Montgomery Clift is said to have worried during the making of "The Heiress" that his performance as Morris Townsend was too "modern" (that is, too out of step with the classical performances of Ralph Richardson and Olivia de Havilland). I am not sure he was right, though watching the film I think (I think) I see what he means. Perhaps costume melodrama was simply not Clift's forte.
Still, he is wonderful to watch. I would argue that though his character comes across as callow and slightly off-balance, he is supposed to: Morris is a social outsider. He is also quite spoiled and used to getting by on his considerable charm and dazzling youthful beauty. And Clift brings just enough ambiguity to the role that in the shattering final scene, as he pleads and pounds at that locked door, we can't help feeling some pity for Morris. His high-flown dreams and expectations are disintegrating before his eyes.
As the wily Dr. Sloper, Richardson is brilliant in his cold and autocratic cruelty. Miriam Hopkins is touching as the rather ditzy, hopeless romantic Aunt Lavinia. She is so eager for Catherine's happiness and so charmed by the charismatic Morris that she allows him to make her a (mostly unwitting) partner in his maneuverings. In the end, Lavinia is very nearly as shattered as Catherine by his deception.
All that said, "The Heiress" belongs to the marvelous de Havilland. She is heartbreaking in her shy naiveté and breathless hope in the first part of the film and majestic in her bitterness--as cold and unreachable as her father--by the film's climactic end.
Excellent! This was such a sad, intense and heart-breaking film. And Montgomery Clift was so good looking!!! Olivia deserved her Oscar for this performance.
Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar playing mousy spinster Catherine Sloper in William Wyler’s beautiful adaptation of a play based on Henry James’ novel “Washington Square”. In a swank New York neighbourhood circa 1850s successful widower Dr. Austin Sloper (Oscar nominee Ralph Richardson) is doing his best to marry off his daughter Catherine. But years of being unjustly compared to her mother, a woman whose memory Dr. Sloper worships, has left the aging Catherine painfully timid and socially awkward much to her father’s disappointment. Things change one evening at a society dance when the reluctant debutante meets the dashing but penniless Morris Townsend (an unconvincing Montgomery Clift) who takes an instant liking to her. Flattered beyond words by Morris’ amorous attentions Catherine experiences love for the first time in her life—a development which thrills her romantic airhead Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins, superb) but leaves her highly judgmental father cold as he naturally suspects Morris of being more interested in his daughter’s dowry than her personality. When all his attempts to discourage the relationship fail Dr. Sloper threatens to disinherit Catherine and this single proclamation will prove to be the catalyst which changes her life forever. A brilliant script laced with humour and tragedy is further enhanced by a compassionate orchestral score and tight B&W cinematography which transforms the Sloper’s opulent brownstone into a psychological prison as images of lacy drapes and sunshine conflict with nighttime scenes of empty staircases and feeble lamplight. But this is above all a character-driven film and the interplay between Richardson and de Havilland as implacable father and daughter, with Hopkins and Clift providing counterbalance, is as engrossing as it is heartbreaking. One of Wyler’s finest achievements.
Wonderful performances and compelling story. Modern tale of subtle psychological child abuse and its consequences. Great adaptation of a Henry James story --- William Wyler amazing as usual. Enjoy!
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