Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Fifteen

15 heiress

#15 — The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

Technically, a period drama can be set in any past era, but the term immediately calls to mind a certain slice of the human timeline, long on corsets and stiff gatherings and short on electricity and rambunctiousness. In my informed but admittedly prejudiced view, a great many of these sorts of films are overly staid, buffed up with refinement and lacking in passion. The older the copyright date on the piece of cinema, the more likely my uncharitable prejudice is to be accurate, the confinements of still developing film stylings accentuating the already rigid, regimental narrative of classic fiction. My preemptive complaints are of course overly reductive, lumping every film with a mustiness to its air into a category of pronounced dullness. If nothing else, there are those works that sharply refute my generalization, and few do so with such ingenuity, insight, and panache as The Heiress.

Based on a stage play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, which itself is adapted from the Henry James novel Washington Square, the film focuses on a mousy young women in the New York City of the late eighteen-hundreds. Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) glumly sits at her well-appointed home, any overtures towards a life outside those walls — or anything approaching happiness, really — are met by the withering appraisal of her wealthy father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). In his painful assessment, Catherine is worthy of no one’s attention, and any thoughts she has that another might enjoy her company are tossed aside as delusional. That cruel conclusion persists, even when Catherine receives the attention of a handsome potential suitor, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). Certain of his daughter’s dire prospects, Dr. Sloper berates her for believing in the possibility of a loving life with this man who must only be after her fortune.

In some ways, the parameters of the story are familiar. It’s the execution that sets it apart. Under William Wyler’s astute gaze, the film proceeds with a cunning, unrelentingly truthful attention to the psychological underpinnings of all of the character, leaving a wonderful uncertainty to Morris’s motives and building a fully justified pathway to every pained and strained reaction of the different characters. Catherine is not merely a beset heroine, wrenching easy emotion from a troubling situation. She is a complicated person, the interactions with her father providing a traceable genealogy to every jagged chip in her being. The cast is exemplary all around, but de Havilland is doing something quietly majestic in her performance, building nuance and meticulous layering into the character, conveying a deep inner life just as assuredly as Clift and his method acting brethren did as they transformed the art of emoting to the camera. Without compromising the shrunken quality of her character, de Havilland invests her performance with the thrilling charisma of an actor who understands every bit of the task before her and carries the film forward because of it. With a lived-in characterization like this, The Heiress could never be a dusty museum relic. It’s as revolutionary as many of the more aggressively touted films that followed.

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