The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

There’re so many little, seemingly throwaway things going on here that make this story of 19th century courtship and deceit so much more real than it ought to be. Things like Montgomery Clift fumbling with his pen before writing something in his faux date book when he first meets the plain doctor’s daughter Catherine, or awkwardly coughing before serenading her on the piano, or the way Olivia de Havilland’s hands are fumbling and dancing all over the place with nervous energy as her Catherine is unexpectedly courted and receives words of passion for the first time in her life, or stares off into space when she returns Morris’ declaration of love – again, seemingly for the first time in her life – or how Ralph Richardson simply stirs his tea calmly yet intently, quietly enraged that his daughter has innocently fallen head over heals for a man he claims is no more than a penniless fortune hunter. In fact, it’s that quiet, inward rage that his daughter’s suitor can’t provide the ever-important $30k a year, and petty need for possession, and arguably a forbidden sexual tension not unlike the one displayed by, say, Judy’s father in “Rebel Without a Cause”, by Ralph Richardson’s Dr. Austin Sloper, along with a general expectation of a woman’s submissiveness in the face of a providing husband being more important than a little something called love, that ruins de Havilland’s Catherine. And her transformation about halfway through this film, seemingly at the snap of a finger, is downright startling. Her sexual and communicative innocence when we meet her is almost too much to bear, but her reaction to the charms of Clift’s Morris Townsend are so incredibly believable as a result – we absolutely expect her to dive headlong in accepting his advances with both surprise and humility and childlike exuberance. Perhaps the sudden change in character is to the film’s detriment and takes away from the realism of it all, but it’s still nearly terrifying in how absolute it is, how her father and her role and expectation as a wealthy young woman ripe to taken away by an equally wealthy provider and the perceptions of her father and society in general towards men like Morris who dare to be poor, turn her into a jaded, cynical, humorless, stone-cold monster. It’s both sad and frightening, and de Havilland essentially plays a dual role in the same character’s body to pull it off. In a film that initially gives off the impression of a nice romance between a charming young man and an innocent, childlike woman beating the odds, men like Dr. Sloper and settings like 19th century aristocratic New York are there to throw a bucket of cold water in our faces, and the face of a young woman who would never be the same.


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