Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


THE HEIRESS (1949). Director: William Wyler.

"Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters."

In Washington Square in turn of the century New York, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) falls for a fortune hunter, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) over the objections of her wealthy doctor father, Austin (Ralph Richardson). On that framework rests one of the finest films to come out of Hollywood, based loosely on Henry James' Washington Square. It's theme can be summed up in the words of the French song incorporated into the score by Aaron Copland, and which are sung at one point by Clift, to the effect that the joys of love are short but that love's pain lasts a lifetime. Along with pathos, the film has a degree of humor, evidenced by the character of Catherine's Aunt Lavinia (an outstanding Miriam Hopkins) who says "What I say isn't always of the greatest importance but that doesn't stop me from talking." [Much later an ill Austin says of his sister "I don't want [her] in my room at all -- unless I lapse into a coma."] Richardson's performance is simply superb. Clift is wise enough to play with an admirable sincerity that might make first-time viewers wonder if he really does have feelings for Catherine. A lesser actor would have figuratively winked at the audience, letting them in on the game. Although she won an Oscar and is, indeed, very good, de Havilland is, perhaps, a cut below the other three. Her performance is the one that seems most "manufactured" or calculated, a feat of acting -- and very good acting -- as opposed to living the part. In the scene when Catherine finally confronts her father, we can believe her anger and that she would say the things she does, but anger doesn't automatically instill poise in a person, and Catherine, as enacted by de Havilland, suddenly becomes much too confident and formidable. The words should rush out even as Catherine can't quite believe that she is actually saying them to her father. Still, de Havilland has lovely moments, such as when she sits at her tapestry as Morris and Lavinia talk at the door, a dozen different emotions about this man she both loves and hates playing across her face. Wyler's directorial hand is assured, and Copland's score, despite its dissonances and 1940's-style modernity, is simply drenched in a wonderful romanticism.

Verdict: A masterpiece with one of the all-time great endings. ****


Trippy Trellis said...

Olivia de Havilland gives the best female performance of all time in this superb film, which is my all time favorite.

William said...

Yes, it's a great movie and one of my favorites as well. Thanks for your comment.