The Heiress is a 1949 American drama film directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper, Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper. Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from their 1947 play The Heiress. The play was suggested by the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James. The film is about a young naive woman who falls in love with a handsome young man, despite the objections of her emotionally abusive father who suspects the man of being a fortune hunter.
Catherine’s father believes Morris is courting Catherine only to get her inheritance and threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. Catherine does not care, and plans to elope with Morris but not before telling him about her father’s decision. On the night they are to elope, Catherine eagerly waits at home for Morris to come and take her away, but he never arrives.
Catherine is heartbroken. A day or so later, she has a bitter argument with her father, who reveals he is dying. She tells her father she still loves Morris and challenges him to change his will if he is afraid of how she will spend his money after he dies. He does not and dies a short time later, leaving her his entire estate.
A few years later, Morris returns from California, having made nothing of himself and eyeing the Slopers’ luxurious house with more obvious eagerness. Again he professes his love for Catherine, claiming that he left her behind because he could not bear to see her destitute. Catherine pretends to forgive him and tells him she still wants to elope as they originally planned. He promises to come back that night for her, and she tells him she will start packing her bags.
When Morris returns, Catherine takes her revenge. Her aunt asks her how she can be so cruel, and she responds, “I have been taught by masters.” She calmly orders the maid to bolt the door, leaving Morris locked outside, shouting her name. The film fades out with Catherine silently ascending the stairs while Morris’ despairing cries echo unanswered through the darkness.
The Heiress received universal critical acclaim and won four Academy Awards. In his review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther said the film “crackles with allusive life and fire in its tender and agonized telling of an extraordinarily characterful tale” and added, “Mr. Wyler . . . has given this somewhat austere drama an absorbing intimacy and a warming illusion of nearness that it did not have on the stage. He has brought the full-bodied people very closely and vividly to view, while maintaining the clarity and sharpness of their personalities, their emotions and their styles . . . The Heiress is one of the handsome, intense and adult dramas of the year.”
TV Guide rates the film five out of a possible five stars and adds, “This powerful and compelling drama . . . owes its triumph to the deft hand of director William Wyler and a remarkable lead performance by Olivia de Havilland.
Time Out London calls the film “typically plush, painstaking and cold. . . . highly professional and heartless.”
Channel 4 says of the performances, “de Havilland’s portrayal . . . is spine-chilling . . . Clift brings a subtle ambiguity to one of his least interesting roles, and Richardson is also excellent.”