Criterion Blu-Ray Review: William Wyler’s ‘The Heiress’

It’s about time William Wyler enters the Criterion Collection. The three-time Oscar winner, who directed some of the greatest Classic Hollywood films, was long conspicuously absent from the label’s collection of directors. While none of Wyler’s films needed a crooked “C” on a cover to confirm their greatness, it’s certainly not a bad thing to have. And Criterion nabbed one of his absolute best, the 1949 classic The Heiress.

The Heiress is based on Henry James’ Washington Square, which was turned into a hit Broadway play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper, whose father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), believes will never get married. Catherine is a “plain” girl, boring and without the beauty of her late mother. Constantly being compared to a woman she likely never met in person (in the novel, James revealed Catherine’s mother died in childbirth, but that is not stated in the film) has weighed heavily on Catherine as she tries to find a man who might love her.

During a dance, that man appears in the guise of Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). However, Dr. Sloper assumes Morris has “mercenary” intentions in his interest in Catherine, because no man could possibly be interested in her as a person. This puts a thought worm in Catherine’s mind that even she cannot avoid. Is Morris really in love with her, or only in it for her inheritance?

Wyler had a knack for bringing stage successes to the screen, adapting more than a dozen plays into movies. His eye always found ways to translate them without making them stagey. Just as in his other chamber piece The Little Foxes, The Heiress is never a claustrophobic movie. Cinematographer Leo Tover and Wyler explore almost every room of the Slopers’ Washington Square home, providing some incredible images. The Heiress might feature the most important scenes set on a staircase outside of Hitchcock’s Notorious.

The Heiress‘ is also headlined by one of the truly great performances in film history. Olivia de Havilland is truly remarkable, pulling off a character shift that is as breathtaking as an action movie set-piece or a Cinemascope Technicolor landscape shot. It begs you to ask “How did she do that?” How did she turn Catherine from a shy, naive young girl into the cold-hearted manipulator of the film’s second half? You don’t just wake up one day with the skills to do that. De Havilland is a master of her craft, and what she does here is like nothing you’ve ever seen anywhere.

Montgomery Clift reportedly did not enjoy working on the film, and he never did work with Wyler or de Havilland again. One could see why. He is great in the part of Morris, and his eagerness to become a breakout star in only his third film (following Red River and The Search) plays into his performance. However, Wyler and de Havilland’s collaboration was decidedly old-school for the young star. Where de Havilland was willing to let Wyler mold her performance (after all, it was her idea for Wyler to make the film in the first place), Clift wanted to do the molding himself. It makes The Heiress a film where two acting styles clash, but Wyler still holds it all together beautifully.

The Blu-Ray

Criterion released The Heiress on Blu-ray using a new, 4K digital transfer that looks about as immaculate as it can get. I didn’t detect any major damage at all. The release also uses a mono soundtrack, restored by Universal in 2006. According to the liner notes, Criterion also did some work on the soundtrack themselves.

The extras include:

  • Jay Cocks and Farran Smith Nehme – Although there is no commentary for the film, critic Farran Smith Nehme and writer Jay Cocks provide a critical analysis of the film, its inspirations and production in an enlightening 23-minute discussion. Cocks co-wrote Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence and it’s interesting to hear him discuss The Heiress‘ influence on that film, both here and on Criterion’s 2018 release of the Scorsese movie. The two movies would make for a fascinating double feature.
  • William Wyler – Next up is two short archival features on Wyler. While it would have been nice for a long documentary about the director, the 17-minute clip from an episode of The Merv Griffin Show is a neat inclusion. De Havilland, Bette Davis and Walter Pidgeon discuss working with Wyler before the director himself finally comes on. Next is Wyler’s brief, humble 1976 AFI Tribute acceptance speech.
  • Olivia de Havilland – The biggest single supplement here is this endlessly fascinating 1986 interview with de Havilland by host Paul Ryan. Although they only briefly discuss The Heiress, you could listen to de Havilland talk about old Hollywood for hours. It’s fascinating to hear her talk about her Warner Bros. lawsuit.
  • Ralph Richardson – Ralph Richardson, who earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the film, is represented by this brief excerpt from PBS’ Directed by William Wyler documentary. I’d love to know why that entire documentary wasn’t included here, but I suppose the licensing terms might have been too costly for Criterion.
  • Edith Head – Under the “Edith Head” tab, you’ll find the last two features, both related to Paramount’s most famous costume designer. The first is The Costume Designer, a 1950 short created by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to explain what costume designers do. Larry McQueen, who has quickly become a regular contributor to Criterion’s studio releases, also provides a 15-minute look at Head’s work in the film and her legacy.
  • Trailer
  • “A Cruel Inheritance” – The leaflet includes a short but worthwhile essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson on one side and the embroidered de Havilland portrait by Danielle Clough on the other side.

The Heiress is a perfect, uncompromising picture. Those who believe all Hollywood movies have cheery, happy endings will be shocked by what they see here. This is Wyler and de Havilland at their absolute best and Criterion’s release could not be better. It is begging to be watched over and over again, as the emotional layers are peeled back to reveal what happens when we give in to our true nature.

The Heiress won Oscars for Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland); Best Set Decoration B&W (John Meehan, Harry Horner, Emile Kuri); Best Costume Design B&W (Edith Head, Gile Steele); and Best Music (Aaron Copland). It was also nominated for Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Richardson); Best Director (William Wyler); and Best Cinematography B&W (Leo Tover).

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