Directed by William Wyler (Ben-Hur, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights) in 1949, The Heiress is an adaptation of Henry James’ "Washington Square." More accurately, Wyler's feature drama is the film version of a stage adaptation, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from the James novel.
The film stars living Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper, an awkward woman who lives in a stately mansion in New York's Washington Square with her father, a rich doctor (played by the excellent Ralph Richardson). In this 1880s tale, Catherine is likely at or past the age when she should be married off, and so suitors come calling. One of them in particular is the outrageously handsome Morris Townsend (a very young Montgomery Clift; sadly, he died too early at age 45). Morris has everything going for him, it seems, except a career and any money to speak of. Except of course, that he's already gone through his small inheritence by traveling Europe.
Morris comes calling on Catherine, and they fall in love, but her father doesn't approve because of how the young man has squandered what he once had. These days, traveling and enjoying your life is more the norm than not, but back in the 1880s, life expectancy and societal expectations were much, much different. Going off to find yourself and see the world now doesn't cause the suspicions and raised eyebrows it sometimes did then.
Because the film was a bit different from both the source material and the play, Clift plays a more sympathetic character, and the audience is left to decide what to believe on the spectrum of ambiguity. I personally believe that the film is made stronger in this choice. And Clift was a marvel to watch; there aren't many actors with that kind of presence anymore.
Some saw this film as a "women's picture" and others saw it as a literary adaptation that stood as a serious piece of drama in its own right. This period piece relies heavily on its actors and writing, as well as the costume design and direction, of course. All pieces of the puzzle combine to make an excellent tale of psychological warfare and love lost --- and the resulting bitterness that ensues.
An arguement could be made that Catherine's refusal to let either her emotionally abusive father or a mercenary suitor control her, is feminist, especially for its time. Her independence comes at a high cost, however, and so are we, the audience, left in mourning for her losses.
If you like Hollywood award trivia, it's worth noting that The Heiress was nominated for several Academy Awards. The film did win a few, including Best Actress for de Havilland, Best Score, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design by Hollywood heavyweight, Edith Head. Richardson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Wyler for Best Director, and Leo Tover (The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sun Also Rises) for Best Cinematography.
The new 4K transfer is excellent, giving this release a beautiful picture with fine grain and wonderful sound. Depending on your interest level, the bonus features can be either fascinating or tedious. There's a very lengthy interview with de Havilland from the 1980s from a blurry TV show in which she recounts her life and career; I wish the picture hadn't been so degraded from 30+ years. The conversation between film critic Nehme and screenwriter Cocks was interesting, and the included essay by critic Hutchinson was very well written and illuminating. The short film about designer Head, made to play before films in the theatre back then, was a fun time capsule to watch.
Interested? You can read more on Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of The Heiress and order the disc (or choose a DVD version) on their website here.