21 September 2014

The Heiress: A Shocking Tale of Cruelty and an Inspiring Tale of Growth

"She saw that the people of this world moved about in an armor of egotism, drunk with self-gazing, athirst for compliments, hearing little of what was said to them, unmoved by the accidents that befell their closest friends, in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires.” - From The Bridge or San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder


The Heiress (1949). It is in some ways shocking. Such mannered cruelty directed towards a decent young woman. A cold distant father who thinks more of his late wife than his daughter. Much more. He is a wealthy doctor who by occupation cares for fellow humans but cannot bestow upon his own progeny much more than contempt -- albeit cloaked in the good manners of his day.

It is mid 19th century New York. The prominent doctor, one Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) is a man of perhaps 50 years. His kindness is part of the social graces of his day and place and station. The daughter Catherine Sloper (Oliva De Havilland) is socially awkward painfully shy and seemingly without suitors. There is her aunt too (Miriam Hopkins) a widow who is solicitous of both Catherine and the doctor. She wants nothing more than for everyone to be happy and for everything to work out well for all concerned. Absent cynicism and ego she flits around trying to please.

Then along comes a young man one Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). He is handsome glib charming and seemingly very much in love with Catherine who is most certainly very much in love with him. The good doctor does not approve of their plans to marry. He sees in Morris a fortune hunter. A man who has squandered his inheritance has no prospects and surely must see in Catherine only the $30,000 a year (then a princely sum) that she is heir too. Why else, the doctor concludes, would such a charmer fall for his dull daughter whose only talent lies in embroidery.

It's a fascinating movie. Director William Wyler made some very good movies but I consider this his best work. The framing of some shots are reminiscent of the best of John Ford. This is particularly so either when two people are talking or it is dramatic moment or when the two -- as they often do -- meet. Wyler was also known to coax great performances out of actors and De Havilland's Oscar winning turn here is a prime example of that. Richardson received a nomination for supporting actor and it was well deserved. He may be the best actor too many people have never heard of. He does more with an inflection or his eyebrows than most actors do with a soliloquy.

The Heiress would all be rather sad if it weren't for the manner in which Catherine responds. Particularly in light of her father's cruel assessment of her in which he sites only embroidery as being among her gifts. For in life we cannot always control what happens to us but we can control how we respond to it. Catherine could have folded. I was expecting that she might plunge into despair or be enveloped by insanity or compromise herself. But she grew. She grew a backbone and became resilient and knew herself. Despite the ill treatment she suffered, Catherine became a strong confident woman who would not be taken in by easy charms. She was a feminist.

De Havilland reportedly lobbied for the role quite aggressively after seeing the stage play. Indeed she did so at the intermission of her initial viewing of it. She evidently saw a meaty role and one that she was ideally suited for. It is remarkable to see Catherine's subtle changes along the way to becoming the fully realized woman she is by the end of the film. The power with which she rejects Townsend's attempt at reconciliation, especially in light of the way she toys with him first is powerful cinema in itself. Her father -- who saw through Townsend and threatened to cut her off if she married him -- has died and the fortune is hers. Townsend had initially abandoned her when he realized that his courtship of Catherine would not yield financial security. But now he is back slick patter and all. But Catherine is a little older and infinitely wiser. Battered by her father's cold cruelty and horribly stung by Townsend's sudden departure for the West on their elopement night, she is no longer an innocent. She is a confident singular woman who will not be hurt or taken in by any man.

At the end of the film there is a magnificent shot of Catherine ascending the long stairway of her New York home candles in hand and a small confident smile on her face. Meanwhile Townsend is banging fruitless at the bolted front door calling her name over and over. Catherine, once so shy and demure, once the victim of a thoughtless father, once easy prey to a charmer, is now a strong confident woman who neither needs nor will let herself be hurt by something so insignificant as a man.

Yesterday was my first viewing of The Heiress. Amazing that so fine a film escaped for so many years. But oh what a blessing to have discovered it at last.

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