The Heiress (1949)

Directed by William Wyler
Written by Ruth & Augustus Goetz

A month or so ago I watched and review the film The Best Years of Our Lives, which was directed by William Wyler and made such a tremendous impact on me that it managed a spot in my recent Top 100 Films list. When I spoke so highly of that film, I raised the question as to why Wyler, who has a very impressive filmography, was not regarded as highly as other giants in his era. With this conversation came the mentioning of this film, one I had not heard of before. But it stars Olivia de Havilland, whom I have loved in both The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone with the Wind, as well as Montgomery Clift, whom I know very little, but was impressed with him in From Here to Eternity the other day (review coming).

Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a shy young lady who just so happens to be an heiress. She lives with her father Austin (Ralph Richardson) and her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins). With the urging of her Father and Aunt, Catherine frequents social engagements, but because of her shyness has not yet found a suitor. Then Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) enters the picture and the two enter into a relationship that seems destined to love and marriage. But before the two can get that far, Austin begins to suspect that Morris is not who he says he is. He is not a rich man and because of this Austin fears he is merely a fortune hunter, and not Catherine’s true suitor. But will her love for him prevent her from seeing what her father sees? Or is Austin mistaken in his assessment of Morris?

William Wyler continues to amaze me with the films he has directed and I have no reason to believe that anything else by him will not be to the same great standard he has thus far set. The story is very compelling and mysterious. For a dramatic romance, it almost reminded me a little bit of a noir, trying to figure out the true intentions of Morris was a nice little mystery inside the love story. Everything seemed to unfold just as it should, but I don’t by any means mean to infer that it was predictable, in fact I mean just the opposite. The central performances were outstanding and I was not surprised at all to find out that de Havilland and Richardson were nominated for Academy Awards, with de Havilland winning.

I don’t seem to know what it is but I am cosmically drawn towards Olivia de Havilland. She is not a knockout like many of her contemporary stars, but she has a subtle beauty that I find even more attractive, and it seems to sum up to a matter of cuteness. But above that she is a fantastic actress and her chemistry with co-star Montgomery Clift is very convincing, as is the interplay between her and Richardson, who gives the best performance of the three as the suspecting, overbearing father. And the performances are captured so beautifully with the black and white cinematography, which communicates a few other things as well. While there are numerous beautiful shots that really stand out, the biggest thing I noticed with the cinematography was the use of mirrors throughout. Now obviously this could just be a neat choice made by the filmmakers, but I like to read into things and the two things I came up with were interesting.

The first was the fact that mirrors often stand for vanity, vanity mirrors being one of those utilized here. The idea of vanity plays large into the film with all of the money involved. But the other one I found is far more interesting and that is the idea of Plato’s Cave, an allegory which suggests that the reality we see is merely shadows reflected on a cave wall by a fire. In the case of the mirrors, we the audience, and the characters in the film, see things through the reflections on the mirrors, which depict reality, but with an opposite orientation, which layers the intriguing mystery of the intentions of Morris Townsend. Everything seems to come together in this film to make a very rewarding film experience. And the ending seems perfectly suited for such a tale.


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