A shy, ungainly young woman of means is courted by a handsome young man, whom her father believes is a fortune hunter. She determines to marry him, bringing about unforeseen tragedy.
Based on Henry James' novel, "Washington Square", and on the stage adaptation by Augustus Goetz (who also wrote the screenplay), this is a film tht has to be seen to truly believe how subtle and sublime it is.
To start with, calling "The Heiress" well-directed is like calling "Citizen Kane" a nice movie and Alfred Hitchcock an "okay" director. William Wyler was known for eliciting excellent performances from his actors (he's responsible for them receiving a record 14 Oscars in acting; more than twice as many as any other director) and in "The Heiress" he's in top form. This movie should be played in every acting and directing class ever taught to show the brilliance of subtlety and range of expressions possible when one is conveying a character's inner emotions.
And to say it's well-acted is almost a disservice. Olivia De Havilland is a beautiful woman, but you believe she's an ungainly bundle of shy awkwardness in the role of Catherine Sloper. And her transformation to a cruel wounded creature is perfectly believable. As for Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper and Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lavinia, both are letter perfect beside her. Sir Ralph (at least, I THINK he was knighted) can do more with stillness and a flick of an eyebrow than any actor I've ever seen (including Brando, Penn and any other method actor you care to toss into the mix). He was robbed at the Oscars.
Montgomery Clift was beautiful and seductive and, except for a couple of moments where he seemed too 1950s instead of 1850s, just right for the part. He almost holds his own with Sir Ralph when they meet to discuss him marrying Catherine, but he did do better work in "A Place In The Sun" and "From Here To Eternity."
Wyler's simplicity and grace in directing only enhanced the story. The use of mirrors to deepen emotional content (as in when Dr. Sloper, now ill, goes to his office after getting the cold shoulder from Catherine) is stunning. And how he makes use of the staircase to add impact to a scene...erfection. So is his willingness to let a scene play out rather than force along the pacing of the moment, as so many directors do, today (as in when Catherine begins to understand the depths of her father's dislike of her).
What's especially amazing is, there are no easy answers in this movie. You can think Dr. Sloper is right about Morris and only wants to protect his daughter, or you can see his actions as those of a vindictive man who blames her for the death of his beloved wife (in childbirth). Morris could be a fortune hunter, or he could be a man who does care for Catherine, in his own way, and would make her happy. Aunt Lavinia could be a silly superficial woman or she could be more aware than anyone else in the film. Or all of the above. The whole movie is so beautifully composed, it's breathtaking.
"The Heiress" was not a huge commercial success upon its release, and that is a bit understandable, considering the ending. But it is a definite "must see" for anyone who appreciates great stories well-told.This film won Best Director and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for five other categories. The screenwriter was nominated, and rightly so. Taken from a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 by Maurice Walsh, Green Rushes, Frank Nugent was able to weave a story rich in subtext and conflict.
The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.