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.


81 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… 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.


  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

    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.

  36. I agree with joelnox. In fact, I tend to smile along with Catherine, whenever I watch that final scene.

  37. Pingback: Long Life to the Lovely Livie! | The Wonderful World of Cinema

  38. Yes, it was an act of revenge. But you can see by the deep pain on her face as she ascends the stairs, that her rejection of him is far more traumatic and a greater sacrifice than any he could ever feel for her, or probably anyone, other than himself. And why write of her actions so meanly? She didn’t seek him out and plot this revenge. He came to her. Again. She simply allowed him to ramble on and spin his web of lies about not showing up that awful night because it wasn’t fair to her to lose her inheritance on account of him. How considerate! Sure, she could have not let him in the second time, but she was curious and she just wanted to be in his presence, one more time. Her revenge was a passive but reasonable and deserved response to his manipulative and cruel intentions. She knew this. She knew if she married him, he’d spend all her money soon, have many lovers, and not come home for days. She knew this the first time. But was willing to live that way in order to have him. Not this time. She changed. He didn’t. She’s the hero in this movie because, in the end, she has the character and the strength to honor herself enough to not live a life of torment, even with this handsome charming man whom she loved with all her heart and soul.

  39. That’s interesting that you see deep pain on her face, because I don’t. I see a cold and bitter woman finally getting her revenge–I see her ascending the stairs deeply satisfied. And good for her. This is a women’s movie, before those were being regularly made.

  40. As the movie progressed, we see color changes in costumes worn by Catherine–darkest during the window scene, awaiting her fiancé, Morris.
    When Catherine realizes the offer of marriage –was hastened only because she insisted; her life is forever altered. In the morning after the desertion, she ascends the stairway with dread and resignation.
    The key to understanding the maturity of Catherine, was days later–when she visited Morris’ aunt–the final blow to her ego–and hopes.

    The final scene –Catherine is wearing white (bridal). The dress is feminine and “cool”–as she sat alone with her embroidery.
    Her choice of clothing indicates her attachment to romance; but denying herself the pleasure of it. The sound of Morris’ voice in the foyer brings back the longing of yesteryear –the promise of romance, and the joy of her youth.

    She cuts the thread, as the last chord of attachment. She will no longer morn the loss-as his return only confirms his mercenary intent.
    She allows one last gesture of romance, before closing herself off from love–ever again, by permitting Morris to enter. Giddily, she races up the steps to retrieve the gift. Morris announces he “is home”–knowing he has her heart and soul. Contrary to his belief, he is presented with the brilliant rubies that symbolized her pure love.

    Her turn came –and she took it. This was their wedding night, the remembrance of the inn–and her belief in him, that she was willing to defy her father for his love.
    The door was bolted from within–never again would she love. Her life was forever sealed. Her destiny was the stairs, and life alone. She was pleased with herself that she could deny him, and love forever.

  41. Wow, this is so interesting and a beautiful analysis. I love what you say about the costumes. Thank you for such an insightful comment!

  42. Becki Warnock

    TCM just screened it again last night and I was riveted though I’d seen it before. (I’m not as much a multiple viewer as “real” movie buffs.) A year or two ago, I read the novel on which it is based. The ending is rather different. LOVE the additional drama they brought to the ending in the movie. Ms. de Havilland is a new favorite of mine, to me she’s at least the equal of Crawford, Davis, Hepburn and other big names. To your orig. question, I think it’s a very complicated motivation, that perhaps even the character didn’t know yet — Am I bitter and vengeful? Am I just ready to move on, now liberated from wondering if he’ll ever come back? A great story leaves you asking questions and doesn’t reveal all.

  43. Because I saw the movie before reading the book, it made some thought adjustment necessary. Now I actually prefer the book’s ending, although the film ending is still powerful, like a punch to the solar plexus, and also more triumphant.

    I don’t remember whether it’s from the book or a review of it, but there’s a very telling quote: “Morris Townsend had toyed with her affection, and her father had broken its spring.” Morris was back to try once again to use and defraud her, and in the book she showed no emotion when confronting him, although she had cried privately when her busybody aunt told her he would be dropping by. When he asked her to forgive him and take him back there was no drama, she merely told him flatly, “No. I forgave you long ago, but you treated me too badly.” From that he concluded that she no longer cared for him at all, and the disappointment annoyed him greatly, but the book makes it clear that secretly she still loved him. She had learned a painful lesson concerning men and the likelihood that anyone would ever truly love her, and she never forgot it. That makes Catherine Sloper’s story more tragic.

  44. Very interesting. I can see why they changed the ending in the movie–it’s far more dramatic.

  45. The book is absolutely amazing as well though. Henry James is not easily adapted to the screen. Both are great artistic triumphs.

  46. I definitely see her as cold and jaded. At first devastated and hurt. But they the years she had to put up a wall to protect herself. That wall became more than a protection, then indeed it became power

  47. Great comments about this movie – it really does give the viewer a lot to think about. The dress that she wears at the end is “one of her Paris dresses” – light, frilly and girlish, made for her at a time in her life when she was in love and thought she’d be coming home to marry Morris. Now it’s merely a cool dress for a warm evening – or maybe it’s a bit “Miss Havisham”? Olivia de Havilland’s Oscar is richly deserved. Her expressions, body language, tone of voice – everything works to let you know what’s going on in Catherine’s mind and yet somehow she can still keep you guessing, especially in that last brilliant scene.

  48. Aunt Penniman: “Can you be so cruel.”
    Catherine: “I can be very cruel. I’ve been taught by masters.”
    Says it all!

  49. One thing I found interesting: When Catherine tells Morris of his wedding present from Paris (the first time), he seems disappointed that they’re only buttons until he learns that they’re made of pearl. Years later, when he returns, Catherine tests him on the gift. She brings down *ruby* buttons, and he seems to be delighted. Perhaps this is the moment when Catherine finally, and with certainty, realizes he is truly a gold digger.

  50. Anne-Marie Gabor

    This is a very sad ending. Catherine had previously told her father that if she had to buy a man’s love, she wanted it to be Morris’. She has now become Miss Haversham — rich and lonely. Since Morris came back begging, she now has the upper hand. She should have given marriage a try, even having a baby. If Morris does leave, she will have had some happiness and will have the child.

  51. That is really interesting! Never noticed that–thank you for that insight.

  52. Hmm, interesting perspective. I guess the question is whether or not she will actually have happiness with Morris after what he did to her. I don’t think she would have. And if Morris leaves her, he likely would take all the money. That’s what he was after.

  53. And if Catherine had a child, and was deserted by Morris anyway (probably with a goodly stash of her cash in his bag)– how would she have then treated said child, whether a boy or a girl? Instead of the other parent dying due to his/her birth, he will simply have vanished due to its presence, almost as final a result, and with a fall in social status to boot. Catherine would REALLY have become her father then, with all the mixed love/hate feelings and resentments, and the kid would have been just as sad and confused. I couldn’t even tell you if it would have been worse for a girl or a boy. The girl would likely have been taught to NEVER trust ANY man EVER with predictable disastrous results (look how well that worked for Catherine), and if the boy resembled his father, it would have meant a welter of repressed incestuous feelings and eventual mistrust from his own mother, compounded by whatever character flaws he may have inherited from Morris. And in the event that Morris actually stuck around, there might have been tremendous conflicts over the offspring as the marital relationship went downhill over the years, especially if he didn’t finally get his act together and kept up his wastrel ways.

  54. Catherine is waging the ultimate revenge on Morris as she did to her father on his deathbed. It’s chilling that such a loving, trusting soul could lose all vestiges of human compassion. And that is why the ending is so unreal to me. I can’t believe that kind and simple Catherine could lose her humanity almost to the point of evil. I find it disturbing. And I attribute that to superb acting on the part of not only Olivia Dr Havilland but all the players. I wish there were a sequel where one extraordinary human being we’re able to reach into Catherine’s cold and shriveled heart and pull her back into the light.

  55. Anne-Marie Gabor

    There are men who have sowed their wild oats and become faithful husbands (Prince Rainier of Monaco). I do not like Henry James’ portrayal of spinster women ( “Turn Of The Screw” aka “The Innocents”; “Washington Square” aka “The Heiress”).

  56. I suppose my question was how do you interpret this portrayal? Some think of her as a bitter woman at the end, some as a triumphant one. Am I right in interpreting that you see her as bitter? If so, why?

  57. Linda J. Perry

    This is one of my all time favorite movie.I believe that the final scene shows Catherine even though she was jaded with mistrust & hurt for what was done to her, she found closure in the end, & can truly move on with her life.

  58. Anne-Marie Gabor

    Catherine feels that she is triumphant as she goes upstairs to hug her pillow. She cannot see the nuances in human behavior. She cannot forgive her father or Morris. (What did Jesus say about forgiveness?) She cannot take “a leap of faith.”)

  59. I love this movie and just discovered this discussion. My interpretation of Catherine’s proclamation at the end, that she shall never embroider again, is that she has at long last proved her father wrong. Her father said her only talent was that she embroidered neatly. She clung to that, biding her time, after his death. But now, finally, she has perfected another skill. She has learned to be cruel and clear-eyed, and indeed gained a mastery of it. “I have been taught by masters”. Finally, she can move on from the embroidery, let go of it and her father’s judgment of her, confident in the knowledge she has exacted a double revenge – revenge on Morris, and on her father’s damning indictment of her lack of talents. The spell that both men cast on her, trapping her in their caging of her identity and who she is, through their deeds and words, has been broken. Now she is no longer being defined by them. She defines herself. She is free. Dark, cold and unflinching. But free.

  60. I see the last scenes as an acts of liberation When see finishes the embrodery and says ” that is last one she will do” Her father said that that was only she was good at doing. I see the scene on the stair as one on her understanding and strenngth.

  61. Catherine lived her life being put down, ignored, and made to feel like she was nothing. The two major men in her life were the ones responsible for this…first her father. I believe he did love her but was embarrassed that she was not the picture of social elegance her mother was. He did not see anything about her worth loving by another man except her inheritance (at that point in her life). I like to think that IF the right man had come along her father would have seen it and approved, but he did try to save her from being totally ruined by a fortune hunter like Morris. He did try to keep her from harm, but because he was so cold & distant his true intentions for her well being were totally missed & misjudged by Catherine. Then Morris – young and seeing an easy target for her wealth…I do not think he was in love with her at all, but had found an easy girl to manipulate and live well on her large fortune. You could see his expression change when she told him she had refused her father’s money the night of their first “elopement”. He sure didn’t wait around for her to change her mind.
    At the end, when he heard her father died (and she had his money), here comes Morris professing his love for her again. This time I think she had just plain HAD IT by being emotionally abused and tormented. She was not stupid and she’d had plenty of time to plan what she’d like to do in revenge for both of her abusers. Locking Morris out after dangling that final possibility in front of him was just a tease to make the final pain that much more sharp. And it worked. The satisfaction of her getting her revenge on the two men who had broken her was magnificent. I love it when she makes her walk up the stairs and Morris is banging on the door. One abuser dead…the other never to hurt her again. Perfection!!!

  62. I believe she planned on killing herself by setting fire to the house.

    Think about it.

  63. I haven’t read through all of the comments, but it seems as if I might be alone in thinking that Catherine is planning to kill herself. The only proof I have, really — besides the fact that she’s been beaten down and maligned by the two main men in her life — is that she mentions to her aunt that she’ll never embroider again. That was the one thing she ever enjoyed.

    She has triumphed over the men at last and perhaps feels she has nothing else to live for.

    Your thoughts?

  64. Anne-Marie Gabor

    Nah. In the book she goes on to live a life of charitable giving.

  65. One can imagine a happy ending for Catherine if you really want to because the novel indicates she went on to do charitable work, l made up my own happy ending by extending that info, but that’s just me wanting my happily ever after

  66. She did have her revenge on her father and morris. The question for me is the effect her actions (although in many ways understandable) on her. Was she triumphant? I can only extrapolate from my own experience. When i have acted as catherine acted against those who have injured me, i only succeeded in deminishing myself. I think catherine made the wrong choice in how she handled her father’s death and how she handled morris’s return.

  67. She did have her revenge on her father and morris. The question for me is the effect her actions (although in many ways understandable) had on her. Was she triumphant? I can only extrapolate from my own experience. When i have acted as catherine acted against those who have injured me, i only succeeded in deminishing myself. I think catherine made the wrong choice in how she handled her father’s death and how she handled morris’s return.

  68. If one were to take the hardened/jaded interpretation of the ending, then yes, she certainly lost something by refusing to see her father on his death bed and for revenge on Morris. I think that loss of her character was the real tragedy. She was taught by masters to be this cruel. She could have survived with her sweet character in tact even with her father constantly undermining her with insults and criticisms and thus creating a scared, self-conscious woman with low esteem who actually begged her father to try to come up with something nice to say about her when he was going to meet with Morris (watch both of her Aunts’ expressions, it was heartbreaking for them), but Morris’ betrayal basically validating what her father said about her when he finally told her what he truly thought of her AND her Aunt giving away that she too saw Catherine that way even if she still cared for her just as she was unlike her father, was too much. She may have made the “wrong” choice to some, but some may argue it wasn’t a choice but rather Catherine was beaten up to submission.

    If one were to read her act as empowerment . . . well, they do say revenge is a dish best served cold, but it is a dish that requires some sort of sacrifice of character/innocence and may have some bitterness with the sweet. However, what one gets out of it may be better and more rewarding than not acting.

    Either way, Catherine grew into someone who will no longer be manipulated nor someone whose self-worth will only be determined by the validation of the men in her life. Maybe after some time, the older and wiser Catherine can allow more of her natural personality to shine…the Catherine who was capable of some real witty conversation when she felt safe and secure. Those moments were fleeting earlier in the movie, but now there’s no reason for it to be fleeting, now that she is more in-tuned with herself and has gained inner-strength.

  69. I have read through all the comments but I didn’t see anything related to the thing that really bothered me the most, or maybe I missed it? As far as finding out what she did about how her father felt I really felt so bad for her, I think her father did love her but he was disappointed with the fact that she wasn’t anything like her mother who he apparently adored, he may have also held it against Catherine that she died in childbirth?
    One question that really bugs me every time I see this movie is this: Would Catherine have had a miserable life with Morris? I know he was after her money and maybe he would have turned into a monster after they were married but I don’t think he would have. Catherine could have had a wonderful happy life, with some issues that happen in all marriages, but at least she would have been happy for a while anyway! I have not read the book but I saw a couple of comments stating how she gave to charities etc.? Maybe I’m wrong but when she first fell in love with Morris she was so happy and excited looking forward to being married etc. I don’t think she found that kind of happiness again? Again, I could be wrong.

  70. No wrong answers here, Anne! I guess we’ll never know whether or not Catherine would have had a miserable life with Morris. My guess is that at the very least, she wouldn’t have been loved. She never was really loved by Morris–her money would have been loved. I think her excitement and happiness at being married was due to the idea that someone finally loved her for her, so when her father expressed his reservations, she didn’t want to believe it. Once you feel that kind of happiness, whether or not it’s real, you don’t want it to be taken away.

  71. Thanks so much for getting back to me so quickly Backlots. I agree, Catherine was very naive, I blame her father for that, but the things he said to her, he deserved what she did to him and then some, what horrible things to say to your own child on the premise of protecting her and her money. At least Catherine had some happiness in her life, even if it was fleeting.

  72. Morris left Catherine for California to be an idler, he did not make a fortune there, he came back penniless. Morris is and opportunist, narcissistic, greedy
    jerk that could manipulate naive women. Upon his return and phony apology and excuse, Catherine was no longer naive…thank heavens!

  73. I was wondering why Catherine says that this will be her last embroidery-she tells Aunt she will not do another. After reading your interpretation, I agree that she has shed her ties to her old life of that naive girl. She stayed in the house almost waiting for Morris to slither back. Now that she had her own back at him, she can move on as an adult. Even Morris was impressed when he saw she had dignity-he should have figured out she would reject him.

  74. Great discussion here. I show this film to my high school students and I almost always get a very positive reaction. The themes of love and betrayal, of control and acceptance, are very much alive in their lives. When Morris returns there is always a palpable tension in the classroom. Having watched this film many times, my appreciation for its artistry has only deepened. Something I noticed today was that when Austin Sloper is ill and Catherine is encouraging him to change his will, at one point he bends forward to sit down and his face (and this film is so much about the study of faces, so clearly photographed) partially overlaps with hers (almost like a Picasso painting). I don’t know if it was intentional on the director’s part, but that moment strikes me as a wonderful visual communication of the idea that the personalities of these two people are intersecting at this point (of cruelty). At any rate, I am personally interested in the story (as depicted here or in the novel) as my own father is (and probably many fathers are) quite similar to Austin, with my older brother in Catherine’s role. There are scenes in the novel between them which perfectly capture, almost note for note, scenes between my father and brother which I witnessed growing up. Fortunately, they have both lived longer than the characters in the novel, and some reconciliation has happened between them, though I’ve no doubt that the wounds and paternal regret are still quite alive beneath the surface. It’s for this reason, though, that I’ve no doubt that Austin does indeed love Catherine, if love can coexist with contempt (I believe it can; the human heart is that big). In the novel, if I remember correctly, Catherine actually does earn her father’s respect through her struggle with him, even though her will opposes his wishes….Such a rich story!

  75. Thank you for your insight, Tom. I agree that for many parents it’s difficult when their children don’t turn out as “expected,” whatever that means. But I’m glad that your father and your brother have had an opportunity to make amends. I love your commentary about the faces.

  76. From the first time I saw this movie 15 years ago, it became my favorite film. I haven’t changed my mind. Olivia de Havilland is a true artist and genius. Her portrayal was without imperfection. I am thrilled to know there are others who see this movie as I do. The dialogue between she and her father when she tells him the truth about himself (“If you couldn’t love me you could have at least allowed someone else to”) is brilliant. The entire dialogue throughout is the best. When her father speaks to Morris during dinner, it is the best banter. A perfect film.

  77. Excellent film and excellent cast, I agree! About the end of the film, it’s better than the novel’s, written by Henry James. Shows the final stage of the protagonist’s evolution. I don’t blame Catherine. She must have been well treated by her father (who is trapped by the memories of his lovely and late wife) and Morris. The end may be open to interpretation. People can consider she’ll be scarred forever by the disappointments, the treason and the insults from the two men who should’ve loved her. But I’d like to think, as my father thinks, bad experiences gave her strength. If no one counts the original ending of James, one thing or another can happen. If she says “I can be very cruel”, maybe she means she’s able to be cruel to those who don’t deserve good treatment. If she never gets married, she’s too independent and rich to worry about it and will do many things, like travel the world or perform charities . And, who knows if someday appears a suitable hunsband? Perhaps she will marry someday with a prestigious man as serious as she is now, a man who likes her new self and thinks the way she thinks.

  78. In the original play, “Washinton Square” Kathryn is dead as a woman because of both her father and Morris. At the end she feels nothing but abhorrence for Morris. In the film I got the feeling that William Wyler did not want to show Olivia DeHavilland, in the final scene, as a cold heart woman so Wyler added that sweet yet confusing smile. I believe he wanted the audience to interpret her smile however the viewer wanted or expected it to mean. If I remove the plays original meaning and interpret the end scene in the film, I would say that Kathryn looked liberated from her painful past and felt empowered, but I feel, from her sweet smile, as it was sweet, that I was left feeling she was going to be ok. The return of Morris provided her with her own sense of closure

  79. Very interesting. This is the late 1800s, the women’s suffrage movement was afoot. Is this a nod to what would become the architype of an independent woman liberated from conventions of her time due to inheritance. Due to the influence from her father, aunt and society she was naïve. Morris was an opportunist, her father saw it and rightfully wanted to protect his daughter while at the same time keeping her under his chauvinistic thumb, as I’m sure he kept his beautiful trophy wife. For me it’s a story of the loss of innocence, finding trust in self and facing the truth about the world and oneself. She was awakened to the cruelty of men on both fronts, parental and romantic. She balked against the societal conventions by being willing to elope, so had a brave current running through her only to be dashed by the cruelty once again of a man. I think by witnessing Morris’ greed, she realized the power her inheritance would give, and again showed her independence when willing to forgo it, knowing her father would never disinherit her thus finally exercising a power over him. Once securing her place she was able to forgive Morris (long ago) because she realized she no longer needed a man. She saw their weakness and finally learned to put herself first, as they did. “I have been taught by masters.” I reject the societal view of her as one of cold and calculatingly cruel, as her father, I see her as a mature individual who has taken life’s hard lessons and grown stronger from them. No longer needing a man to validate her existence or secure her a place in society she is free to rise. The ascent up the stairs says it all. The wave of change for women was on the horizon and she was ready for it, even perhaps push it along.

  80. My favorite movie. Somewhat similar to the book, sometimes not. Henry James was colder to both the main characters than the filmmaker was. Henry’s attitude toward love and the heart was distant but not wounded. At least in Washington Square. I feel she is liberated but liberation comes with a price. Her emotional default is to be suspicious of kindness. She feels powerful but she thinks people will only use her for her power and what she gives them. When our weak hero returns, he is his old money-grubbing self but he also loves her. Perhaps even more so now because of what he had to endure. He still eyes her property as his. And yet he desires love too. And this is what irks. He wants love and forgiveness and good people are supposed to forgive the repentant, especially a forner lover or friend. But hero returns to a person who has stopped giving of her trust or goodness, although she gives in a distant “refusal to be untouched” moral, societal goodness. The goodness of an outsider towards those who see her as a “giver.” Not gonna happen. Both want and need closer. Catherine’s closure is freedom from the need for love or praise from anyone. Our hero’s closure is the need to be forgiven, taken care of by a good woman, get the woman’s heart as well as her money. Not gonna happen.

  81. I had heard of this movie many times ,saw the ending a few times but never saw the whole movie until recently. I have watched it 16 times at least in the last several weeks, and it is now a favorite film ,I love Catherine Sloper,,when she tells her father how she feels about his treatment of her and doesn’t see him on his death bed,(my own father died during these days of watching The Heiress,and I did not see him before he died and I did not attend his funeral) is her way of having her say. I think at the end Catherine is triumphant ,that stride up the stairs verses the sluggish and torturous climb after Morris deserted her is telling. And with all of these ideas on her, thankyou all, I have a question and I think about this every time I watch it, did Catherine plan this over the years in the case that he came back or did she decide in that moment when he says he couldn’t be sure if she was disinherited and she smiles and turns away and continues her embroidery? As for her giving him those buttons proves she is not totally cruel as she knew he would sell them and he could survive for a little bit ,at least until he could find someone else to live off of. Also when she says she has been taught by masters she is including Aunt Penniman in that phrase in a lesser way than her father and Morris, mostly for her betrayal on bringing Morris back.

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