974 The Heiress

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Re: 974 The Heiress

#26 Post by HinkyDinkyTruesmith » Wed Jun 19, 2019 7:36 pm

I wonder if Cocks’s reading is informed at all by the novel where I think things are a bit more ambiguous.

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The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

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


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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#28 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)

#29 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)

#30 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)

#31 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)

#32 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)

#33 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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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#34 Post by dustybooks » Sat Jul 20, 2019 8:11 pm

Thank you so much for this post, Sloper. I wanted to wait until I had the free time to read over it carefully but now I can say that it's enhanced my appreciation of this film, and de Havilland's work in it, even more... though I'm glad that you follow where I was coming from with my mild critique of her performance. However, when you talk of how we share in the catharsis of her awakening and her verbal revenge of sorts against her father -- the scene with the will really is unforgivingly sharp -- I'm reminded of the pleasure I feel in Gaslight when Ingrid Bergman finds her backbone and hurls all of Charles Boyer's abuse back at him while he's tied to the chair. Reading over the changes you note being made from the novel and play, it seems certain that Wyler expected us to find similar validation in this discovery of strength. And I think there is optimism to be found in the finale; maybe Catherine will have someone else in her life and maybe she won't, but the rebirth of her own dignity and the absence of compromise she exhibits in her father's final days indicates that if she loves again it will be on her terms, and that she recognizes she would lose more by softening for the sake of another than she does by adopting the lessons she's learned from the vile way that men have historically treated her. As corny as it sounds, it feels like she has found value in herself that her father never had interest in instilling within her -- which ironically he (and many other characters) spun around into a criticism of her: she was made to feel undesirable, which made her a shrunken and weak person, which in turn made her more undesirable in their eyes.

To speak further to that, when I wrote about the film at length earlier this year, I said the following about the indications we get of the way that Catherine has been reared and how the matter of her seemingly low opinion of herself is affected by the casting:
From the outset, Catherine is resistant to making any sort of mark or claim for herself, reluctant to create any disturbance or ripple in the world around her; while this is undoubtedly the result of her impatient, chilly treatment at the hands of her father — the sort of man who thinks he is home free as a parent simply because he has provided material comfort — this personality itself has now seemingly become tiresome to those around her, namely her father, her kind aunt and the various denizens of the doctor’s social life. For Dr. Sloper, Catherine’s inadequacy as a potential bride to some “worthy” suitor is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy; while he complains about it outwardly, he seems to delight in an almost sinister fashion at the notion that he’s raised a spinster who will die alone. Some critics of the time complained that de Havilland, who sought the role herself, was miscast because she is simply too “beautiful” to be so unwanted a woman; even Wyler himself later conceded that this may have hurt the film at the box office. But this in fact is ingenious casting if we take the film straightforwardly as a portrait of a toxic home: Catherine has become a shattered, damaged, “unlovable” person because that’s what she constantly was made to believe she was.
And this leads me to your questions...
Sloper wrote:
Wed Jul 10, 2019 12:44 pm
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)?
Clift's performance in the later scenes (not to mention Miriam Hopkins' cluelessly warm treatment of him) seems designed to let us briefly believe in an alternate future wherein Catherine can surrender some of her stoicism and justified impatience and find some sort of a happy life with this lovable loser. We think of Lavinina's line earlier in the film when she learns Catherine disclosed her lack of an inheritance to Morris and her aunt said something like "Why couldn't you have been born just a little more clever?" But personally, I don't think Catherine's delivery of that information to Morris demonstrates unintelligence, just an earnest belief in unconditional love, and I don't think that any hypothetical future relationship could be successful under the looming knowledge that such unconditional love didn't and couldn't exist between them. (Especially since she wasn't written out of her father's will after all in the film, so there can never be any assurance of Morris' genuine reasons for returning.)

I suppose really it comes down to this: I believe basically in Catherine's righteousness, on top of the immediate pleasures of watching her #ClapBack or whatever, because I think she is correct to be resentful of her father and of Morris, especially the former, and moreover correct that being alone is better than being with a person who doesn't love you, parent or spouse or whatever else. And this is where the real world interferes a bit. Parental cruelty, however subtle and buried in superficial kindness, and however it was itself born of the grief of losing Catherine's mother, invariably instills an absence of self-regard that would permit her to be kicked around and manipulated for eternity by such suave vessels as Morris. The thing is, the moments in which we witness Catherine's disdain and fading regard for her father are of a raw and tragic sort we rarely see in American films, because culturally we still have a certain belief in the undying unbreakable all-consuming power and importance of Family. Almost regardless of what your parent inflicts upon you, it's still taboo in many circles to speak poorly of them or cease contact with them. So it's unusual, at least in a film that doesn't deal with outright physical or sexual abuse, to see a parent-child relationship dissolve in this manner, and I think it's a particularly admirable thing to take on in the context of a gorgeous-looking Old Hollywood classic. We see, in such totality, an entire complex map of the cause of this freezing out and the film comes down firmly on the side of the abuse victim.

So no, I don't think she's turned into a monster, I just think she's an example of a kind of person we're often very uncomfortable with: someone who does not believe one should forgive or comfort someone strictly because they "took care of" them, even when said caregiver is on their deathbed. It is rather the parent's job to impart unconditional love and validation to their child, something it doesn't seem Dr. Sloper ever was comfortable with or felt necessary. Aware of the possibility of being viewed as selfish or "cold" for cutting off the part of her life that's open to his judgment both before and after his death, she nevertheless does so in order to avoid the pain of any further association with the world that abandoned and tried to ruin her. As Sloper says in the assessment of James' novel, this dignity and forebearance is really known only to her and to us, and the conceit of the film is that perhaps that is enough.

It occurs to me that Wyler, while he's obviously working with various writers and source material in all cases, directed three of the most cogent portraits of what we'd now call emotional abuse that I know if in Hollywood films, with this one, The Little Foxes and Dodsworth -- compare the brief reunion of Catherine and Morris with the briefer reunion of Mr. and Mrs. Dodsworth -- and maybe that's a coincidence but I doubt it, as so much of his work shows off a depth of understanding in human relationships that seems such a far cry from the supposed artificiality for which the studio system is popularly known.

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Re: The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

#35 Post by HinkyDinkyTruesmith » Mon Jul 22, 2019 12:02 am

I just finished rewatching this, for the first time in what may very well have been six or seven years. I remembered it remarkably accurately, very precisely. It was, if not especially emotionally, then aesthetically a very striking film to me when I first saw it––the way Clift speaks the lyrics in English for the song Morris plays for Catherine, for example, has stuck with me ever since, as has the final shot, and a variety of imagery throughout.

It struck me as rather strange to read in this forum that others saw the finale as vindication for Catherine, a sort of empowerment revenge. Rewatching it, I understand now formally how the film indulges in that, but I can't partake too much in it––even as I have found myself in a rather similar situation as Catherine, and chose the opposite response to the return of a lover (if only I also had that inheritance!)

The film is unrelentingly cruel. It is as if a flower had been stamped on, repeatedly, and then plucked gently, only to be left behind. Its cruelty is so psychologically palpable and so restrainedly presented, however, that I think it's unfair to suggest it is too cruel. It reaches a twin peak to many of Sirk's melodramas in the coming decade: the finale truly embodies the "impossible situation"––on the one hand, Dr. Sloper and Morris don't deserve forgiveness. On the other, it is truly, unbearably heartbreaking to see Catherine destroy herself in hurting others. The beginning of the film at times is so pleasant (Morris is truly charming, and Catherine's delight is so clearly overwhelming), and even funny in the awkwardness (Catherine dropping something when Morris says he came to visit her is truly funny; and the way he pretends to be more nervous and awkward at the dance is so lovely), that this takes on the form of high tragedy, where you're watching something so wonderful but can't help the stomachache as everything starts to go wrong.

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