The Heiress

The Heiress (1949)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins
Extras: Introduction, Trailer

In the 1930s, Olivia de Havilland and swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn became one of the most popular screen teams in a series of highly entertaining movies, the best of which was 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood." De Havilland's excellent turn as Melanie Wilkes in the extravaganza of 1939, "Gone With the Wind," brought her her first Oscar nomination and announced her as an actress of great dramatic skill. Ten years later, she gave what many consider to be the performance of her career in William Wyler's "The Heiress." Adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from their stage success, which in turn was based on the Henry James novella "Washington Square," this film presented an opportunity for de Havilland to show off her incredible range, earning her an Academy Award for Best Actress. It is surely one of the most deserved in the award's history, and Universal Home Video have finally preserved the performance on DVD as part of their new Cinema Classics collection.

De Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper, the daughter of an aristocratic widower in 19th century New York. Although raised in the utmost luxury, Catherine is a plain girl, socially awkward and naïve. With some encouragement from her Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins), she makes her best attempt to socialize at a cousin's engagement party, though her lack of grace generally keeps the men away. One young man does, however, take an interest in her. The handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) asks her to dance, showing her that he is no more popular than she is. The two become great company, and over the next few days, he continues to call on her at her home in Washington Square in sometimes humorous attempts to court her. Having never been the object of anyone's affection, Catherine is enthralled by Morris' attention, and when he proposes to her, she gleefully agrees.

One person who is not so enthralled by the situation is Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), Catherine's refined and disapproving father. He thinks little of his daughter, constantly disparaging her appearance and manners in comparison with idealized memories of his deceased wife. He believes the only reason why Morris, who is quite poor, would possibly show interest in Catherine is her money. When Catherine protests that they love each other, the doctor unleashes his pent up contempt for her, claiming that the only attractive thing about her is her wealth. This is a hard blow for the already fragile Catherine, and she becomes determined to break free from her father's abusive hold by marrying Morris regardless of the consequences.

The reputation of this exceedingly fine film has continued to grow as the decades have rolled on, and the performances of a strong cast certainly deserve much of that credit. As I have stated, de Havilland is a revelation in this role, taking her character from shy ingénue to deeply embittered woman with remarkable finesse and believability. Montgomery Clift was well on his way to stardom at the time he made this film, and we can see the talent and charisma that made him such a legend. Miriam Hopkins gives a warm and thoroughly delightful performance as Aunt Penniman, and Ralph Richardson offers a chilling turn in his Oscar-nominated role. His icy delivery and perpetually arched eyebrows effectively give him an air of aristocracy and the right touch of villainy.

As with many films based on stage plays, this one keeps most of its action on a limited number of sets. Still, it never once seems stagy or theatrical. The confined spaces actually enhance the story and character development, emphasizing the claustrophobic social atmosphere in which Catherine finds herself trapped between her family and the man she loves. The elaborate art direction is photographed well, sometimes from low or high angles to showcase their enormity. Shadows are used to perfection as well, particularly in the rainy scene where Morris and Catherine plan to elope and in the haunting final shot. The film's technical excellence reaches the level of artistry as the acting.

As one of Universal's Cinema Classics, "The Heiress" is presented in a digitally remastered transfer that preserves its original fullframe aspect ratio. The image is quite sharp, and there are no signs of edge enhancement. Contrast is excellent, and the gray tones look fine. Some dirt and scratches are visible throughout, but they are not a huge distraction and should be expected, considering the film's age. Black levels are very strong. The film is not overly visual, but Universal has done a fine job of preserving its simple beauty in this transfer, and classic movie fans should be pleased.

The sound is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track that functions very well. Dialogue drives the audio, and it comes through clearly. No major hiss or distortion was detected. The Oscar-winning score by Aaron Copland is minimal to say the least, leaving most of the truly dramatic moments silent so that the performances can speak for themselves. When the music is heard, it sounds just fine and is serviced well by this track. English closed-captions and Spanish subtitles are available.

The one area where this DVD falls short is in the special features department. For a movie as honored and loved as this, the extras are dreadfully scarce. An optional introduction from Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne and a trailer are all we get. For TCM viewers, Osborne's intro will be exactly what they see on TV. He offers a few interesting tidbits of information, but this film deserved a full-blown documentary or commentary. This is truly slim pickings for such a grand movie.

For classic movie buffs, I cannot recommend "The Heiress" highly enough. The brilliant acting and shattering story have kept this alive for nearly 60 years, and it hasn't aged a bit. Universal can be commended for their work in preserving the film so beautifully, though the lack of substantial bonus features is a major disappointment. Still, extras or no extras, this film is something to treasure and will hold a proud place in my collection.