Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is nobody's idea of a catch, and in the strict social rules of America in the 1840s, she is too much the fish out of water in any situation that the vast majority would find part of everyday life. She leads a sheltered existence in Washington Square, rarely leaving the house as she is too timid, devoted to her doctor father, Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) who continually compares her to her deceased mother, and not flatteringly, either. Her only real support comes from her chatterbox Aunt Pennyman (Miriam Hopkins), a widow who continues to believe her niece just needs the right man to sweep her off her feet. But what chance is there of this ever happening?
Olivia de Havilland is often described as enjoying her own Golden Age of Hollywood, especially in the nineteen-forties where she won two Best Actress Oscars and winning some of the most impressive roles of any of her contemporaries. But it had not been all plain sailing: there had been a gap in her filmography in the middle of the decade, not because of the war, but because she had sued Warner Bros to get out of her contract, judged foolhardy at the time because she would be damned if she lost and equally if she won. But she did win, and had not been idle in those "lost" years, as she was planning a comeback which paid off in huge success as if she had never been away.
Yet as she discovered when she started filming The Heiress, although she had one Oscar under her belt, that was no guarantee of respect, despite her picking the project as an ideal vehicle for her talents. Her co-stars Richardson and Montgomery Clift (who had become a huge star with the Western Red River the previous year, his second film) did not think much of her, with Richardson doing his best to upstage her at every turn and Clift wondering what he was doing in a film with a woman he considered a lightweight. But Olivia had cannily chosen William Wyler as her director, a man who knew how to get the best out of his cast with the minimum of fuss and flashiness: he said, "I got your back" (or forties equivalent).
The result, for de Havilland, was her greatest performance, and one of the greatest performances in all of the "classic" era of Hollywood. Her Catherine is so burdened with the other people in her life not seeing any of her better qualities - her father, it turns out, doesn't believe she has any good qualities at all - that we immediately sympathise, since we in the audience perceive this woman has been so starved of affection or anyone who can treat her with understanding that she has been reduced to this meek mouse of a spinster. It is the star's double layered reading of the part that enables us to accept that her public face is frankly as a total loser, while we make out the sweet, painfully shy personality that would blossom should anyone simply give her a chance. Well, someone does, and it doesn't end the way you want it to.
The Heiress was celebrated for one of the most uncompromising endings in all this era of filmmaking, and it packs a hefty punch even today. Clift played Morris Townsend, a man she meets at a dance she has reluctantly attended where she is being neglected by the partygoers; we can see she would be perfectly attractive if anyone took a second look at her, but nobody does since she exudes awkwardness and hopelessness. Morris is different, he is handsome and charming and seems to genuinely like her, before long there is a whirlwind romance that is only stopped dead in its tracks by Austin. It's as if he is using his excuse that this suitor is simply after Catherine's fortune to dismiss him for he cannot accept anyone could ever love his daughter, she cannot live up to that romantic ideal he lost when his wife died. Everyone pitches this perfectly, Richardson's imperiousness tempered by his surface reason, Clift's ambiguity where you're never sure of his motives, or even if they matter (the Henry James novel and the play this was drawn from were less forgiving), but it was Olivia's film, and her eventual hardening of resolve is as chilling as it is tragic. For what was basically a chamber piece, The Heiress was electrifying in its emotional hold.
[This has been released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. Those features in full:
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
Plus: An essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson.]