The Final Scene of “The Heiress” (1949)

Catherine Sloper ascends the stairs in the final scene, leaving fortune-hunter Morris Townsend banging on the door.

Browsing through TCM’s Summer Under the Stars lineup a few weeks ago, I was very pleased to see one of my favorite movies of all time, The Heiress, scheduled for a primetime spot during TCM’s lineup of Montgomery Clift movies yesterday. An intensely human story against the backdrop of straight-laced and cold 1840′s New York, I consider The Heiress to be not only one of the great films of the decade, but a real triumph in filmmaking. The film was directed by William Wyler, and stars Olivia de Havilland in the title role of Catherine Sloper, a young and naive heiress set to inherit her father’s significant fortune. Montgomery Clift plays a charming suitor by the name of Morris Townsend, and Ralph Richardson is Catherine’s cold and undemonstrative father, suspicious of Morris’ motives. Catherine firmly believes that Morris’ intentions are correct, and the conflict between Catherine and her father becomes more escalated as the film progresses. Ultimately Morris’ true intentions are revealed, and the final scene is a chilling act of psychological manipulation and revenge.

I am going to begin by giving you the video of the final scene so you may examine it at any point as you read.

By this time in the movie, we have learned that Morris’ intentions are not honorable, as he deserted Catherine when her father threatened to disinherit her if they married. In the wake of Morris’ desertion, Catherine, previously a sweet, naive girl, turns into a cold, distant woman. When her father dies, Catherine inherits his fortune and lives alone in the large house, rejecting any form of kindness or compliments. Two years later, Morris suddenly returns, asking for forgiveness for his desertion. Catherine initially says it is too late for apologies, but then becomes strangely seductive with him, accepting his proposal for marriage. When he comes for her later that evening, instead of leaving to marry him, she turns the tables and commits her own act of desertion, leaving him pounding on the door and calling her name, while she ascends the stairs away from him.

My reading on the ending is that Catherine has been so hardened by the constant abuse from her father and by the treachery of Morris that her only answer is to become jaded and cold, as they were. However, de Havilland’s portrayal of Catherine gives us an incredibly real portrait of this woman, and it is magnificently clear that there many, many facets to Catherine. Take a look at her face, at 1:22 of the first video I embedded. Her mouth turns up into a small, hopeful, optimistic smile when she hears the bell signaling Morris’ arrival. This indicates that Catherine is NOT over Morris, and still maintains a hope that he might come. We see that she has not been totally hardened after all–a bit of the old Catherine is still there, waiting and hoping for Morris to come. The little glimmer of optimism disappears as quickly as it came, and she immediately becomes angry with her aunt for asking Morris over. Then we see what is probably my favorite bit in the entire movie.

Take a look at 2:00-2:31. If we saw a little spark of the old Catherine in that tiny smile, this 31-second character examination is that smile magnified x 1000. For me, this is what single-handedly secured de Havilland’s Best Actress Oscar. Look at how her expression changes so subtly and gracefully–from cold and distant, to sad, to hopeful, to wistful and nostalgic, to sad again, and then ultimately back to cold and distant, but this time with an air of calculation about her. There is SO MUCH to be analyzed about this character. The actions of the others in her life have hardened her, but the right circumstances can make her soften to what she used to be. When Morris comes in and asks for forgiveness, Catherine’s expression changes only around 6:51, when we see that she’s beginning to accept his coming on to her. But strangely, her tone of voice is almost that of a villain, and it becomes clear that she is putting on an air for Morris. They agree to marry, and Morris says he will come for her at 9. Catherine continues this act of happiness until he leaves, and proceeds to let her aunt know that she has no intention of going with Morris.

Here, Catherine starts to show signs of an almost hypnotic possession. Her voice changes as she says:

He came back here with the same lies. The same silly phrases. He has grown greedier with the years. The first time he only wanted my money. Now he wants my love, too. Well, he came to the wrong house. And he came twice. I shall see that he doesn’t come a third time.

As Morris comes, Catherine instructs the maid: “Bolt it, Maria.” Maria bolts the door, then proceeds to go to bed. Catherine completely ignores Morris, leaving him outside knocking and banging on the door to be let in. As Catherine ascends the stairs, we see another faint glimmer of a smile, this time seemingly triumphant.

A friend and fellow cinephile, with whom I discussed this scene, reads into the ending a bit differently than I do. I see Catherine as a very cold and calculating person at the end, who has discovered tremendous power within herself due to the abuses of her father and Morris, and uses the powers to hurt. My friend sees it from a feminist perspective–Catherine’s newfound power gives her the ability to do what she wants and what she feels is best for her. One of the marvelous aspects of this movie is that thanks to Wyler’s brilliant direction and de Havilland’s magnificent performance, there are multiple ways to read into the ending and its significance.

I would like to pose to you, dear readers, the question of how you read the ending of the movie. Do you see Catherine’s desertion of Morris as an action committed by a jaded, embittered woman, or do you see it as an act of liberation? I look forward to hearing from you!

Olivia de Havilland poses with her Oscar for “The Heiress.”

This post has been awarded Best Classic Movie Discussion of 2011 by the Classic Movie Blog Association.

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35 responses to “The Final Scene of “The Heiress” (1949)

  1. Laura Binkley

    I had never seen this movie prior to the TCM screening (which is odd because I’ve heard a lot about it, luckily nothing about the end) …..and wow — I was surprised and pleased by the ending. I don’t think it shows she was embittered at all!! Hurt, absolutely, but recovered and aware. The slight smile on her face as she ascends the stairs. She’s her own woman, maybe not “liberated” by that moment, but still…no longer what her father had accused her of being. And certainly aware of her worth and not naive enough to be taken in again. I think what most surprised me about the ending was that she didn’t *shoot* him….I was expecting her to have enough “passion” left to take a true payment for the grief he’d caused. So the fact that she simply locked the door and went to bed…wow…..ahead of it’s time. She’d moved on.

    And the earlier scene, when she sees him again had a couple of subtle & wonderful bits. Giving him the buttons….well, they seem symbolic of the $$ he’d expected and then not been offered the first time around. Sort of a cleaning away of the old, false dream. When she said she’d “forgiven him a long time ago” , that rang true — her tone & demeanor totally changed…..you could *tell* it was heartfelt. Just not willing to sell herself short ever again now that she knows his true mettle, and her true worth.

    A great finish!!

  2. Thank you for your very insightful and articulate comment! You make very good points, I especially love what you had to say about the buttons. I’m totally in agreement, and Monty gives a VERY good reaction to being presented them. I absolutely adore this movie, and I think it’s one of the great endings in Hollywood history! Thanks again for your comment!

  3. I think it’s Catherine letting go of her bitterness. As she starts up the stairs she’s hesitant and unsure. But the further up she’s going, the more she’s walking away from Morris, and her insecurities. By the top of the stairs she smiles, walks proud, and feels a lightness she hasn’t felt before. I thought giving Morris the buttons was a way to bring a finality to thier relationship. Those buttons were probably a reminder of what could have been and betrayal. Giving them back to Morris is a powerful statement. She has also decieded to never embroider again. To me that means she’s leaving behind her old life. I love how you described Catherine’s voice when telling her aunt about Morris as a “hypnotic possession” because that’s what it was. Those lines gave me chills.

  4. Her father won. I cannot accept Catherine’s actions as a show of liberation. She has the power and a moment of revenge, but nothing more.

  5. This tends to be my reading of it as well, Patricia. To me, this was the act of a woman who had become so jaded that she was capable of truly nasty revenge. Not to say that Morris didn’t deserve it–I don’t think anyone denies that he really did deserve it! But it was pretty brutal. Only a person who has been disillusioned by humanity is capable of doing that to someone.

  6. Hi! First of all I’ll like to say that Catherine frees herself from Morris, but I think that same act that frees her from his lies, gets her closer to her father, controlling her even from death.
    Personally, what was more significant to me from the last scene was the part when Morris sees from outside the light come and then leave slowly. He realises that if that light dissapears, it’s the end. That’s when he starts to pound the door. I think the light symbolises hope (for money, love…) and the manner he watches his hope die slowly, as Catherine climbs the stais with the light, gets him desperate.
    One more thing to consider: was Morris lying all the way? We seem to be convinced by Catherine’s father and Catherine’s behaviour at the end of the movie but even if Morris’ acts are a little bit suspicious (and, yeah, I know he actually lies to her and leaves the first time) we never REALLY know if he’s telling the truth. We only get Catherine’s interpretation of the situation.
    That’s what I love a bout that film.
    Thanks for the blog entry, loved it! :)

  7. You’re totally right about Catherine when she gets to the top of the stairs. She is triumphant, she’s finally gotten rid of Morris forever. Very interesting insight into Catherine! When I first watched the movie, I, too, got chills at the “He came back here with the same lies” bit. And every time I watch it, that part affects me. What a movie!

  8. I had this exact conversation yesterday after a friend watched ‘The Heiress’ on my recommendation, knowing it’s one of my favorite movies. She said she ended up not liking the movie because, after being so sweet and caring in the beginning, Catherine ended up just as cold and manipulative as those around her (her father, Morris, Aunt Lavinia) in the end. Catherine’s transformation from a naive, timid young woman to a strong, though somewhat hardened (and yes, resentful) adult is one of my favorite aspects of the film and, in my opinion, gives the story more realism and makes ‘The Heiress’ such a wonderful character study. I guess I can see both sides of the coin, but I tend to agree with Sarah’s interpretation above. I like to believe that Catherine’s eventual behavior toward Morris was more an act of liberation rather than a reaction of absolute bitterness and scorn. I agree with the perspective that Catherine forgave Morris, but she would never forget how she was treated and ultimately she would not allow those people to affect her in such a way any longer. She wanted to put that part of her past behind her and, although she was embittered by the events, she wouldn’t let them truly change who she was. I think Catherine was justified in her actions, but I don’t think they define her true character. Whatever one’s interpretation, it just goes to show what a great movie ‘The Heiress’ is that it continues to rouse such conversation after all this time!

  9. In my opinion it’s a bitter victory.She is a wiser woman, of course, woman who is aware of her strenght, of her value and well aware of the ways of the world but in the process she has begun to resemble her father.We don’t know what made dr,-Sloper the man he was but we know what made Catherine who and what she is at the end of the movie (and of the novel) She never really got over Morris because she never loved anyone else – and probably never will.-

  10. I love the part where she wait to hear the sound of the door bolted by Mariah before snipping the last bit of thread from her embroidery. She already has a satisfied look on her face as she turns out the lamp in the living room. Then, as she takes the lamp there’s a look of uncertainty for just a moment before she ascends the stairs and while she listens to Morris calling her name. But once she begins to walk up the stairs for our final view of her, her face brightens as she approaches the camera and we can see that she has finally understood the duplicity of men’s ways and will be her own woman from this moment on.

    I see it as a moment of revenge but also a turning point in her life where the old Catherine has been discarded for a wiser and more sensible one who will no longer be content to sit in the parlor doing her embroidery but is ready to go on to other things as a woman who has regained her self-worth.

  11. “The actions of the others in her life have hardened her, but the right circumstances can make her soften to what she used to be.” – Backlots

    You make an interesting case that there is a chance that our heroine may someday put aside her bitterness under the right circumstances because we a see a glimpse of the Old Catherine in her face. It’s a good argument you make, and one I would like to believe.

    The ending is so ambiguous that I often change my mind about what happens to her after “the end.”

    “Do you see Catherine’s desertion of Morris as an action committed by a jaded, embittered woman, or do you see it as an act of liberation? ” – Backlots

    It’s both. She is an embittered woman who has freed herself of a terrible detriment to her life – namely that charleton Morris. However, I don’t know that she has or will lay aside her bitterness.

    Even before Morris shows up a 2nd time, we see how she now lives her life, and it does not seem all that healthy. She’s suspicious of any compliments, even from the people who know her best, and the once adventuresome young lady is now self-exiled in her opulent prison.

    I keep seeing Miss Haversham from Great Expectations – the old lady who was jilted in her youth and now wears a wedding gown yellowed with age and keeps rat-infested wedding cake on the table.

    However, when Catherine deliberately cuts the yarn from her embroidery (the one thing she does well and for which her father had great contempt) at the same time Mariah bolts the door against Morris, you get a sense that perhaps she will now lay aside anything (including bitterness) that has kept her from exploring the world and being open to friendships. This may be wishful thinking.

  12. I don’t believe Catherine is a newfound woman at all. I think she’s simply convinced of her status in the world; the one her father had projected on her and equally the one that Morris tried to capitolize on for her inheritance.That last scene is Catherine, both, pleasing her father and basically giving Morris what she thought he wanted (monetary desires; the buttons). Yet she allows herself the freedom to choose. This time, her father didn’t choose for her, neither has Morris. She chose to accept who she is to keep from being hurt or proven wrong, so to speak. The buttons sybolize greed on Morris’s part and generousity on Catherine’s. Catherine basically saw the buttons more valuable than she. She’d already made up in her mind, long before Townsend had reappeared that he never truly loved her, and that perhaps she wasn’t worth his love. Maybe in retrospect, her father was right (in her head). Remember when the maid compliment her at the end, but Catherine took it as only a ploy to take an early stroll that hot night and explained that the maid needn’t say nice things just to be able to leave because she’s just as free in that house as Catherine, herself, is? The director was already setting up the scene to show Catherine’s lack of self confidence. Catherine wanted to prove to Townsend and her father that she was no longer naive. But before she gets hurt, she was going to stay one step ahead of her opponents to prevent them from having power over her heart and issuing any heartbreak. I’m sure she played in her mind over and over how she would get her revenge had he ever tried to return. This was just her moment of reckoning.

  13. I TRULLY BELIEVE THAT OLIVIA DEHAVILAND WAS ONE OF OUR FINEST ACTRESSES…SHE DID GET THE OSCAR NOD….BUT EVERYTIME I WATCH HER (MY FAVORITE IS “MY COUSIN RACHEL”)I SEE SOMETHING NEW IN HER PORTRAYALS…SHE IS 96 NOW…WHY NOT GIVE HER ANOTHER OSCAR THIS YEAR????

  14. I guess I will be the only one who sees a different ending. First of all, I LOVE this film. I’ve seen it countless times and each time I count the ways in which it is truly magnificent. However, I am not one to believe that Morris was only a gold-digger and not in love with Katherine. I’ve watched Monty’s portrayal give such passion and ardor to his pursuit of Katherine. I believe his acrimonious relationship with Dr. Sloper was a true means to cause him to want to go off and make something of himself, thus disproving Dr. Sloper’s beliefs of him. Why not give Morris the benefit of the doubt? It’s entirely possible that he did run off to make his fortune—after all he was very young and they did that in those days—and that he returned to Katherine believing she would be ready for him—– Yes, I know it was in a rather propitious time for him to return–but let’s say he did return, was in love with Katherine and she rejected him when she shouldn’t. I don’t know, I always love a love story and for this, I will always give Morris the benefit of doubt. I’ve read everyone else’s thoughts and I do believe Katherine DID change after her father’s death….but wouldn’t it be a nice thought if she had taken Morris when he came back and they lived happily every after? Just a thought…….

  15. ["I’ve read everyone else’s thoughts and I do believe Katherine DID change after her father’s death….but wouldn’t it be a nice thought if she had taken Morris when he came back and they lived happily every after? Just a thought……."]

    I don’t think so. I believe that Catherine did the right thing.

  16. I don’t understand this attitude that Catherine should have accepted Morris in the end. It seems to reek with a paternalistic idea that a woman cannot be happy without a man by her side.

  17. Well, I think the point is that the ending is layered. There’s no right or wrong answer, it leaves the situation open to interpretation. The question is not whether Catherine should or should not have accepted Morris at the end, but rather her motives behind rejecting him. Was it to get revenge, or was it to liberate herself from his influence?

  18. coronercountess

    I’m more towards the “liberated” side of the interpretation divide. If for no other reason that that it would be very unusual for Catherine to reduce herself to being “rich, respected and unloved” after having pointed out to her father that that’s what he seems to want for her and why he can’t cut her out of his will.

    But I do agree, it’s all quite ambiguous. The embroidery, for instance. Her telling her aunt that she “shall never do another” could mean any number of things. As the one thing that seemed to give her solace and her one consistent talent from her younger, awkward days, it could mean she’s cutting ties with her youthful optimism, choosing to cling to her bitterness.

    Or: it could be read as a consciously symbolic effort to move on from the past; if she’s not going to sit at her loom all the time anymore, then what’s to stop her from visiting the relatives who keep asking her to? What’s to stop her from going out into the community and maybe putting her money to good use, perhaps via charity and public works? Maybe she’ll even find love that way, or at the very least make friends.

    The ascent of the staircase is also pretty ambiguous. She’s walking away from Morris, so clearly there’s the echo of desertion and her leaving him behind. However, I have to wonder: is her ascending the stair supposed to be a proper ascension (meaning her “rising above” the past so to speak) or her finally deciding to stay tied to the Square? I almost wonder if the point would have come across differently if she had, say, stepped out back and into the garden? (I seem to recall a garden, I could be wrong) Minor nit pick, not much of a point, just something that keeps me up at night.

  19. I like your analysis of the embroidery. That does seem to point toward the “liberated” side, and the symbolism of her ascending the stairs is definitely something to be thought about. I find it fascinating to watch the difference in the two times she ascends the stairs–the first time as a deserted, forlorn woman, and the second time triumphant, doing to Morris exactly what he has done to her. Thank you for this insightful comment.

  20. I think by shutting Morris out and finishing the embroidery, she is at last a free woman who knows her own worth.

  21. I found this for you regarding the novel:

    In the novel, we learn that after this tragedy, as the years pass, she becomes quite a figure, and that she goes in for charity work—hospitals and orphanages and all sorts of institutions. So she builds for herself a wonderful life—it’s not complete, but it’s certainly a good one—where she is surrounded by people that regard her highly.

  22. That is great information! So she sort of broke loose from her chains and became her own person. Thanks for sharing that!

  23. coronercountess

    Perhaps it’s the phrase “it’s not complete, but it’s certainly a good one (life)” that sparks this train of thought, but just hear me out:

    The fact that Morris is the most action Catherine has ever gotten in her life and the rigid standards of society she still has to hold herself as a rich heiress (regardless of whether she has liberated herself or not), seems to indicated that maybe, perhaps in this day and age… The Heiress could be due for an erotic re-telling or at least a revamp… ?

    Just throwing that out there. I think there’s a lot of sexual subtext in this story, but at the same time I’m hesitant to cheer on an erotic re-telling, given the kind of bottom-of-the-barrel nonsense that gets churned out in the erotica genre (I’m looking at you, 50 Shades of Grey).

    I seriously doubt an erotic re-telling would do the film adaptation any justice, but that might just be because of the definite divide between high-brow cinema and x-rated content. Though with the advent of “glamcore”, perhaps …

    What do you all think?

  24. A revamp/reexamination for sure, I think it would be difficult to keep the historical accuracy if we were to make it more based on sex, but that’s not to say that more overt suggestions can’t be added. The play is being revived on Broadway right now, I’d be curious to see what they do with it. I’ve heard mixed reviews about this production, but it would be interesting to see if any new references are added.

  25. coronercountess

    Too right, the staircase tends to be the most divisive aspect of interpreting this film. That first ascent is clearly when the transformation began. Almost everything about her seems to have changed after that scene: Her body language (now coolly poised where once she was cringing and awkward), her voice (once high and beseeching, now much more flat, more malleable and apt to take on a note of command, derision, or seductiveness), her attitude (usually nervously attentive and eager to please, now merely attentive and neutral, almost mercurial depending on who she speaks to; note that the only thing that seems to whip her into a passion post-desertion is her father and Morris, the two men to have wronged her the most), etc.

    That second ascension seems to be the moment that’s the hardest to decipher. Is it merely an echo of Morris’ desertion, a debt repaid and nothing more? Is she going to become a recluse of the house and of Washington Square? Is she rising above the past? Is she going upstairs to go to bed after her victory, or will she be packing her bags for parts unknown? Is she going to wake Aunt Penniman and throw her out? (Heh. That last is really more wishful thinking on my part. Her aunt was equal parts thoughtless and heartless towards the end; she seems more eager to relive her own youth and live vicariously through Catherine, than to express genuine concern for her ward)

    I love this movie. I could watch it a thousand times and never have a distinct answer … and yet always come away with a distinct impression, that of greatness.

  26. Interesting, I have a different reading on Aunt Penniman. I don’t think she’s malicious or heartless, just kind of clueless and trying too hard. Catherine and Aunt Penniman are very much alike toward the beginning, naively optimistic and almost childlike in their personalities and the way they relate to people. Catherine loses that when Morris deserts her, and Aunt Penniman doesn’t. That’s the way I read the character.

  27. I’ve always thought it is a little of both.. In some ways she becomes so hard, like her father. I don’t think it is a straight liberation by any stretch but that up is what makes the ending great and so ambiguous. Kinda like GWTW! lol
    In many ways I feel that Monty played it perfectly ambiguously… He wasn’t a total mercenary because he was so likable. And would Catherine have been so bad off with him?? It’s a tough call and I love that about it!!

  28. Dang I wish I could fix that typo!!! “up” doesn’t belong in there. Oy! One of these days I’ll get better at typing on an iPad !!

  29. I loved the ending and thought it a triumph for Catherine.

    I will never understand why people are harder on women who don’t just suck it up, bend over and “forgive” those who hurt them. Why is a woman who doesn’t just “forgive: worse than the person who does the damage to her in the first place?

    Female anger (especially when it’s justified) is obviously terribly frightening to people.

    Catherine’s father spends YEARS trying to turn her into a copy of her mother; stomping on her feelings when she doesn’t live up to his idealized version of a dead woman (was Mrs. Sloper really that saintly?) – but Catherine is the bad one because she finally has enough and tells him off? Catherine is the bad one for not going to his deathbed so he can die in “peace” after all the horror he put her through?

    As for Morris – you could practically see him appraising the house as he strutted around it, both before and after his desertion. “This will soon be MINE!” It’s not like he deserved any better than she gave him. Hell, he walked out of there with some nice jewelry; which will probably keep him for a few months – it’s not like the guy is capable of living an honest life, after all.

  30. @JMM – Thank you, someone said it! In movies and life, the ‘responsibility to forgive’ allows falls to the victim.

  31. The interesting thing about The Heiress is that it is basically a female empowerment movie, set in an era where women were subservient and even made during a time when women were often caught in stifling relationships. And perhaps this is why it has stood the test of time so well, though people never seem to refer to it in the same vein as other, later movies that deal with the same themes. Fascinating. Thank you for your comment.

  32. I agree with most of what I have read but I do believe that Catherine’s father really did love her! He had a not so warm way of showing it. He gave here the best, made time for her, tried to keep Morris away from her, didn’t wish to tell her early on that Morris was no good, did want to disinherit her etc.
    But at the end, I do think that Morris fell in love with her and she knew it! she says,” he’s become greedier.first he wanted my money, now her wants my love too”
    Both men loved her at the end and lost her.

  33. Sorry, Anonymous. I will never believe that her father loved her. His “best” was an effort to turn her into the image of his dead wife. In the play, he admits that he gave her all that schooling so she would “make it up” to him for killing his wife – by becoming her! Holy emotional incest!

    I don’t think Morris loved her, either – but he wanted her to love him at the end.

  34. danyulengelke

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

  35. I don’t see her as hard or bitter, more toughened and aware. I don’t even see her as necessarily cruel to Morris, she’s settling a score but she not treating him as badly as she could. He’s a fool to think that she wouldn’t harbor any bitterness towards him and falls into his own trap. Her moment of hesitation at the door is understandable but she’s right to turn away.

    I feel that from the time of Morris desertion and her father’s rejection of her she was somewhat of a ghost figure drifting in that house. Her reluctance to leave it, shown when she once again refuses her aunt’s invitation to visit them, and her reserve a sort of imposed sentence she placed on herself until she has her chance to even the score with Morris. Her dreamy smile as she ascends the stairs is a signal that it is finally HER house, her place in the world and she is strong enough to go it alone, all the old torments are done.

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