The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

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Mr Sausage
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The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#1 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Jul 08, 2019 6:39 am


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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#2 Post by dustybooks » Mon Jul 08, 2019 1:04 pm

I'm a little "talked out" about this film, having written a lot about it in my own space when the recent Criterion disc came out, but the one thing that keeps me from thinking of it as a masterpiece is the rather sharp bisecting that takes place within Olivia de Havilland's performance. She's as versatile as ever and I like her both as the nervous, socially naive Catherine and as the wizened, cutting version of herself who's gone through enough pain to have taken on many of her father's cruel traits. However, the transition is so abrupt -- however justified -- that it seems like two different people; you can make a similar criticism of her other Oscar-winning role in To Each His Own, a film I also like a lot. That said, this bothers me less each time I see the film, especially since I appreciate how economical and focused it is despite a pretty complex narrative. I wonder if there even would be a way to capture this internal transformation without it seeming contrived.

I believe I said this in the film's regular thread, but I am still agog over the ending, which I think is one of the greatest in any Hollywood film. The last time I watched the movie I viewed the last five minutes multiple times in a row. It's so cruel and uncompromising while also reflecting a whole lifetime's worth of pain. Wyler, to me, belongs in the very top tier of Hollywood directors for reasons like this.

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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#3 Post by domino harvey » Mon Jul 08, 2019 4:23 pm

I’m glad this won, ironically because it’s a film that’s already generated a lot of discussion from members— it’s been very tumbleweedy around these parts lately, hopefully more people weigh in. I picked this up in the BN sale and look forward to revisiting and hopefully reassessing it, as unfortunately I recall it fell neatly into my William Wyler Period Rule, in that generally (with a few exceptions) his modern films are masterpieces and his period films are not

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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#4 Post by knives » Mon Jul 08, 2019 5:38 pm

Likewise for me. It's not as bad as the similar Now, Voyager, but it still seems unnecessarily cruel while also hohum in delivery. The Holland adaptation is a far superior effort in my eyes.

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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#5 Post by FrauBlucher » Mon Jul 08, 2019 6:02 pm

This is a good choice. I also have put my two cents in on the bluray release thread. I look forward to hearing more and responding to those that do.

I didn’t have a problem with Catherine’s quick transition from weak minded to hardened. Within a day she was emotionally devastated not once but twice. I believe that is enough for someone’s outlook to change

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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#6 Post by liam fennell » Tue Jul 09, 2019 8:01 am

I think her transition works just fine as well, it's telegraphed throughout -- it's after all how her father behaves. The blunt cruel affectless thing; he's the clinical detached doctor. She holds onto her little girl nature as long as she can but ultimately ends up embracing and becoming the person whom he's effectively if unintentionally raised her to be. I believe she even explains it to him more than once, quoting from memory "you push me to it, father" and "I learned from masters." Also there's the affected voice thing where most of the movie Catherine talks in a little girl voice which is not at all de Havilland's natural register, she only slips into her real voice when she goes against her father and afterwards, which I think works very well and is fairly subtle. In particular the voice change most notably happens during the key scene/line in the rain when she explains to Morris that they can never rely on her father for anything, which of course is the statement that drives him away and ultimately results in her assuming that hard edge once and for all!

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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#7 Post by Sloper » Wed Jul 10, 2019 12:44 pm

This is pretty much my favourite film so clearly I’m happy about this release and this film club selection.

That said, I don’t entirely disagree with the criticism of Olivia de Havilland’s performance; the transition is a little too blunt in places. Oddly enough, her acting is more subtle in To Each His Own and The Snake Pit, both of which you would expect to lend themselves more to over-acting.

Part of me wishes we could see Bette Davis playing this role, as I think she would have given a ‘better’ performance in some ways. But in fact, perversely, the bluntness of the transition is one of the things I love most about this film – it adds to the shock value of the turn in the final act. As well as the moment liam fennell just mentioned, there are a couple of points early on where we get hints of Catherine’s dark side, and here it’s helpful to make a comparison with the novel.

In Washington Square, Catherine’s transition is less melodramatic, more pathetic, but also more dignified. She doesn’t take revenge on anyone, except by quietly refusing to share her thoughts and feelings with her father, and by refusing to promise that she has given up on Morris:
Again, for some moments, Catherine was silent; her father’s request deeply amazed her; it opened an old wound and made it ache afresh. “I don’t think I can promise that,” she answered.

“It would be a great satisfaction,” said her father.

“You don’t understand. I can’t promise that.”

The Doctor was silent a minute. “I ask you for a particular reason. I am altering my will.”

This reason failed to strike Catherine; and indeed she scarcely understood it. All her feelings were merged in the sense that he was trying to treat her as he had treated her years before. She had suffered from it then; and now all her experience, all her acquired tranquillity and rigidity, protested. She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride, and there was something in this request, and in her father’s thinking himself so free to make it, that seemed an injury to her dignity. Poor Catherine’s dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.

“I can’t promise,” she simply repeated.

“You are very obstinate,” said the Doctor.

“I don’t think you understand.”

“Please explain, then.”

“I can’t explain,” said Catherine. “And I can’t promise.”

“Upon my word,” her father explained, “I had no idea how obstinate you are!”

She knew herself that she was obstinate, and it gave her a certain joy.
Catherine cares diligently for her father in his final illness, and after his death when she finds he has cut her from his will and left his money to the hospital, her response is sanguine and philosophical. At the end, when Morris returns, she doesn’t toy with him – she just tells him, politely but firmly, to take a hike:
“I forgave you years ago, but it is useless for us to attempt to be friends.”

“Not if we forget the past. We have still a future, thank God!”

“I can’t forget—I don’t forget,” said Catherine. “You treated me too badly. I felt it very much; I felt it for years.” And then she went on, with her wish to show him that he must not come to her this way, “I can’t begin again—I can’t take it up. Everything is dead and buried. It was too serious; it made a great change in my life. I never expected to see you here.”

“Ah, you are angry!” cried Morris, who wished immensely that he could extort some flash of passion from her mildness. In that case he might hope.

“No, I am not angry. Anger does not last, that way, for years. But there are other things. Impressions last, when they have been strong. But I can’t talk.”
And then we get one of those brilliant Henry James endings that twists the knife at the last second:
“That was a precious plan of yours!” said Morris, clapping on his hat.

“Is she so hard?” asked Mrs. Penniman.

“She doesn’t care a button for me—with her confounded little dry manner.”

“Was it very dry?” pursued Mrs. Penniman, with solicitude.

Morris took no notice of her question; he stood musing an instant, with his hat on. “But why the deuce, then, would she never marry?”

“Yes—why indeed?” sighed Mrs. Penniman. And then, as if from a sense of the inadequacy of this explanation, “But you will not despair—you will come back?”

“Come back? Damnation!” And Morris Townsend strode out of the house, leaving Mrs. Penniman staring.

Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlour, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again—for life, as it were.
This is so sad it’s almost unbearable. Yes, Catherine has discovered an inner strength and dignity that no one around her suspected she had – but even now, no one else sees it except us and the narrator. (Compare Morris in novel and film: ‘Her confounded little dry manner’ / ‘She has such dignity now!’) There’s something absolute about the loneliness of this unflaggingly kind, decent, strong, loving person, who is left with nothing but her obliviously cruel aunt for company and a ‘morsel of fancy-work’ to live on for the rest of her days.

It’s no wonder that both the Wyler and Holland films shy away from this bleak ending and try to emphasise Catherine’s empowerment. In the case of The Heiress, what is unlocked in Catherine is not merely dignity, but rage coupled with a razor-sharp wit – and the way she deploys them is such a joy to behold that I can forgive any lack of subtlety in the acting. I probably wouldn’t mind if she burst into an evil cackle.

In the novel, Catherine’s late-blooming insight into the people around her is foreshadowed early on by some of the narrator’s comments about her complex inner life, and by some comments she herself makes like ‘My father won’t abuse you – he doesn’t know you [well] enough’. The Goetzes added the ‘well’, which somehow alters the meaning.

In the novel, it comes across as, ‘My father only “abuses” (i.e. teases) people he really knows and is close to, and who will therefore know not to take offence; he wouldn’t ever be rude about you.’ It’s a reflection on how witty and clever, but also how socially adept, Dr. Sloper is. Of course, there is also an underlying sense that Catherine is aware of how cruel her father can be – how he gets to know people, anatomises them, and then dissects them without mercy, albeit politely. She admires her father’s precise wit, but she would never want to emulate it because she couldn’t intentionally hurt anyone.

In The Heiress, the addition of ‘well’ makes the line sound more like a well-crafted one-liner. Coupled with de Havilland’s comical delivery, the change shifts the balance in favour of what was originally the secondary meaning: ‘My father won’t abuse you yet; he’s still doing his research.’ Catherine’s cutting one-liners are a distinctive feature of the Heiress-version of her character. At this moment she seems unaware of having made a joke at her father’s expense, and Morris doesn’t suspect her of being witty – but her two witticisms in the early scenes (both at Aunt Penniman’s expense) have primed us to pick up on this glimpse of her latent sharpness. Those two earlier jokes (‘You led me to believe you and the reverend lived on love alone’ and ‘That depends on where he is, aunt’) both puncture Lavinia’s romantic pretensions, which of course gives a special edge to that moment at the end (so perfectly scored by Copland) when Lavinia is twittering away about romance while Catherine calmly draws the curtains to shut Morris out once and for all. And then there’s her brilliant trick with the ruby-encrusted buttons, her final gift to Morris – just valuable enough to enable him to fuck off back to California once he’s pawned them.

Similarly, with her dad, as he tries to sympathise with and even admire her, you can see her eyeing him up to figure out where she should stick the knife. It’s true, as dustybooks says, that she takes on her father’s attributes – specifically his pitiless wit – but she goes well beyond him too. He would never have made the ‘That depends on where he is’ joke, because it crosses a line of propriety; but she doesn’t care about this, just as she doesn’t care about the women who ‘think it ill-bred to know anything about cooking’. The doctor is so poised and correct at all times, knowing exactly when and how to make a joke (‘When your gout’s troubling you, you’re more respectful to me’), and how to smuggle his contempt for Catherine into gestures of kindness. He is only overtly cruel to her upon their return from Europe, when he sarcastically extols her virtues and graces, and then mockingly praises her ‘neat’ embroidery, but this is an outburst born of frustration, exhaustion, and illness, not a calculated plot to torment her. One of the appalling things about Dr. Sloper is that he’s always been so studiedly, hypocritically kind to his daughter, while all the time putting her down and ever-so-gently reminding her that she will never match up to her sainted mother. For just one moment he forgets himself and shows what he really thinks of her, but as a rule he prides himself on not showing this.

Once Catherine makes up her mind to take revenge on him, she drops all pretence, all hypocrisy, and devotes herself to exposing the truths he’s worked so hard to conceal. ‘Don’t be kind to me father – it doesn’t become you.’ I love how she starts writing out his will for him, forcing him to tear it away from her and say ‘I don’t want to do it – I don’t want to disinherit my only daughter.’ That sounds very proper (‘Family feeling is very proper’, as the doctor said to Morris earlier on). But Catherine tears away the façade: ‘I know you don’t. You’d like me to sit in this house, rich, respected, and un-loved. But I may chase after Morris and squander your money.’ The doctor, defeated and dying, replies, ‘I don’t know what you’ll do, Catherine.’ She rears her head like a cobra and says: ‘That’s right. You’ll never know…will you?’ In the play, the stage directions say that Catherine then puts her arm around her father and helps him up the stairs, which I guess could be pretty sinister. But there’s something so chilling about the way, in the film, she just watches him creep out of the room, and then sits back down and stabs her embroidery.

That moment sums up why I love de Havilland's performance, all the more so for its limitations. Her body language and the emphases in her line delivery are just a little too un-subtle, but this also means that her pleasure in delivering the line is all the more palpable. I guess there's something about knowing this actor's background, knowing how she struggled to get out of those insipid roles the studios used to impose on her, how she fought a long legal battle in order to gain some creative freedom, and now at last seeing Melanie Wilkes tell everyone around her where to stick it... This is a special treat that you just wouldn't get if Bette Davis had played this role.

A few minutes earlier the doctor said, ‘So you’ve found a tongue at last – it is only to say such terrible things to me.’ She responded, ‘Yes, this is one area where you will not compare me to my mother.’ The unspoken joke there is that, having never known her supposedly angelic mother but only her total prick of a father, she’s inherited only his capacity for cruelty. But she’s also proudly demonstrating that she has outdone him, because she doesn’t have any of his illusions or pretensions. She’s basically saying ‘Fuck your stupid dead wife, and fuck you – you’ve been a lousy father, this is how your daughter turned out, and now you will die alone, afraid, and humiliated. Where are your poise and elegance now?’

And as horrifying as this is, and as much as I feel sorry for the doctor (partly because Ralph Richardson is phenomenally good in this – really one of the best filmed performances I’ve ever seen), what I also love is that the film doesn’t judge or blame Catherine for her behaviour in these last few minutes. It’s an incredible balancing act, and exactly the kind of thing Wyler excelled at. Through the performances of Richardson and Clift, and the reactions of Lavinia and especially Maria (she’s easy to miss but such a crucial part of the film), we’re prevented from simply demonising Catherine’s victims or writing off their suffering – but through the sympathy we’ve built up for Catherine, and through the gleeful, cathartic triumph of de Havilland’s performance, we also share in the exhilaration of her revenge, so much so that, speaking for myself, I can’t honestly wish that things went any differently at the end. For me, these final scenes are so operatic and brutal, but also so emotionally rich and layered. Your feelings are pulled in so many directions at once, and yet the overall effect feels unified and coherent.

I’d be interested to hear what others think about Catherine’s behaviour from a moral point of view: do you sort of want her to forgive Morris and accept a somewhat compromised marriage with him? Do you want her to be nicer to her father, as she is in the novel? Do you think the film turns her into a monster at the end, and thereby makes it easier for us not to engage with the seriousness of the damage others have done to her (and the wider implications of how she is treated, if we want to compare this and Holland’s film from a feminist perspective)?

God I love this film. It’s been so nice to finally see it get a decent blu-ray release, and especially to see other users gushing about it here. I’ve watched it many times over the last twenty years or so and not once has it been anything less than compelling from start to finish.

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