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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: The Heiress

To Love and Be Loved

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: October 6, 1949 – U.S. 
(NY)
Rating: Approved
Genre: Romance, Drama
Running Time: 115 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz 
(script and play), Henry James (novel)
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, 
Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, 
Miriam Hopkins


Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a sweet girl but painfully shy. Despite the help of her aunt, Levinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins), she is hopelessly awkward in social situations – more comfortable knitting ornate embroideries than carrying on conversations. This naturally raises the ire of her cold, judgmental father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). He has unrealistic memories of his "perfect" late wife, which his timid wallflower of a daughter is unable to measure up to. Therefore, when she captures the interest of a man, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), her father is immediately suspicious.

He has every reason to be, of course.

Catherine is an heiress who has inherited a considerable fortune. Could that, not love, be the source of Mr. Townsend's interest?

Aunt Penniman encourages the union regardless. She understands a life without love – having lost her own husband, The Reverend Penniman – and she doesn't want the same for Catherine. After all, is it even possible to recognize true love when it comes, and should it matter either way if she's happy?

"The Heiress" could never work as a radio production because its elegant dialogue seems to give very little away – at least initially (multiple viewings reveal quite a bit of foreshadowing and character development). Set in the 1800s, every character in the movie speaks with the poise and charm of a true gentleman or lady of that time period. Only through facial expressions and body language do their actual feelings and motivations begin to emerge. The performances are masterful all around.

Because of that, a viewer who is attentive enough will be able to remain several steps ahead of Catherine, Morris, Dr. Sloper, and Aunt Penniman.

It comes as no surprise that de Havilland was awarded a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actress. Richardson also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and the film was given a slew of other nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) and wins. It is an actors' showcase and should be required viewing for every aspiring star and starlet.

There are a couple of moments in the movie that seem overly stagey, but considering that it was originally conceived as a play (written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on the novel Washington Square by Henry James), that's understandable.

The final five minutes, which I won't give away, features one of the greatest lines in cinematic history.

I've seen "The Heiress" many times – both as a film and on stage – and every time I do, I pick up new characteristics and subtleties. Like the embroideries that Catherine is so fond of knitting, the story weaves together a rich tapestry of emotions and events.  

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