Monday, 18 January 2010
The Heiress (1949) dir. William Wyler
Starring: Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson
By Alan Bacchus
The story of a frumpy spinster and wealthy Heiress, unlucky in love, finds her soul mate in penniless gentleman and fights to keep him against the wishes of her controlling and oppressive father, would seem like ripe material for a triumph of love over money. William Wyler’s adaptation of Augustus Goetz’ play, itself a refashioning of Henry James’ Washington Square is one of the most unexpectedly cynical takes romance in studio Hollywood.
It's the story of love from the angle of the courtship ritual - in this case the Victorian way - a brutal class system transported to America fits like a square peg in a round hole. Olivia De Havilland, one of the most radiant movie stars to ever grace our screens plays the dowdy, shy, and believe it or not, unattractive spinster Catherine Sloper. She's the heiress to a family fortune, but only if she can find a husband to marry. Her knight in shining armour appears to her at a party, a polite gentleman, Mr. Townsend (Clift) who courts her adhering to all the rules of the Victorian aristocracy. It’s a very specific procedure, articulately with precision by Wyler, of dance, calling upon, formal greetings, and most importantly paternal approval.
Ralph Richardson plays the father, a successful and wealthy doctor with a very doubting eye. He’s characterized early as an oppressive figure with expectations too high but in general disappointed in his daughter’s inability to fit into the social culture of his 'class'. While he can be a complete shit and disrespectful at times we do feel he has his daughter’s best interests. And so for much of the film he walks a fine line between fatherly and overprotective.
Montgomery Clift plays Townsend with his usual sympathy. He pours out his love for Catherine so quickly. It’s romantic and honourable until Catherine’s father starts poking holes in his character. And the judge of character were never more important in this society, as tender as currency back in these days.
Old man Sloper approaches his suspicions of Mr. Townsend like he’s diagnosing an illness. Through his conversations at tea and dinner and meetings with his family he slowly sands off the lustre of his charm and find a potentially nefarious motives.
But what it ultimately comes down to is his contempt for his own daughter, feeling that they only thing she has to offer is her money. By the midpoint, we’re kept in the dark as to whether Townsend is genuine and whether the love between the two can surmount Sloper’s obstructions. Is Townsend a golddigger? Or does truly love her?
Admittedly I expected, up until the very end studio Hollywood optimism would prevail, and so when the carpet is pulled out from under Catherine, it’s a sharp jolt to us, the audience, as well. Wyler completes a dark and pessimistic character arc for Catherine, the stuff of great tragedy. Of course, if I had read Henry James, I wouldn’t have had this expectation. And so the ability of Wyler and Fox to tread such dark territory and fool me to easily is admirable.