‘The Heiress,’ a quasi-tragic, 1840s New York love story
Directed by William Wyler
Written by Augustus and Ruth Goetz
Starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson
USA, 115 min – 1949.
William Wyler’s The Heiress tells the quasi-tragic story of Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), a plain-jane, Gilded Age heiress, who’s naiveté leads her into a courtship, with fortune-hunter, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). Seeing the truth behind Morris’s charm, Catherine’s father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), forbids the match. Catherine must then choose between the loyalty of her father and her love for Morris.
The Heiress focuses more on the relationships between its characters than it does on plot. First is the exploration of Catherine and Dr. Sloper. A lot of Catherine’s naive, nervous personality comes, as a result of Dr. Sloper’s upbringing. He constantly compares Catherine to her deceased mother (who died giving birth to her), outwardly stating that Catherine is a disappointment to him. Catherine’s inability to be the properly mannered, physically beautiful woman, expected of 1840s New York society strains this filial relationship. Whatever kindness Dr. Sloper shows Catherine is always tinged with the knowledge that she will never be perfect.
When Morris appears, he capitalizes on this knowledge. Morris challenges Catherine to make her own choices and builds her confidence. He treats her as a person and not as a pale comparison of her mother. Catherine’s unloved character falls for Morris’s charm and the way he makes her feel whole. There has been lots of discussion on whether or not Morris truly wants Catherine for money. Montgomery Clift supposedly plays Morris ‘ambiguously.’ The side of this argument that we find ourselves on depends on whether we are rooting for Catherine or understand her father’s objections.
The final scene of The Heiress should end this argument. Morris remains the same desperate man, after he returns to New York, several years later. Catherine, however, has evolved into a woman, who can tell the difference between lies and the truth. She is bitter, hardened by the wrongs done to her, much like her father was earlier in the film. This alters the relationship dynamic between her and Morris. Catherine no longer needs Morris to feel confident; she has agency.
The Heiress is a classical hollywood film that does not finish with a stereotypical, ‘happy ending.’ Ironically, that is the film’s strength. The Heiress does not force its characters into unbelievable situations. It allows them – particularly Catherine and Morris – to come full circle in their desires. Morris’s charm is later plagued by hardship and desperation, further suggesting the falseness of his affections. Catherine’s bitterness is tragic, but also what permits her embarrassing revenge on Morris. That act sets Catherine free.