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“The Heiress: The Criterion Collection” – Brilliant classic receives a brilliant restoration


Montgomery Clift stars as Morris Townsend and Olivia de Havilland in her Oscar winning role as Catherine Sloper, the shy and rather mousey daughter of a wealthy New York City doctor. The two meet at a high society ball.

Frame shots courtesy of The Criterion Collection


Blu-ray and DVD; 1949; Not Rated

Best extra: 2018 conversation between screenwriter Jay Cocks and film critic Farran Smith Nehme

THE GREAT director William Wyler’s (“The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Ben-Hur”) decision to make “The Heiress” was sparked when its eventual star, Olivia de Havilland, urged him to see the Broadway play of the same name. The play, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who also co-wrote the screenplay, starred Basil Rathbone and Wendy Hiller, and was itself an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square.”

After Wyler saw the play, he called de Havilland and said, “I like it!” With those words, as she says in one of this Criterion Collection’s archival extras, she knew Wyler would make the movie. She also knew she’d have the starring role of Catherine Sloper, the shy and rather mousey daughter of a wealthy New York City doctor (Ralph Richardson). Dr. Sloper is determined to make a good marriage for his daughter despite his often-noticeable disappointment in her, especially when compared to her deceased mother. When Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) visits, she takes her niece to an elegant ball, hoping she’ll meet an eligible young man. And sure enough, Catherine encounters a strikingly handsome, albeit down on his luck fellow named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift).

(1) Olivia de Havilland convinced William Wyler to direct the on screen adaptation of "The Heiress." (2) Catherine and her father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson). (3) Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) helps Catherine prepare for the ball. (4) Lavinia, Dr. Sloper, and Catherine ride to the ball.

The costumes worn by de Havilland won an Oscar for Edith Head. Morris teaches the awkward Catherine how to dance.

Morris quickly charms his way into her heart and proposes marriage, which Catherine delightedly accepts. Naturally, Dr. Sloper mistrusts Morris, and doesn’t spare his daughter his conviction that this good-looking man couldn’t possibly be sincere in his affections, and is only after her inheritance. As her dreams of happiness with Morris begin to dim, Catherine also comes to understand how little her father values her. When he threatens to cut her off financially, she tells Morris, whose heartless actions appear to prove her father was right about him all along. The unforgettable finale of “The Heiress” is a combination of heartbreaking tragedy and bittersweet triumph as Catherine finally asserts herself. “The Heiress” won Academy Awards for Art Direction, Costumes (Edith Head), and Musical Score (Aaron Copland), and a Best Actress honor for de Havilland’s exquisitely nuanced performance.

Viewers will know they’re in for something special just by looking at the cover art for this Criterion Collection disc. It’s an embroidered portrait of de Havilland as Catherine stretched onto a wooden embroidery hoop. Indeed, this new 4K black and white transfer from a 35mm duplicate negative (1.33:1 aspect ratio), looks absolutely splendid and pristine. While preserving the grainy lushness of film, the fine period detail, excellent depth, and perfect contrast make for a gorgeous look. The audio track is also very good, with that wonderful Jamesian dialogue always clear, and the score working as the ideal enhancement.


The entertaining extras in this package includes an excerpt from a 1973 tribute to Wyler on “The Merv Griffin Show,” with de Havilland and Bette Davis; a two-part 1986 interview with de Havilland by talk show host Paul Ryan; a 1981 excerpt from a documentary on Wyler, in which Richardson praises the director; a 1950 promotional short about Edith Head; a 2019 interview with costume collector/historian Larry McQueen; and a fold-out brochure containing an essay by film critic Pamela Hutchinson.

Morris pays court to Catherine.

The conversation between Cocks, who co-wrote the screenplay for Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” with its director Martin Scorsese, and Nehme is quite interesting. Nehme, discussing the play, notes “it’s gotten darker over the years,” with its story of a woman’s discovery that the two most important men in her life don’t love her. Nehme says that, in the novel and the play, it was clear that Morris was “mercenary” in his attentions to Catherine. Nehme and Cocks agree that the film worked better, because Morris’ feelings aren’t that clear by the end, and it’s possible to believe he sincerely cares for Catherine and she might have found happiness with him. Nehme calls the film’s ending a tragedy: “Catherine’s deep loneliness really hit me at this point of my life.”

Talking about Richardson, Cocks describes the actor as “eccentric,” while Nehme praises “the physicality of his performance.” Both Cocks and Nehme note the brilliance of the classically beautiful de Havilland’s ability to appear plain on screen. Nehme says the successful play and the film diverged from James’ novel in that they end with a “woman finding her strength.” Nehme jokes about the recurring image of Catherine working on her embroidery: “Who is she stabbing with that needle?”

— Peggy Earle

(1) Morris' sister pays a visit to the Slopers. (2) Dr. Sloper interrogates Morris about his intentions. (3) Catherine and Morris plan their elopement. (4) Catherine waits, in vain, for Morris' arrival.

Years later, Morris shows up and begs for another chance. Catherine, resolved to take charge of her life, gets her revenge.



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