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!