The Heiress
d. William Wyler (1949)
The Criterion Collection

It’s always surprising to me when Henry James’s highly intricate, nuanced literary work is adapted so well for the screen. James’s work is so focused on language and structure and how the two come together to form psychologically complex linguistic ambiguity; it’s hard to believe it can be transferred to a screen where the audience sees the interactions. And yet it happens — and when it does . . . it’s amazing!

In 1961’s The Innocents Jack Clayton directed a magnificently chilling adaptation of The Turn of the Screw that retains the kind of ambiguity and psychological depth I’d have thought worked only on the page (my review here). And now, thanks to the new release from The Criterion Collection, I have seen another remarkable adaptation: William Wyler’s 1949 film The Heiress, written for the stage and then the screen by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, is beautiful, intelligent, and heartbreaking film “suggested by” Washington Square. It had my heart the whole time.

Olivia de Havilland won a well deserved Oscar for her performance as Catherine Sloper, a young woman who, when we first meet her, is fragile and shy. Her father, played by Ralph Richardson, who was nominated for an Academy Award as well (and I think he should have won), thinks she will never find someone who will love her. Catherine is used to thinking her place is to be the quiet, agreeable, unassuming, undemanding woman whose on her way to spinsterhood — and this is a place she’s often put into by her father. It’s clear he thinks she just doesn’t have any attributes that would attract a suitable suitor. We realize that much of Catherine’s kind fragility is due to her father’s attitude: he treats her like a child (jingling his keys to wake her in one perfectly played scene) but is also harsh with her, reminding her that she will never live up to her mother, something she hears and takes to heart — her often broken heart:

Catherine does long for affection and even romance, despite her father’s belief she will never find anyone who will offer either. The image used for the Criterion cover (above) is from a moment early in the film; Catherine is at a friend’s wedding, and she looks on with longing and wonder as the couple addresses the guests.

But the hope is short-lived. Catherine’s loving aunt Lavinia — another role played to perfection, this one by Miriam Hopkins — nearly falls over herself trying to keep Catherine’s spirits up, while dance partners openly shirk the young woman. Aunt Lavinia is there to support Catherine and help her continue to feel hope. Perhaps this kind of hope, though, is not good for Catherine.

And yet hope arrives in the form of Montgomery Clift’s immensely charming Morris Townsend, an eligible bachelor who has just arrived back in New York after a tour of Europe. He seems taken by Catherine from the start, even when she awkwardly tries to hide the fact that, when he asks her if he may fill a spot on her dance card, her dance card is empty.

Morris always finds a charming way to defuse the situation and offer understanding self-deprecation: in this case, he shows her that his own dance card is also empty. That the most handsome man in town could have his eyes set on her fills Catherine with joy and fear all at once. Both are overwhelming emotions.

But is Morris really attracted to Catherine herself? Does he love her? Some don’t think so. After all, it is well known — and Morris, to his credit, admits as much — that he spent his inheritance traveling Europe. Again, he acknowledges this, and says that when the money ran out he stopped; he owes no debts. He also admits that he knew beforehand that Catherine stands to be incredibly wealthy when her father dies. Indeed, she is already quite wealthy with what she inherited from her mother. But when he admits this he says just what you’d hope: he cannot help that he has fallen in love with her, even if calls into question his motives.

Clift is so charming as Morris, but what does this unguarded face suggest? This is a still taken a moment after Catherine walks away above. Is this longing? Is this calculation? It’s not clear as the camera lingers on him.

And maybe, just maybe, there is a hint, as the screen fades to black, of a smile as he watches her disappear. I replayed the scene time and again and I think a tender smile does just start, for maybe a frame or two only, but I’m not sure. If so, then it is yet another example of how this film, beyond the acting, uses editing to render multiple shades to what we are witnessing.

Is Catherine being taken in by a treasure hunter? Is Aunt Lavinia, who chooses to be Morris’s advocate and encourages Catherine to engage in the romance? Catherine doesn’t fully trust that anyone could love her. Or this is all so new she just doesn’t know how to act. Look at how persistently she shies away from Morris:

But he does seem genuine, and she starts to accept it.

I love the excitement when she has to rush upstairs and wake up Aunt Lavinia to tell her how things are going. Truly, by this time in the film I’m deeply connected to all of the characters.

It’s thrilling:

Catherine: Oh Morris, are you very sure you . . . love me?

Morris: Oh my own dearest. Can you doubt it?

We don’t want to! It’s so upsetting, then, when Dr. Sloper gets involved. He, for one, isn’t going to be taken in by Morris’s charm. He will do the hard job of questioning motive and calling out the discrepancy between Catherine’s position and Morris’s lack. But he’ll do it systematically. Dr. Sloper, in his investigation, even calls in Morris’s older sister who, at first, is confident that Morris’s affection for Catherine is absolutely genuine . . . until she meets Catherine, the shy, unassuming, and awkward Catherine. Then she too cannot quite understand how Morris has fallen in love with such a seemingly weak-willed and plain girl: “I can only suppose that Morris is more mature in his feelings than I thought.” But her concern — her doubt — is right there on her face, and Dr. Sloper sees it.

“Tell me she is not a victim of his selfishness. Tell me I am wrong.” She simply says she must go.

It’s upsetting that Dr. Sloper’s doubts threaten to poison a beautiful romance. It’s more upsetting when we also start to honestly admit that he might be right and we start to question what we’ve seen budding, when we allow doubt to strip away the beauty of the romance we’ve witnessed. When the doctor talks, he makes sense. Morris — even in the parts of the film we saw and loved — starts to appear too eager, too generous with his praise, too honest, even, about what her father thinks of him: “He may feel that I’m a mercenary. It’s from the fact of you having money that our difficulties may come.”

And what a tremendous film this sets up! Catherine proclaims, “It’s a great wonder to me that Morris has come into my life.” She says this beaming, because here she actually means it’s wonderful. But she also means it’s baffling, that it’s a cause of wonder. She must feel this every time doubt slips in.

It’s a cause of wonder for others too. Her father’s concerns seep out even to the loving aunts, who start to pity Catherine rather than find joy for her. Look at this still. Morris is about to visit Dr. Sloper and Catherine says that, because he knows her so well, perhaps Dr. Sloper can say a good thing or two about her, that it won’t be bragging if he’s the one who says it. Look how Wyler frames this shot, with Catherine’s excitement, which took a lot for her to muster up since she didn’t think she deserved it, and her father and two aunts looking at her, saying nothing, concerned, sad, uncertain how to proceed.

And this is all just the start of the film. There are so many questions going on here, and multiple layers to the characters. Everyone’s motives are called into question, the good and the bad of each action comes into play. Dr. Sloper can say he has Catherine’s interests at heart, but does her father care for her feelings at all? He ponders, “How is it possible to protect such a willing victim.” There is a battle of wills here, and it is not just between Dr. Sloper and Morris.

Dr. Sloper’s protection is cruel and unfaithful and completely antithetical to mattes of the heart. But if you believe him, it is possible to consider that he is doing the right thing. It’s often possible to excuse cruelty, see it as brutal honest, a necessary evil to growth and self-preservation. But even if he’s right, that doesn’t mean preventing a deception leaves everyone unscathed.

Is Morris the one who will save her from her cruel father? And if so, there is still damage. Will she start to resent him if she abandons her wealth for him? Can he forgive himself if she sacrifices so much of her security just to be with him, a man without a substantial foundation? Should he be cruel, too, and make the decision for her?

Is Aunt Lavinia’s encouragement healthy? Is she innocently setting up a tragedy?

And what of Catherine herself? With so many people pushing and pulling, what can she do to assert her own desires, her own choice to accept or abandon?

Throughout the film, Aaron Copland’s score picks up Jean-Paul-Égide Martini’s 1784 classical French song “Plaisir d’amour,” which says,

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment
Chagrin d’amour dure tout la vie


The joys of love last only a moment
The pains of love last a lifetime

Though there’s stiff competition (a great edition of Notorious, Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, and Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother), The Heiress is my favorite Criterion release of the year so far. It’s remarkable and I highly recommend picking it up.

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