it’s integral to the story, the two distinct versions of Catherine witnessed by us are so violently opposed as to seem nearly incompatible. Moreover, while de Havilland’s performance in both guises is absolutely perfect — humane, nuanced, utterly real — the “dual” personalities notion was a known and well-worked gimmick within her work, which had also been central to her other Oscar-winning role in Mitchell Leisen’s brilliant tearjerker To Each His Own (which also lays out just as strongly her ability to almost transcend age in her performances); and she’d gone so far as to play twins in The Dark Mirror that same year.

In fact, however, repeated viewings of The Heiress seem to validate this as a function of its realism in matters of familial abuse and neglect. It’s Catherine’s desperation to be pleasing to her father that causes her to attain the nervous shyness that he so passionately decries to others; it’s hardly a real expression of her personality, which we can assume was no more satisfying to so exacting a man, whose warmth — if it even existed — was probably reserved exclusively for his medical patients. The Catherine we see when we leave the film has also constructed a personality of bitter detachment as a defense mechanism, even as we see she can return to the old zeal and people-pleasing long enough to hoodwink her former lover. But there is some reason to believe that this last adventure has given her sufficient closure to free her from all of these psychological prisons.

Without question, the finale of The Heiress is one of the greatest and most wounding in Hollywood cinema; its unabashed vindictiveness is most closely matched by the nearly forgotten and otherwise innocuous western In Old Arizona, which too ends with a masterfully understated, though much more violent, fuck-you — but outside of America, it has a more contemporary analogy in the stunning final shot of The Third Man, whose acerbic and oddly thrilling withholding of satisfaction has an equal beauty and elegance. When it becomes clear that Catherine has doomed Morris to heartbreak (and, potentially, poverty, though he would have found that for himself anyway) and her aunt expresses shock, her rebuke is priceless, and the thesis of the film: “Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.” There is then great tension as the maid Maria struggles with Catherine’s command to bolt the door, which Morris is pounding on, rather than open it — and, wrapping up her embroidery alphabet, we watch as Wyler’s masterfully blocked and composed series of closing shots lets Morris see the shadow of his future passing ominously by through the glass above the door, whereupon he tries the knob and then returns to vainly knocking and shouting, and Catherine Sloper starts to ascend the stairs again. A faint expression of security crosses her face — the freedom of no longer being under the thumb of any man — and then we return to Morris Townsend outside, his desperation increasing, as Wyler sardonically announces via two-word title card that his story will never be resolved.

It is a moment of divine, delectable fury — and renders the entire film ageless and impossibly elegant, a perfectly structured treatise on cycles of cruelty and the occasional righteousness of revenge. The visual and superficial pleasures are innumerable, as always in Wyler’s period pieces — the shimmering fable-like quality of Leo Tover’s photography, the sumptuous streets and the rain that falls on them, and Aaron Copland’s improbably lush score — but The Heiress subverts them, refuses them as consolation for the interpersonal distress documented within their borders. Wyler had tackled abusive relationships with great perspicacity before, in The Little Foxes and Dodsworth; but here is a film that synthesizes this kind of knowing humanism with the gripping coldness, calculation and technical expertise of noir to demonstrate an environment in which resentment, for once, is an escape from doom, apathy and dread. He and the writers and cast make us root for someone to whom the entire world has become dead and pointless, and convinces us — with the most wondrous kind of perversity — that we are deeply correct to do so.

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