Director William Wyler’s keen adaptation of both Henry James’ 1880 novel Washington Square and the subsequent 1947 stage version The Heiress stars Olivia de Havilland (Gone With the Wind) as Catherine Sloper. An intensity shy young woman, she is the only daughter of Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), a widowed, wealthy and highly respected surgeon. Try as she might, Catherine’s plain jane appearance fails to impress her father and his idolized memory of her mother.
Despite her social awkwardness, Catherine catches the eye of Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift, Suddenly, Last Summer) a man of few prospects, who Dr. Sloper suspects is only interested in his daughter for economic reasons. Catherine is convinced that Morris wants to marry her for love. This puts her at odds with her strong-minded father, who refuses to see him as anything other than a charlatan after her inheritance.
Catherine is a sad figure. Eager for love, she is enraptured by Townsend and his smoldering stares. There’s little question in the audience’s mind that he’s bad news. For all his courtly manners and declarations of affection, the way he freely enters her personal space and a look in his eye, suggests a bird swooping in on its prey. Given Morris’ rather obvious intentions, Catherine might seem pathetic had it not been for the sincere and subtle performance of Olivia de Havilland. Her characters dowdy physical appearance–bags under her eyes, unplucked eyebrows, matronly hairstyle–is just a small part of it; de Havilland’s meekness, her desperate eyes and great full smiles, all paint a portrait of a woman desperate for a kind of love she doesn’t fully understand. Even more tragic, de Havilland infuses Catherine with occasional humor, only to hide it in deference to the powerful men in her life.
The real tragedy isn’t the doomed romance, but the way in which those who purportedly have our best interests at heart can end up hindering personal growth. Catherine’s father has ample reason to be suspicious of Morris’ intentions toward his daughter. But like Morris, his intentions are questionable; Is Dr. Sloper concerned about his daughter’s emotional well-being or the fortune she will inherit? The fact that Dr. Sloper continuously compares Catherine unfavorably to her dead mother, only serves to muddy those waters. In the end, we watch Catherine go through a remarkable transformation. Olivia de Havilland alters everything about her–from the way she walks, talks, does needlepoint–it’s remarkably powerful. William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives) perhaps the greatest director of the era, forces us to wonder whether made the right decision about her future. The final shot leaves us with more questions than answers, a decidedly dramatic and somewhat rare approach for the time.
In 1996, The Heiress was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s newly restored 4K digital transfer is beautiful. The image looks film-like throughout Contrast is stable and detail is superior. Edith Head’s intricate period costumes look better than ever. Viewers should be very pleased with this transfer.
The lossless mono track is excellent, offering clean, clear and concise dialogue and no audible thinness or distortions. The score by Aaron Copland sounds fantastic.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Jay Cocks and Film Critic Farran Smith Nehme (HD, 22:46) In this new program, screenwriter Jay Cocks and film critic Farran Smith Nehme discuss the evolution of the film and the original play that inspired it. There’s some discussion of plot and individual performances.
- Larry McQueen (HD, 15:01) Recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2019, costume collector and historian discusses legendary costume designer Edith Head.
- The Costume Designer (HD, 8:58) Produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1950, this is a promotional short about Edith Head.
- Olivia de Havilland (HD, 44:59) Olivia de Havilland is interviewed on a 1986 episode of The Paul Ryan Show. The actress discusses various aspects of her life and career.
- William Wyler (HD) Included here are two segments from a tribute to director William Wyler done for The Merv Griffin Show in 1973. The archival footage includes interviews with the director, Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis and Walter Pigeon. Also included is footage from William Wyler’s 1976 American Film Institute tribute.
- The Merv Griffin Show (HD, 16:41)
- F.I. Tribute (HD, 5:35)
- Ralph Richardson (HD, 7:09) Presented here is an archival interview with Ralph Richardson, conducted in 1981 for the documentary Directed by William Wyler. Richardson discusses his experience working on The Heiress.
- Trailer (HD, 2:51)
- Leaflet/Poster: An illustrated leaflet featuring critic Pamela Hutchinson’s essay, “A Cruel Inheritance.”
The Heiress (1949)
Movie title: The Heiress
Director(s): William Wyler
Actor(s): Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift , Ralph Richardson , Miriam Hopkins , Vanessa Brown , Mona Freeman
Genre: Romance, Drama