Thursday 1 March 2012

1,001 Films: "The Heiress" (1949)

Olivia de Havilland probably remains best known for her work among the vast ensemble cast in Gone With The Wind, but in the immediate aftermath of the War, she carved out a useful career of her own as a character actress, first in 1948's The Snake Pit, then as the unprepossessing spinster Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, an indirect adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square. William Wyler's film displays many of the traditional studio virtues - a certain comfortable opulence, extending to an Aaron Copland score and Edith Head costumes - but it also has those flickers of modernity Wyler had a tendency to smuggle into his 40s films, and which made The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives such cutting and compelling insights into their respective societies: clock the sure feel Wyler has for life at home with the Slopers, and what sentiments the kids might express once their elders and chaperones have retired for the evening.

It helps that the film has Montgomery Clift on hand - projecting questionably sincere charm as Catherine's suitor Morris Townsend - as a link between one era of screen acting and the next, but in fact the whole film is unusually acute in its psychology: de Havilland carries forward from The Snake Pit a sense of this young woman's pitifully low self-esteem, again the product of a jovial bastard of a father (here, Ralph Richardson) comparing her to a reportedly gorgeous mother. Naively seeking affirmation wherever she can get it, then taking delivery of her strange inheritance of suspicion, self-denial and aloofness when things don't pan out, she appears more vulnerable than Jennifer Jason Leigh in Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square some half a century later, but then that was an adaptation for another age, more ruthless yet. Wyler, for his part, does well by Townsend's ambiguity, getting Clift to invoke an uncertainty principle true to the American boom years; whether the trust issues he leaves Catherine with have any relevance today is open to debate, but in movie-historical terms, it makes sense the actor should have gone from this to A Place in the Sun, and the dawn of the 1950s: the final minutes here are inevitably frillier, but they're otherwise pure Streetcar.

The Heiress is available on DVD through Universal.

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