Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Ruth Goetz, Augustus Goetz (based on their stage play)
Suggested by the Novel by: Henry James
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins
Country: USA
Running Time: 115 min
Year: 1949
BBFC Certificate: PG

I’ve never been much of a fan of period dramas. I tend to find them stuffy, dull and difficult to relate to. As such, I wasn’t desperately eager to watch William Wyler’s film The Heiress, which is a romantic drama set in the mid-1800s, when it was offered to me to review. However, impressive critical acclaim piqued my interest and, more than that, I was sold by the film’s star, Olivia de Havilland. Over the last 18 months or so I’ve reviewed three of her films, The Dark Mirror, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Snake Pit, and I’ve been greatly impressed by her every time. Previously I’d thought of her as merely the love interest/damsel in distress in Errol Flynn movies, or just ‘one of the actresses in Gone With the Wind’, but the challenging and complex roles I witnessed helped me realise how much of a powerhouse she was.

Finding out more about her career in the special features included in all of these releases also opened my eyes to her strength off-screen. Particularly notable was her historic court case against Warner Brothers, who tried to forcefully extend her contract beyond the agreed 7-year term. Unhappy with the weak roles being offered to her by the studio and furious that they wouldn’t let her leave to find better work after her 7 years was up, she took them to court and eventually won. Warner effectively blacklisted her with other studios soon after, keeping her out of work for nearly two years, but she came back with a vengeance, winning an Oscar with her first role following the gap, in To Each His Own. She kept up this standard for the rest of her career (though the few roles she took on in the 70s weren’t her best) and the court ruling helped reduce the power of the studios and give greater creative freedom to actors throughout Hollywood. The new legislation even became known as ‘The De Havilland Law’.

The Heiress saw de Havilland win her second Oscar for her portrayal of Catherine Sloper, the daughter of the wealthy Dr Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Awkward and socially inept, Catherine’s chances of meeting a suitable husband seem slim, much to the exasperation of her emotionally abusive father. He continually compares Catherine to her dead mother, who he has idolised in his memory to a degree no one could ever hope to contend with. Hope comes when Catherine meets the handsome and charming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) at a ball. He is kind and patient towards the shy young woman and soon seems to fall madly in love with her, calling upon the Sloper house regularly following the party. The couple’s relationship blossoms, much to the excitement of Catherine’s widowed aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) who lives with her.

However, when Morris soon proposes to Catherine, Austin refuses to approve the marriage. The doctor believes Morris is a gold digger with his eyes on Catherine’s great inheritance, as the young man is penniless after blowing his own inheritance on an extended holiday in Europe. Catherine, who is utterly besotted by Morris, wants to go ahead with the marriage regardless, but Morris’ true intentions are tested when Austin says he will cut his daughter off financially should she stay with the man.

It’s a simple premise on paper and indeed the film is a chamber piece, focusing on very few characters and rarely venturing far beyond the walls of the Sloper household. However, the writers (married couple Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who also wrote the original play which was based on ‘Washington Square’ by Henry James) and director William Wyler mine the concept for every psychological nuance and keep Morris’ nature ambiguous, to create a richly layered and intelligent film. I also appreciated how heart-wrenching and cruel the film got at times, helping brush off my worries that this would be another lifeless period piece.

Also aiding the nuance of the characters are the actors. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for de Havilland as an actress and here she delivers one of her finest performances. Catherine has a strong arc through the film, her character changing quite dramatically by the final act, and de Havilland expertly and believably portrays this without the need for the histrionics popular among many of her contemporaries. Richardson also brilliantly performs the role of the cold father who continually beats down his daughter without realising the damage he’s causing. Then you’ve got Clift, who is so charismatic and charming that you believe he loves Catherine, despite suggestions otherwise, so that revelations that follow become ever more heartbreaking and you’re never quite sure what would be best for the titular protagonist.

From a technical perspective, Wyler’s direction is quite low-key, eschewing attention-grabbing crane or dolly shots to focus on the characters themselves. Some fairly long takes are utilised to let the actors do their thing, but never in a showy way. The pace is kept steady too, allowing breathing room and reflection without feeling slow or tedious.

One visual aspect that does stand out are the costumes. The great Edith Head won her first of eight Oscars for her work as costume designer on The Heiress (shared with Gile Steele who designed the men’s wardrobes). On top of the lavish period detail in the dresses worn in the film, they perfectly capture the characters and their development throughout. The production design is also eye-catching and effective in creating the appropriate mood.

So, it goes without saying that The Heiress defied my expectations and gave me a Hollywood period drama that I loved. It’s superbly crafted with more subtlety than most similar films of the era. It has a couple of big show-stopping scenes, but they’re built to carefully and are never overplayed. With handsome costumes and production design, fairly understated direction and some beautifully layered characters and performances, it’s golden era Hollywood at its finest.

The Heiress is out on 17th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture is largely clean and detailed, though there are some very faint lines on-screen for much of the time that could be detected when projected on a big screen. Audio is solid though.

There’s a handful of special features included:

– New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– New conversation between screenwriter Jay Cocks and film critic Farran Smith Nehme
– New programme about the film’s costumes featuring costume collector and historian Larry McQueen
– The Costume Designer, a restored 1950 short film featuring costume designer Edith Head
– Appearance by actor Olivia de Havilland on a 1979 episode of The Paul Ryan Show
– Excerpts from a 1973 tribute to director William Wyler on The Merv Griffin Show, featuring Wyler, de Havilland, and actors Bette Davis and Walter Pidgeon
– Wyler’s acceptance speech from the American Film Institute’s 1976 Salute to William Wyler
– Interview with actor Ralph Richardson filmed in 1981 for the documentary Directed by William Wyler
– Trailer
– Plus: An essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson

It’s a shame there’s no commentary, but the Cocks and Nehme conversation provides a thoughtful analysis of the film and the interview with de Havilland, though a tad fluffy, is enjoyable and fairly substantial. I also appreciated the inclusion of the Merve Griffin clips, if only to see de Havilland bouncing off her friend, the great Bette Davis. It’s also refreshing to see the two pieces on Edith Head and costume design in general rather than simply focus on actors, directors and critique as usual. Other features are short but worth a watch.

Please note, the images used in this review are not indicative of the picture quality of the Blu-Ray.

The Heiress - Criterion Collection
4.5Overall Score
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