“The Heiress” is a dark and devastating drama about money and love. And how sad things can get when the two are mixed.
The story takes place in a ritzy New York City neighborhood around 1850. Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is on Easy Street financially. She already has an annual $10,000 income from her mother’s inheritance. And she stands to inherit much more when her father – a prominent doctor – dies.
In a way, Catherine has won life’s lottery. But “The Heiress” argues that she lost.
Catherine has money but no other visible virtues. She’s plain-looking, shy, and insecure. She isn’t witty and she’s a bad conversationalist.
Even worse, Catherine’s self-esteem has been trampled down by her father. Dr. Sloper’s beloved wife died in childbirth and he has instinctively resented his daughter from day one.
How the heck is Catherine going to land a good man?
Enter Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). He’s great-looking, cultured, and charming. He is kind to Catherine and patient with her awkwardness.
Before a week is out, Catherine is head-over-heels in love. And they are engaged to be married.
Morris is perfect. Too perfect, Dr. Sloper believes. How could a delightful man like this love his daughter? Morris must be after the money. Dr. Sloper works tirelessly to sabotage the relationship.
[spoiler alert] Ultimately, Dr. Sloper is exonerated. He exposes Morris’s desperate financial situation and pushes him away from New York and his daughter.
And this is where the movie gets brutal. Catherine tells her father that she will never forgive him for meddling in her romance. She knows Dr. Sloper was right. But she was still eager to move in with Morris just to get away from her father.
Above all, Catherine has come to the grim conclusion that Morris was the best she was ever going to get. A hot, charming golddigger is most she could ever hope for.
Olivia de Havilland’s performance is raw and brave. She expresses the blind euphoria of first love. And she shows us the ugly aftermath; after her heart has been broken and her ideals have been shattered.
Montgomery Clift was simply the best heartthrob actor of all time. With his looks and charm, it’s easy to believe that Catherine would fall hopelessly in love with him.
But the genius of Clift’s performance is its ambiguity. We have no idea how much of Morris’s affection for Catherine is genuine and how much of it is greed. Even he doesn’t know for sure.
“The Heiress” is a perfect, heartbreaking little drama.
I watch old movies every weekend. Normally, my wife reads a book, plays on her iPad, or leaves the room. Five minutes into this film, my wife dropped everything and was fully engaged in the story.
“The Heiress” gets 4 stars in Max’s View. And Kelly’s View.