Olivia de Havilland gave many excellent performances throughout her lengthy career, but The Heiress just might be her finest hour. As a rich, insecure spinster dominated by her brusque father (Ralph Richardson) and romanced by a dashing bon vivant (Montgomery Clift) who might be a manipulative mercenary, she’s both admirable and heartbreaking. Director William Wyler’s elegant film stands as one of the best adaptations of a Henry James book, and Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation honors it with strong video and audio transfers and an array of fascinating supplements. Highly Recommended.
The ache of loneliness and insecurity can be worse than any physical pain. We’ve all felt it - some far more than others - and its crippling effects can be oh-so-difficult to overcome. Capturing such internal strife and subtly conveying its devastating effects is challenging enough on paper, but even more daunting on film, where the slightest misstep can irrevocably alter the mood of an entire production. Few authors explore the internal psyches of their tortured subjects in as much tedious detail as Henry James, and few directors possess the talent to depict such delicate yet complex nuances of character better than William Wyler. Whether helming a topical domestic drama like The Best Years of Our Lives, a sprawling western like The Big Country, a lavish musical biopic like Funny Girl, or a bombastic Biblical epic like Ben-Hur, Wyler always favors interpersonal conflict over cinematic sweep and style, and his pictures remain all the better because of that perspective. The Heiress, brilliantly adapted from both James’ novel Washington Square and a 1947 stage play modeled after it, is one of his finest films, and it only gets better with subsequent viewings.
Don’t let its quiet presentation, languorous pacing, and stiff depiction of New York City society in 1850 fool you. The Heiress is an explosive drama built on dysfunctional relationships that seethe with underlying, unspoken tension. Like a sheet of thin ice, they're so cold and brittle they can snap at a moment’s notice, splintering and shattering because of a cutting remark or perceived betrayal. Not until the movie’s final moments does anyone raise their voice, but the internal shouting that emanates from the repressed soul of Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) and her frosty, bitter, yet always decorous father Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is all but deafening. Some say silence is golden, but here it’s an insidious cancer that nearly sucks the life out of a privileged yet repressed woman who’s cruelly manipulated by the two men she loves most.
Catherine suffers from painful shyness and a lack of confidence that are fueled by her domineering and disdainful father who ceaselessly compares her to her far more beautiful, outgoing, and socially adept mother, who died giving birth to her. Though he never says it outright, it's clear Dr. Sloper resents Catherine because she indirectly caused his beloved wife’s death, and as a result, he quietly yet systematically crushes her self-esteem at every turn. The two live a sheltered existence in a lavish townhouse on New York City’s tony Washington Square along with Dr. Sloper’s widowed, flighty sister, Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), a hopeless romantic whose sole mission seems to be getting Catherine married off to an appropriate suitor.
No one, though, is good enough for Catherine, at least not in Dr. Sloper’s prejudiced eyes...especially not Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a dapper dandy of questionable lineage. Catherine strikes Morris’ fancy at an elegant party and instantly falls for him like a naïve schoolgirl. Yet Dr. Sloper is suspicious of Morris’ intentions, believing him to be a grasping social climber and mercenary who seeks to take advantage of the vulnerable Catherine and become the eventual lord of her lucrative manor. Catherine can’t believe Morris’ intensions are anything but honorable and that his fervor isn’t born from love, so of course her father’s blunt assessment that there could be no other reason for Morris’ attentions hurts her deeply.
Dr. Sloper so dislikes Morris and so desperately wishes to exert control over Catherine, he threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries him. Yet in a rare display of defiance, Catherine calls her father's bluff and forges ahead, arranging a hasty, secret elopement with her handsome lover. Money means nothing to Catherine; Morris is all that matters. Unfortunately, her plan hits a major snag, and the resulting fallout affects everyone involved for years to come.
The story of The Heiress is a simple one, but what makes the tale endlessly fascinating are the ambiguities that define all the characters and muddy their motivations. Catherine evolves and matures as the narrative progresses, but the changes, depending on one’s outlook, may not all be positive. Betrayal and deceit often breed cynicism and mistrust, elements that cloud Catherine’s burgeoning strength and independence. Dr. Sloper seems to love his daughter very much in his own imperious and arrogant manner, but does his concern about Morris’ fitness as a mate stem from worry about Catherine’s well-being or fear of a blemish on the family name and potential financial ruin? Lavinia believes love should and will conquer all, and feels Morris may be Catherine’s only chance to find even a semblance of happiness, but is Lavinia also blinded by his good looks and charm...so much so that she becomes a willing co-conspirator?
But wait. Is Morris a conspirator at all? Just because he's devastatingly handsome, delightfully affable, and lives far beyond his limited means doesn’t necessarily mean he’s only after the rich, retiring, trepidatious, somewhat plain and dull Catherine for her money. Or does it? Is he so greedy and small-minded he can’t possess genuine feelings for such a sensitive, warm-hearted, emotionally fragile person? Morris is by far the film’s most controversial character, and the constant speculation swirling about him lends the story welcome intrigue and complexity. Clift, in only his third movie yet already a potent cinematic presence, is one of the few Hollywood actors of his day who could properly shade such a difficult, pivotal role. Just when we think we’ve got Morris figured out, Clift throws us a curveball that forces us to doubt our impressions. The brilliant final shot of him is a portrait of intensity and desperation that would foreshadow his superior work two years later in the finest film he ever made, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun. (Please secure the rights to that masterpiece, Criterion! We’ve waited far too long for its Blu-ray debut.)
As good as Clift is, however, he can never steal focus from the divine De Havilland, who was justly rewarded with her second Best Actress Oscar for her understated, often heartbreaking portrayal. Though her turn as the equally homely yet steely-willed Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind no doubt prepared her to play Catherine, the intervening decade between the two parts allowed de Havilland to further hone her skills. The result is a performance of admirable restraint that still brims with a fierceness and power only the most accomplished actresses can pull off.
Richardson, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination, makes a formidable foil. His line readings drip with thinly veiled disapproval and disappointment as he manipulates poor Catherine like a master puppeteer. It’s a completely despicable yet altogether captivating piece of work, and the film wouldn't be nearly as good without it. Wyler favorite Miriam Hopkins also excels as Lavinia, bringing some fresh air into the stuffy Sloper residence.
An impeccable craftsman, Wyler lives up to his reputation here. The Heiress may lack the flash and scope of some of his other movies, but the attention to historical detail is top-notch (the film won Academy Awards for both its art direction/set decoration and Edith Head’s costumes), the mood he creates is compelling, and the delicate manner in which he tells this layered, textured tale is masterful. Wyler was always a less-is-more director, and no better example of his abilities in that regard exists than The Heiress. Though he would lose the Best Director Oscar to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives, Wyler nevertheless creates a motion picture of lasting impact that searingly depicts how life can disillusion and harden even the most trusting and soft-hearted souls.
Oppression, deceit, and latent sadism permeate The Heiress, often making it uncomfortable to watch, yet when viewed through a 21st century lens, the film is strangely empowering and uplifting. While we may feel sorry in some ways for Catherine as the film draws to a close, it’s impossible not to admire her, too. Taking control of one’s life and becoming self-reliant isn’t easy in any era, but it must have been especially difficult for a woman in the mid-19th century. The story’s whiff of feminism surely was an anomaly when James wrote his novel in 1880 - and still was in 1949 when the movie was released - but the scent is much stronger and more fragrant today, and it makes The Heiress an even richer experience 70 years later. Catherine may have been abused by the men in her life, but she survives the ordeal and rises above it. That's a message well worth repeating, and The Heiress is a film well worth watching over and over again.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Heiress arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 16-page, fold-out booklet featuring an essay by film critic Pamela Hutchinson, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. (Sadly, no photos from the film are included.) The video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and the audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, “this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution...from a 35 mm duplicate negative.” The results are quite pleasing, but not as stunning as fans of the film might have hoped. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presentation is a tad heavy on grain, which complements the picture's period feel, but diffuses clarity somewhat. Leo Tover’s Oscar-nominated cinematography still looks great, however, thanks to deep blacks and nicely varied grays that heighten detail levels and enhance depth. Close-ups appear sharp and showcase fine facial features, shadow delineation is good, and no nicks, marks, or scratches mar the pristine source material. Though this rendering certainly outclasses any previous home video transfer of The Heiress, it falls just short of expectations.
The LPCM mono track, which was restored in 2006 and sourced from a “35 mm up/down variable-density optical soundtrack positive,” sounds quite good. Composer Aaron Copland won an Oscar for his romantic period score, and a wide dynamic scale gives his music plenty of room to breathe on both the high and low ends. Dialogue is clear and well prioritized, and subtle atmospherics nicely caress the action. The Heiress is largely a quiet, intimate film, and thankfully no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude during pregnant pauses or whispered exchanges. Though the audio doesn’t make a statement, its seamless integration into the film’s fabric makes it all the more impressive.
An excellent supplemental package enhances this release. Though an audio commentary is once again lacking, an array of vintage material helps compensate for the omission.
Analytical Featurette (HD, 23 minutes) - Screenwriter Jay Cocks and film critic Farran Smith Nehme sit down to discuss various aspects of The Heiress and its adaptation. The duo compares and contrasts Henry James’ original novel and the 1947 stage play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz with Wyler’s film version, debates Catherine’s fateful decision at the movie’s climax, and addresses the ambiguity of Clift’s character. They also cite similarities to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (also set in New York City during the same timeframe), analyze all the major characters, and praise the work of Wyler, De Havilland, Clift, and Richardson. This is an absorbing and enlightening tête-à-tête that any fan of the film will find fascinating.
Vintage Television Excerpt: The Merv Griffin Show (HD, 17 minutes) - The legendary talk show host saluted Wyler on a 1973 edition of his daily program. Flanked by guests Walter Pidgeon, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland (who memorably describes the relationship between a talented actress and director as “the next best thing to sex”), Griffin briefly interviews a modest and charming Wyler about his life and career during the excerpt’s final segment.
Vintage TV Clip: AFI Salute to William Wyler (HD, 6 minutes) - A grateful Wyler accepts the 1976 American Film Institute Life Achievement Award with a touching and humorous speech. It’s just a shame the tribute could not be presented here in its entirety.
Vintage Olivia de Havilland Interview (HD, 45 minutes) - This lively and engaging two-part interview from 1986 allows De Havilland the chance to reflect on some of her favorite roles, share some anecdotes, provide impressions of co-stars and directors, and outline her landmark court case that led to the abolishment of penalty clauses in long-term movie industry contracts.
Vintage Interview with Ralph Richardson (HD, 7 minutes) - Taken from an interview Richardson did for the 1981 PBS documentary Directed by William Wyler, this excerpt gives Richardson the opportunity to celebrate his “endearing and enduring friendship” with Wyler, express his admiration for his talent, and share some memories of his time making The Heiress.
Vintage Short Film: The Costume Designer (HD, 9 minutes) - This 1950 one-reel short subject never mentions Edith Head by name, but features her prominently as it chronicles the work of a costume designer from pre-production through the completion of shooting.
Interview with Larry McQueen (HD, 15 minutes) - The noted costume collector and historian salutes designer Edith Head and analyzes the costumes she devised for The Heiress. He also shows off one of the dresses from The Heiress from his personal collection.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film’s original preview highlights “the distinguished cast” of The Heiress and the directorial talents of William Wyler.
If you think Henry James can be dry and dull, then you probably haven’t seen The Heiress. Director William Wyler’s impeccable adaptation of the author’s novel Washington Square focuses on a painfully shy spinster’s fraught relationships with two men - her brilliant, aloof, often critical father and a dashing suitor who may or may not be after her fortune. Olivia de Havilland won her second Best Actress Oscar for her restrained yet powerful portrayal of the title character, and Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, and Miriam Hopkins all provide exceptional support. Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation features a newly minted 4K transfer, lossless audio, and plenty of rare supplements. The Heiress is a classy, literate, absorbing, and beautifully photographed film that immerses us in a bygone age and examines delicate relationships with maturity and insight. It comes very highly recommended.