Previous Top Ten By Year lists:
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 1969

Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.

This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.

The Heiress

#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler) (rewatch)
“Why couldn’t you just have been a little more clever?”

This is the story of a young woman’s untimely conversion to her antonym self.

Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) suffers from Dead Wife Syndrome. The deceased isn’t an angelic cardboard apparition or a catalyst for male torment and vengeance inflicted on the audience. No, we are not the victim; but his daughter Catherine (Olivia De Havilland) is. Her mother died during childbirth, and as Dr. Sloper puts it, “only I know what I lost, and what I got in her place”. He uses the inherent chill of societal composure to mask his indifference towards Catherine, seeing her as “an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature with not a shred of poise”. The older women in his orbit defend her, not because they disagree entirely, but because they rightly feel it is unfair to hold Catherine to such high standards and finality. He’s never said any of this to his daughter, but it doesn’t take us long to learn it.

Catherine feels the pangs of her father’s remarks (“your mother was fair. She dominated the color”) but isn’t able to grasp that it goes deeper than a general disappointment in her awkward social conduct. Truth be told, Catherine is pretty hopeless at society life. In 1850s New York, custom is personality. In fact, it erases personality, ensuring that a lack of custom leaves a woman with nothing to offer. Her harsh plainness (that middle part with lightning bolt severity and the hopelessly matted slope of her hair seem to define her) is made more apparent by how she carries herself. Instead of composure there is deer-in-headlights panic and fluster (god, I relate to all of this so much). Anyone near her at a party is made uncomfortable by being involuntary witness to her struggle. How to participate in small talk? Where does she put her claret cup? Where did she put her claret cup? Who sits down first? She can’t even get hold of the dance card dangling off her wrist let alone get the dance steps right. For these unforgivable infractions she is seen as a pariah of pity to others. We see that Catherine is bright and generous (but naive when it comes to trusting and knowing people), but her particular brand of clumsy shyness has no place in these suffocating confines. Her surroundings, and the burden of being her father’s daughter, ensure that she is never given the chance to be a real person.

So maybe that’s why, in a weird way, Morris Townsend’s (Montgomery Clift, enchantingly inscrutable here) insincerity feels preferable than her father’s barely contained indifference; because it is sincere romantic love as experienced by Catherine. For all of Morris’s deceit, there is something woefully lost about them both. Morris is described by his sister as honest, and while Morris’s wooing of Catherine is wholly manipulative, it does feel like he projects a candid passion of self that could easily be deemed unfit. Catherine is homely, out of place, and tied to the house on Washington Square. Morris is beautiful, displaced, and yearning to belong to status and the house on Washington Square. If Morris’s feelings were true, they’d compliment each other perfectly. Morris’s deception is malicious in nature, but there seems to be no maliciousness in him. I like to think that Catherine would never have realized on her own that Morris didn’t love her. But I’m just like Catherine, falling for Montgomery Clift, not wanting to believe the worst even when all signs point in that direction.

In the midst of their courtship, Morris plays a song for Catherine that he learned while toiling away his money in France. She asks to know what it means. He plays it again, translating the words for her with a slow recitation that sounds like Clift Goes Cohen. “The joys of love last but a short time / the pains of love last all your life”. The words are a pall-in-motion, cast upon the film as they are spoken and immediately regurgitated by Aaron Copeland’s score as their romantic theme. Soon after, Catherine finally finds her nerve by immediately accepting Morris’s proposal. She says “I love you” as if she is just learning the words. After some skepticism and hesitation she now trusts him completely, determined to be him with or without her father’s blessing. She is helped by her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), the kind of busybody whose one-and-only mode is breathless melodrama. She genuinely wants happiness for her niece but can only see everything through the narrow lens of her time and place. This character type is the natural destination for Miriam Hopkins’s energies. She makes Lavinia endearing despite herself, and is the closest thing to an ally Catherine has.

The tragedy of The Heiress is not of a woman conned into love. It’s that her father’s read on the courtship doesn’t arise from the (plenty of) red flags and observations that Morris elicits. It is because outright, at face value, he cannot believe that that a man would want his daughter for the simple fact that he is her daughter. Clift’s arrival simply brings out these cruel truths.

The greatness of Olivia de Havilland is made even clearer when Catherine is hurt so badly that it causes her to fissure. Her voice has deepened and lost all its buoyancy. She speaks in craggy deliberate daggers. Her demeanor matches the harshness of visage; that kind-hearted openness that used to shine out of it is gone. Her needlepoint is now the only thing she can rely on. She used to be the embroidery but now she is the needle. It actually hurts to feel the irreversible difference in her. She used to assume sincerity — now she assumes insincerity. When the maid compliments Catherine, she is reprimanded for using flattery for gains. But she was clearly being true.

You might notice that I’ve written about the characters and emotions of The Heiress almost exclusively, and it’s because I can’t tear myself away from them. William Wyler uses objects (the gloves, the embroidery, the stairs, the sliding doors) and interiors to tell a story of stifling environments and emotional arcs. He adapts the play beautifully, by understanding everyone in relation to each other and to the spaces they inhabit. It all builds to the fact that Catherine becomes that austere building of protection and isolation on Washington Square. Her final act is both cauterization and revenge, a ritualistic binding to the house as she closes herself off, literally, from any potential of future love. She announces that this will be her last embroidery, a final shedding of the vibrant Catherine we once knew. Like Sleeping Beauty in her trance, with the now flat and monotonous precision of her voice, Catherine closes up the house and makes her way up the staircase. It is both triumphant (because really, go to hell Morris) and tragic (her disappearing act is so much bigger than him), rightly considered one of the great movie endings.

One thought on “Top Ten By Year: 1949 #7 – The Heiress (US / Wyler)

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