‘The Heiress’ or — Family Fortunes?

(No plot spoilers but maybe some regarding themes and character motivation)

William Wyler’s ‘The Heiress’ (1949) tells the story of Catherine Sloper. She is a shy, plain young woman with a permanent look of surprise on her brow regarding life, as though she’s being continually brought into existence on a second by second basis. Her widowed father and aunt would love nothing more than for a decent man, or any man for that matter, to whisk her off her delicate little feet for his bride. Yet who would want this pathetic creature? Never mind — look, here comes a dashing young chap called Morris who looks just like Montgomery Clift and not only could Morris have virtually any woman in New York because he looks like Montgomery Clift but he has fallen madly in love with Catherine… at first sight… and knowing nothing about her other than she’s going to inherit a vast fortune when her father dies. Isn’t it all just wonderful? Under such circumstances, what could possibly go wrong?!

What is great about ‘The Heiress’ (“suggested” by Henry James’ novel ‘Washington Square’) is the ambiguity and I mean “ambiguity” in the sense that we know exactly what’s going on even if it can be interpreted a million different ways. Because this is a film driven by suspicion you see, and nobody is more suspicious than Catherine’s father, but what is driving HIS suspicion? It’s not long before we realise that it’s got less to do with Morris’ possibly shady character and more to do with how he sees his own daughter. Why would anyone, not just a possible cad, be interested in HER? And if you think that’s a terrible thing for a father to think about his daughter just wait until he tells Catherine how he genuinely feels about her — it’s one of the most hurtful things a parent has said to their own child in a movie. This is a very easy man to hate. No wonder the poor girl has no confidence.

The stroke of genius of the device of the father’s suspicion in ‘The Heiress’ means that we, also, start watching Morris like a hawk and our attention is utterly commanded by what’s going on on-screen. We focus on every move and gesture Morris makes, looking for the slightest sign, the merest of slips that could give him and his intentions away. Sure, why don’t you just help yourself to that drink, Morris… oh, and take a cigar while you’re at it. Make yourself at home! We’ve got our eye on you, buster.

Yet it is infuriating as hell as nothing concrete is given away and is simply a matter of interpretation rather than evidence. It’s not that Morris makes himself at home but that he does so a little too easily; it’s not that he helps himself to a cigar but how he causally tosses the ring on the carpet. Is it a lack of manners? Or does he think he (or soon will) owns the place?

Or maybe we should cut the guy some slack and commit the cardinal sin concerning love and risk introducing a little pragmatism here (William James was Henry’s brother, after all). Even if Morris is only interested in Catherine’s money, is that such a bad thing? Catherine’s aunt doesn’t seem to think so, even if she is romantic to the point of complete delusion. And even the most severe reading of Morris’ character still makes him preferable to her own father, a man so self-contained he allows only himself to listen to his own heart and when he does he realises it is utterly rotten. Hell, maybe Morris might help Catherine actually enjoy her money. It would be more exciting than all that needlework.

And what of Catherine herself? The danger here is she might be inheriting more from her father than just his cash. This could be about the heredity of resentment; that that is what she is the real heiress to. It’s not her father’s money that’s been bequeathed to her but his decaying heart.

Or is she simply toughening up? Of finally standing up for herself? This is why the ending can be read with so many different variations. Look at it this way –

At the end Morris is either genuinely in love with Catherine, genuinely in love with her money or genuinely in love with both. Catherine is either liberating herself from abusive men, acting out of sadistic vengeance or reverting into a deluded world of emotional denial. This gives, at the very least, around nine (?), nine possible combinations of interpreting that final shot. It’s like one of those optical illusions that keeps changing every time you think you know what it is or that you can make pop into a different definition by will alone.

Of course, this subtlety exists because of the acting and directing, all of which are astonishing. Look at the way Clift seduces de Havilland and the magnetic push and pull between the two of them. Have you ever seen a man glide into a woman’s space so keenly without touching her and have you ever seen a woman pull away but every retreat declaring — “For goodness sake, just take me!”? There’s a name for it and it’s called “sexual tension”. Both actors are incredible, even if everyone is upstaged by Ralph Richardson’s nasty-hearted father.

William Wyler’s directing is perfect with a feeling that’s both suitably old-fashioned and oddly modern. Indeed, what with the use of silky smooth camera moves, mirrors, a chambering of space and time, the black and white cinematography, a house representing psychological dimensions along with Montgomery Clift’s slightly anachronistic hair it’s a bit like watching ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ starring Cliff Richard, but in a good way. Visually the film looks incredible. Add onto that a lushly orchestrated score by Aaron Copland and a script that’s brimming with humour, drama, lust, acidic putdowns, social commentary and devastating cruelty and what’s not to love? Apart from maybe our fellow human beings?

‘The Heiress’ is fantastic and despite the apparent heavy nature of all the above is never anything less than entertaining and a blast to watch.

Oh, and how do I feel about Morris and his intentions? I have a very definite view of the man. Although what was it, for me, that gave him away? What was his slip? Simple — the moustache. He should never have returned with it as it spoke volumes for what he must have been up to. Or maybe I’m just being overly suspicious.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.