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The Heiress (1949)

**This is my contribution to the Miriam Hopkins blogathon over at Silver Screenings.  Check out the other amazing entries in the blogathon here!***

It’s interesting that this film has been recommended to me by Netflix for months and I always ignored it.  This proves I’m an idiot as The Heiress is superb.  A tale of love grown cold, literally, that is dominated by a calm and composed Olivia de Havilland and a charming and sexually charged Montgomery Clift.  I expected to enjoy this movie, but figured it couldn’t compare to Wuthering Heights…dare I say I find them to be equals now?

Heiress Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is a shy girl who doesn’t possess the poise and grace expected of her by her cold father Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson).  When the charming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) professes his love for Catherine it’s obvious to her father that the suitor is only interested in her inheritance.  As the two lovers are pushed apart Catherine comes to a wealth of realizations about her father, her lover, and herself that changes the course of their relationship.

On the surface The Heiress plays out as a bastardized version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, eschewing modern murder for sumptuous Gothic golddigging.  In many ways the comparison does apply right down to Olivia de Havilland playing the same mild heiress desperate for love as her sister Joan Fontaine did in Hitchcock’s work.  Where the two differ is in the psychological game at play in Wyler’s film.  Instead of focusing solely on Morris’ intentions and their secret relationship, the film delves deeper into why Dr. Sloper is so against the relationship and placing the audience in Catherine’s position of determining whether Morris is a fortune hunter.  None of the characters in the film truly have Catherine’s best interests at heart so no matter what happens, Catherine should expect some form of disappointment.  Her aunt (Miriam Hopkins) simply wants Catherine to marry so she doesn’t die a spinster, while her father doesn’t want his money to be squandered.

The relationship between father and daughter is Freudian in a way, a classic Electra complex.  Catherine is constantly compared to her mother by her father and the young woman is aware that her father doesn’t truly love her.  Catherine is a disappointment to the man, not at all versed in the proper way to converse and is horrible at music (despite the  fact her mother had a great ear for music).  In many ways it appears Dr. Sloper is looking for a replacement wife (creepy).  Catherine herself finds the attention and love she craves in Morris and yet Morris himself doesn’t seem to truly love her placing him in line with Dr. Sloper!  Oh what a tangled web we weave.  In fact at one point Morris says him and Dr. Sloper “don’t like each other but we like the same things!”  In fact it’s Dr. Sloper who is able to peg Morris as a golddigger which opens the door to whether Morris truly is or Dr. Sloper wants to keep Catherine at home (the creepy vibes are set to 11 in this film).

The two actors are just phenomenal playing outright pricks!  Ralph Richardson gets the juiciest one-liners, especially when he’s putting down Morris (“yes you speak very well”).  I’m a fan of someone who can insult elegantly.  Yet while he’s putting down Morris he’s breaking the heart of his daughter, openly telling her she doesn’t compare to her dead mother.  When Catherine shows up in a red dress and asks her father how she looks he bluntly says she doesn’t “dominate” the color like her mother (dude, don’t you know women!).   Even then it’s apparent to others, specifically Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia, that Austin has “idealized” his wife and that he’s set up Catherine for perpetual failure.

Out of the all the actors in this group I found myself drawn to Montgomery Clift as Morris.  I’ve seen two of Clift’s films at opposite ends of his life, A Place in the Sun and The Misfits (which I reviewed during My Month With Marilyn) and while he was good, I wasn’t drawn to him or found him particularly special.  Boy, did I get that one wrong!  Clift could sell ice to an Eskimo (I did mention to my family he’d make a fine drug dealer for a more modern reference) because he is smooth!  He oozes sexuality from the minute he first introduces himself to Catherine and I don’t know what it says about me or his acting but I would be completely happy to lose all my wealth to him!  He’s incredibly sweet to Catherine when they first meet to the point that I couldn’t stop myself from saying “aw.”  He knows exactly what to tell her which is what makes him so dangerous.  As he becomes bolder in his overtures to Catherine you can see he makes her nervous (she starts fanning herself rapidly) and he constantly stands too close for comfort to the point she recoils.  Catherine finds herself special in his company, “he’s everything a woman could want.  And he wants me!”  I adored Clift in this and it saddens me to know he hated this role, maybe it had something to do with him playing the same type of character in A Place in the Sun only two years later?  Clift is also said to have disliked Olivia de Havilland but trust me that doesn’t show in the film, they have definite chemistry.

I’ve save the best for last in discussing our title character played by Olivia de Havilland.  As I found with Clift, my original views on de Havilland have changed.  I found her to be a total doormat in Gone With the Wind and haven’t seen much else (although that should change as I have a few additional films of hers).  Here you see the most stunning transformation in a character I’ve seen.  Catherine starts out as a meek woman who can’t even look at a fishmonger chopping the head off a dead fish.  When it happens she turns away and flinches.  She can’t stand to see the “suffering” of something that’s not even alive anymore which makes her actions in the films final seconds so poignant.  Catherine also doesn’t act like an heiress should.  She’s personable; doing her own shopping and enjoying her time alone.  Despite the fact that “father would like me to be composed” she doesn’t enjoy having to be fake with others (which makes her inability to see Morris for what he is so sad).

The actress was 33 when this was released and yet acts like a young girl in the way she talks and carries herself and it adds an element of humor to the film.  Catherine may not be able to joke with others but when Lavinia mentions her dearly departed husband watching them, Catherine jokes that it depends on where he is (with the implication that he’s in Hell).  The fact she abruptly hides her face is hilarious as it’s obvious she finds this hilarious and it is!  Even when Morris asks to call on her, the shock on Catherine’s face is blatant.  She has no idea how to act around him and devolves into a teenage girl asking her aunt “what do I talk to him about?”  She generally takes to avoiding Morris and there’s a lot of subtle humor around their courting.  When Morris is looking for reassurance about talking to Catherine’s father she can’t even do that right saying “My father won’t abuse you.  He doesn’t know you well enough.”  De Havilland is a breath of innocence in a den of snakes which makes her change in the end imply the end of an era.

A heart turned to ice

Eventually Catherine turns cold to love, and to Morris, and you can’t blame her at the end.  She’s been passed off, ignored and abused by the suitors in her life due to her appearance, her lack of “breeding,” and when she finally finds a man she wants he doesn’t truly love her.  There’s debate if in the end Morris did love her but it’s apparent that having been fooled and lied to by so many men, even her own father, she’s lost all trust.  You can see her heart turn to ice as she ascends the stairs, away from her last chance at love (in my opinion) and it’s all due to the “masters” who prevented it (namely her father).  As mentioned above, no one truly has Catherine’s best interests so in the end the only person she can truly rely on is herself in this harsh world.   In the end watching The Heiress is akin to watching a bird get its wings clipped.  Catherine is forever stunted.

Ronnie Rating:


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The Heiress (Universal Cinema Classics)

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

54 thoughts on “The Heiress (1949) Leave a comment

  1. I love this film and, as you were bummed out about getting shut out of “Wuthering Heights,” I was bummed out about missing this one (and a few others, being fashionably late to the sign-up party). But I digress. This is one knockout movie and Wyler weaves a sad, beautiful tapestry of missed opportunities and heartache. Sloper, Catherine and Morris each have something the other wants, but none of them (except Catherine, initially) is willing to give it up to get what they want. The source material is genius, the actors are brilliant and Wyler is masterful. I guess this is what you could call a perfect movie. Very nice post.

    • I love how you mention none of them is willing to give it up to get what they want, I think that sums up the movie perfectly. You may have missed out on this blogathon but I myself am hosting one if you’re interested (that might have sounded like a shameless plug…only because it was a shameless plug). Thanks for reading!

  2. Fabulous review! Like you, I have ignored this film (nots sure why) but your description makes me want to seek it out. What make this more surprising is I am an admirer of Montgomery Clift, what a talent! (If you have not seen FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, you must). The psychological aspects also sound fascinating. Poor Catherine, sounds like she is being used by everyone.

    • It’s odd, the movies that are constantly recommended seem to be the ones most ignore (must be a reverse psychology thing). I have been told (much like with this film) to see From Here to Eternity and now that Clift has won me over I’ll have to push that up my list. Thanks for reading, hope you enjoy the film as much as I did!

      • Just finished watching this film for the first time. Fabulous performances from Olivia and Clift. In a way she turned into her father…cold with no heart. Not that Clift’s character didn’t get what he deserved. I thought the art direction was wonderful too. They did a fabulous recreation of Washington Square circa 1850’s.

    • Thanks for reading! They are reviving The Heiress for Broadway I’ve heard with Jessica Chastain. Having seen the movie I’m even more jealous not to be seeing this on the stage.

  3. Thanks for such a great, perceptive post on one of my favorite films. I like your comparison of it to Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’; how oddly in sync that the 2 sisters, Fonataine and de Havilland, should win Oscars for similar stories! You give terrific insights into the relationships between characters, especially of Catherine’s emotional abuse from the others (and your metaphor of the clipped-wing bird is quite poignant). This is such a terrific contribution to the Wyler Blogathon!

    • Aw thanks for the kind words. I always get a bit scared using metaphor’s, you never know if they’ll sound as right as they do in your head, so I’m glad mine came out well. The Suspicion connection seems to be intriguing to many, there’s several comments I’ve read about it. Thanks for reading!

  4. “The Heiress” is a major favorite of mine, but having seen so many times over the years it’s difficult to recall my initial impressions. Your enjoyable post brought back a lot of my own initial reactions to the film, allowing a sort of “fresh eyes” revisit to an enduring classic. I enjoyed reading your post very much.

    • Thanks! I actually got told something similar by a friend when I mentioned watching The Godfather for the first time a year or so back, the friend wished they had remembered better seeing it for the first time. Thanks for reading.

  5. I’ve just watched this film and must agree with you that it is great – with excellent performances by all the leads, and an amazing number of scenes where people walk up and down stairs, which I’m noticing is something that turns up time and again in Wyler’s films. Ralph Richardson is wonderful as Dr Sloper – very dry, with great lines like “I’ve seen England”. There are so many ironies piled on, like the fact that Catherine is always quite witty and forthright when her father isn’t there, but he doesn’t realise it, as you say, always remembering her mother. Olivia de Havilland does play a young girl very well and also somehow disguises her beauty just by the way she walks and speaks, until the end when she blossoms too late. Clift and Hopkins are great too (and are their characters supposed to be having a fling while the father and daughter are in Europe? I wasn’t sure.)

    If memory serves, have a feeling that Catherine is portrayed as rather less sensitive in Henry James’ great source novel, ‘Washington Square’ than she is in the film – but I really need to read it again. Anyway, sorry to have done you out of ‘Wuthering Heights’, but thanks for the nice comment about my blog and I really enjoyed your great posting on this film!

    • I didn’t even think of the staircase connections! Wyler definitely seems to have a “thing” about them, great you noticed. I too wondered how close the relationship between Morris and the aunt was…he certainly was there a lot. I saw their relationship as more flirtatious, like he was being flirty with the kind older woman. I totally forgot to mention the source material. I have Washington Square in a combo book with Daisy Miller but haven’t gotten around to reading WS, might need to do so. Thanks for reading and you definitely did Wuthering Heights justice so I don’t feel bad to have missed out. This just gives me an incentive to rewatch it and review it at a later date.

  6. Really enjoyed your post! I love this movie also. You summed up the reasons it is so good perfectly. The only negative thing I can mention about this film is Clift’s moustache. It distracts from his beautiful (pre-car accident) face, LOL! I like Clift and was really impressed by him in one of his earliest roles, Red River, with John Wayne (whom I tolerate). You should check that one out .

    I just want to say that your description of OdH’s character, Melanie in GwtW as a doormat, is one way of looking at it, but I saw her differently. To me, she embodied kindness, gentleness, support, subtlety and civilization/politeness (which is a luxury that Scarlett didn’t feel she could afford). I can’t think of a time when anyone really took advantage of Melanie, which is what I would consider a doormat to be. In particular, I am thinking of her refusal to gossip, her encounters with Belle Wattling, supporting Rhett after Bonnie’s death, dealing with the fallout of the “political meeting” (when Ashley got shot but pretended to be drunk). I thought Melanie was a perfect contrast to Scarlet’s character who I saw as a scrapper, rule breaker and someone who thought nothing of stepping on a few toes to ensure her survival. I consider Melanie as Scarlett’s moral support and I believe that is why her death was so devastating to Scarlett. I do not think Melanie was stupid or weak, she knew Scarlet had the hots for Ashley; she also knew there was nothing she could do about it other than trust her husband. To survive the devastation of war Melanie and Scarlett had to stick together. Having Melanie as a friend served Scarlett well when she needed to reestablish herself in society; it was a relationship of mutual benefit, IMO.

    • Oh yes, the mustache is pretty terrible. It takes a certain kind of man to rock a mustache and Clift is already so pretty without it, that it totally takes away.

      Believe me, I’ve heard similar sentiments on Melanie before. Actually my best friend gets mad everytime I mention that I despise GWTW (it’s mostly because Scarlett is so awful). I just couldn’t understand how pious and good Melanie could be when Scarlett had designs on her husband, and it appeared to be pretty blatant. I haven’t seen the movie in over two years so I might be forgetting key moments but I just wanted Melanie to upbraid Scarlett just once. Thanks for reading!

      • Yes, Melanie is to good to be true. That would be a hard character to stomach day in and day out. Both Scarlett and Melanie desrved each other. They are literary foils and can be hard to relate to. I can see why one wouldn’t like GWTW. Keep up the good work.

  7. Fascinating comparison between this and “Suspicion.” Never made the connection before.

    A few years ago I was helping a friend out at a book club at a senior citizens facility. One of the books assigned was James’s “Washington Square.” One of the gentlemen in the club (who was a real pain in the neck) a former doctor, found the cold Dr. Sloper character completely unrealistic, as doctors are great humanitarians, and no doctor would ever treat his daughter that way.

    I said, “What about Dr. Mengele?’

    Needless to say, I wasn’t asked back for the next series.

    Ralph Richardson really gets the character down pat. The movie contains one great performance after another, and like you said, is probably Olivia’s finest hour. I hope you get the chance to see more of her work. She was a great, great actress.

    Once again, Wyler takes a stage play and makes it so cinematic you don’t feel you’re watching a play.

    • I definitely need to dig out my copy of Washington Square and read it. Genius retort by the way, I’ve seen many a doctor in my time and can say that while I haven’t met a doc on par with Dr. Sloper, they’re not all great and wise men lol. Thanks for reading!

  8. I’m really glad you were able to write on “The Heiress” as your contribution to the Wyler blogathon. It’s my own favorite Wyler film. I was hoping whoever chose it would do it justice, and I have to say you didn’t disappoint.

    I like the way you dispensed with the synopsis of the film so succinctly then concentrated on the characters and their interpretation by the actors playing them. I found your analysis of character psychology extremely strong. In the end, character psychology is what this film is all about, though what else could you expect of a film adapted from a novel by Henry James?

    The four main characters–Catherine, Morris, Dr. Sloper, and Aunt Lavinia–are brilliantly embodied by the actors playing them, and I think you were right to praise the acting in this film so highly. Olivia de Havilland spent many years honing her craft and didn’t often get roles that made full use of her talent and skill. But in 1948 she played in “The Snake Pit” and the next year in this film and got the two best roles of her long career and gave her two greatest performances. Clift was so fresh in this film and so tantalizingly sexual, Ralph Richardson so intense as the monster of a father, Hopkins so flighty as pathetic Aunt Lavinia. Everyone trying to control Catherine for their own reasons, everybody concealing their true motives, probably even from themselves. The whole situation makes for a rich and complex viewing experience.

    “The Heiress” is a film that seems to me to have aged very gracefully. Its characters and premise seem so true that it still intrigues, even as dramatic fashion and the views of women’s roles have changed. I recently heard of the Broadway revival being planned for this fall that you mention in one of your replies to a comment. I must say the casting of Jessica Chastain as Catherine is one that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

    I’ll repeat what others have said about the surprise of seeing this compared to “Suspicion,” a comparison that I too had never thought of but which you make seem a clear and reasonable one. A marvelous post with just the right balance of description, analysis, and personal reaction.

    • Thanks for letting me contribute, I was beyond honored to get the chance especially considering I came into the project so late! Thanks for the kind words as well, I try to not do straight reviews but include a lot of analysis (it’s the English/Film major in me I guess). I found The Heiress to be filled to the gills with psychological stuff, I mean this group could have definitely benefited from some therapy! I do have The Snake Pit, as I mentioned so I’m excited to see De Havilland in further films. I definitely could have explored this from a feminist angle and while I’m sure someone would disagree Catherine is a strong female, especially not falling prey to Morris unlike Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (I’m ecstatic that it appears I’m one of the first to connect the two films), now I need to go back and give a review of Suspicion having seen this. Thanks again, I’ve been keeping up on The Movie Projector so next blogathon I’ll be ready!

  9. Oooh this is one from Wyler I’ve been wanting to see. I LOVE Olivia De Havilland in Gone With the Wind, but haven’t seen her in anything else. Plus there’s that super hunky Montgomery Clift, oh la la 😀 Great review!

    • I definitely got “the vapors” when I saw Clift. Again, I’ve seen him in other things but never said “damn” (he’s no Fassbender!). Hope you get to this one!

  10. I love this film. Everything about it is superb, and it only gets better with age. I’m glad you finally watched it and provided us with a nice examination of it.

  11. Your perceptive and spirited take on “The Heiress” proves that you are NOT an idiot (though you may have thought so at first when you realized you’d overlooked a great film). I came to “The Heiress” relatively late myself and, like you, was stunned by its power. Olivia deHavilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins are all in top form and note perfect throughout. What a study in complex relationships! As for the ending, my impression has been that Morris came to realize he cared for Catherine. Unfortunately (perhaps for both), his earlier pretense warranted the door permanently locked to him.

    • Aw…I don’t know whether to feel insulted or not by your opening statement lol. I love how you mention “power” because that comes across perfectly in The Heiress. I’ve read a lot of debate about Morris’ intent at the end and I do believe there was an admiration, at least considering he’d returned from California and hadn’t succeeded. He could have come to respect Catherine, and he would have been comfortable living with her. Thanks for reading!

  12. Really enjoyed your write-up on The Heiress — it is truly one of my favorite films (in fact, I’m looking at a lobby card on my wall as I write this — it’s from the scene where Catherine gives Morris the long-awaited ruby buttons at the end). Incidentally, although Morris is obviously after her money, I always thought he would have been good to Catherine and good for her — they’d have both wound up happy if he hadn’t punked out at the last minute!

    • That’s how they should have summed up the movie “Morris punked out at the end!” As I mentioned in another comment, having failed in California, it seems obvious that Morris could have come to admire and respect Catherine. He easily saw a life of security and mutual affection (or so he thought). He wouldn’t have been in love, but he would have been content. Sadly, he messed with the wrong woman although if it was de Havilland’s sister in Suspicion he would have had a better shot. Thanks for reading!

  13. Ha ha – I loved your Creepiness Vibe set to 11 description, when it comes to Ralph Richardson. Indeed!

    This is such a great film, and everyone in it is superb, including Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lavinia.

    Great post as always. Thanks for joining the blogathon! 🙂

  14. An excellent film, well-acted by all. A minor critique, but I am having alot of trouble reading your blog about The Heiress-the font doesn’t show up well against your backdrop of flowers(or are they fireworks?)-could you look into a redesign? Sorry for this criticism, but I hate not being able to read your post!

  15. alright, after I made my comment above, and it was posted, the font you used miraculously appeared, in bold ink and the post was very readable. I am a techno illiterate, but am wondering if my first comment posting somehow “unlocked” something??? I don’t know…

    • Haha, I was just going to ask you about that because the way the site loads the text area is black font against a white background with the brown design limited to the sides. It might be that your comp loaded it funny without that white background. I know that happens sometimes as a glitch, for me, on other sites. If it happens again reload the page and see if that kicks it back on. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  16. Love this film and Olivia’s victory for it is one of my favorite wins. The entire cast is phenomenal which only makes her work stronger. Wyler’s sure handed direction bolsters all their work keeping the sometimes heavy dramatics feeling personal and involving.

    You say no one is really on her side but I think her Aunt Lavinia has her best interest at heart. She’s a romantic whose own marriage had been a happy one and wants that for Catherine. Even having witnessed his abandonment she knows that Catherine still has feelings for Morris and thinks that she might be able to forgive him since Lavinia would be able to do that, not being as used and damaged as Catherine has been. It’s only in that last speech when Catherine reveals the depth of her feelings about Morris’s betrayal that Lavinia understands at last.

    I can’t agree that her heart has turned to ice at the end. She has definitely changed from the beginning and is now bruised and wary of compliments but she has really only hardened her heart to Morris. Her naivete may be gone and she is guarded but in the scene with her Aunt Elizabeth’s family as they depart from a visit she is open to others, they all seem fond of her and she is laughing and smiling. It’s when she returns to the self imposed prison of her father’s house that she closes up again. However once she has faced down Morris and makes her final ascension up the stairs of what is at last truly HER house clear of any shackles of the past her posture and reactions reflect the wisdom she’s acquired and the cost she’s paid for it. She’s saddened but she’s free.

  17. Great post! This has also been in my to-watch queue for aaaages but I just haven’t got round to it. I think Hopkins and de Havilland were a pretty inspired pairing, with Clift and Richardson added into the mix it clearly can’t go wrong. I love the comparison to Suspicion, which is one of my favourite Hitch movies – based on your review, I’m going to love The Heiress 😉

  18. Great review with a lot of insight about the characters. It was sounding so familiar to me, but then I realized it was reminding me of suspicion when you mentioned that they are similar. Both are very heartbreaking. Thanks for your post!

  19. Good article, but I disagree with you on one aspect. I don’t believe Catherine became stunted in the end. I think she finally became free . . . free from the ghost of her father’s lack of love and free from her own desire toward a man who only wanted her for her money. That last smile on Catherine’s face represents to me one of triumph and freedom.

    [” I adored Clift in this and it saddens me to know he hated this role, maybe it had something to do with him playing the same type of character in A Place in the Sun only two years later? Clift is also said to have disliked Olivia de Havilland but trust me that doesn’t show in the film, they have definite chemistry.”]

    From what I had read, the set for “The Heiress” was rife with tensions between the cast. Each of them – especially De Havilland, Richardson, Hopkins and Clift – kept wondering if Wyler was paying more attention to the others and less to the individual performer. Actually, I read somewhere else that Wyler had a penchant for creating tension on the set in order to draw out great performances from his cast.

    • My all time favorite film. The photography, sets, costumes, street lights, horses and carriages, music, dance styles, furnishings all made me feel I was living in 1850s New York City’s Greenwich Village. They took the time and effort to make this look very authentic. Can’t add very much about the performances since that has been sufficiently covered already in prior posts. The casting right down to Maria, the maid, was perfect. I wish I could tell Olivia de Havilland how much I have enjoyed her performances in The Heiress, The Snake Pit, To Each His Own, Lady In A Cage, The Screaming Woman (TV) and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. She’s a great actress and a joy to watch. I never tire of watching The Heiress having seen it countless times alone and with others. Olivia de Havilland has just had her 99th birthday on July 1. She’s the only one alive today from Gone With The Wind, I believe. I love Olivia de Havilland. Tommy

      • If you’ve read the various reviews I’ve written of De Havilland’s films, you know I consider her a chameleon, able to just inhabit so many different roles. I mean, just look at the titles you listed. She’s far more than Melanie Wilkes, in my opinion. And you are correct, she is our sole GWTW cast member. Thank you for contributing such an amazing tribute.

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