Retro Reels: The Heiress (1949)

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Directed by William Wyler and based on the Henry James novel, Washington Square, The Heiress is a drama that examines the issues of love, revenge, heartbreak, mental cruelty, wealth and class. And it does in a way that makes you think how people’s lives could be different if they were born in another time or place.

Olivia de Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, the daughter of a wealthy doctor, played by Sir Ralph Richardson. Catherine’s mother died giving birth to her, and Dr. Sloper seemingly blames Catherine for his beautiful wife’s death. Catherine, on the other hand, is plain and awkward, and her father never fails to let her know what a disappointment she is to him.

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Catherine seems to be destined to live her gilded cage as a lonely spinster when Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) comes along. Morris is handsome and dashing. He charms Catherine and lavishes loving attention on her that she never received from her father. Catherine gains confidence and begins to bloom as Morris courts her. However, Morris is penniless, and Dr. Sloper believes he’s only with Catherine to gain access to her inheritance. He can’t imagine anyone being interested in his daughter beyond her money.

Morris asks for Catherine’s hand in marriage, telling her they can elope. But Dr. Sloper tells Catherine if she marries Morris he will disinherit her and there is no way Morris can support her. Catherine doesn’t care. She’s convinced Morris truly loves her, not her potential inheritance. Morris finds out but claims it doesn’t matter whether Catherine gets her father’s money or not. They will marry.

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Catherine awaits for Morris to whisk her away and marry her. But he disappears, breaking her heart. Catherine hopes her father will show her some kind of compassion. Instead, he cuts her down with vicious remarks. Catherine tells her father she would have married Morris even if all he cared about was her inheritance. After all, being loved for one’s money is better than being not loved at all.

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Time passes, and Catherine’s heart hardens Her father dies, and leaves her his entire estate. Years later, Morris returns. He went to California intent on making his fortune but comes back to New York making nothing of his life. Still, he professes his love for Catherine. He tells her he only left because he knew losing her inheritance would leave her destitute. Catherine says she forgives him. She also claims she wants to marry him. But is she telling the truth?

Morris comes back that night and that’s when Catherine gets her revenge. She was not sincere in her forgiveness. Coldly, she tells her maid to bolt the door as Morris knocks and knocks, shouting her name. Catherine’s aunt is appalled by Catherine’s behavior, bemoaning her cruelty towards Morris. Catherine turns to her and says, “I have been taught by masters.” Is she wiser or is she bitter? Perhaps she is both. The film fades with Morris still shouting Catherine’s name as she walks up a staircase.

Olivia de Havilland (who won an Oscar for this role) is brilliant as Catherine naturally conveying Catherine’s transformation from victim to victimizer. Montgomery Clift is so beautiful he takes your breath away. He’s also very adept at being a charming manipulator. You’re not surprised Catherine is drawn to him even though you want her to keep him at arm’s length. Sir Ralph Richardson is chilling as Dr. Sloper, yet you also understand he wants to protect his daughter of Morris’ less than sincere intentions.

While watching The Heiress I kept wondering how Catherine’s life could have been different if she had been born in another time. She could have earned a college education, struck out on her own and had some semblance of independence. She could gain confidence and learn to love herself, and maybe, just maybe, attract the right kind of man. Money is wonderful, but it’s not everything, and Catherine proves one can be surrounded by luxury yet be emotionally and mentally impoverished.

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