I shouldn't have been afraid that the first movie from Chad Hoolihan's "21 Immortal Classics" list might be a stuffy studio-era costume drama — the last word I would use to summarize Chad's general movie preferences is "stuffy" — but the age and source material of The Heiress gave me concern. I went through a Henry James phase in my early 20s, and my takeaway from that short-lived fascination was that he was a particularly dry and withholding writer, and I am still victim to contemporary prejudices against the assumed cobwebiness of old Hollywood prestige pictures. I should know better by now, and The Heiress does its best to further dispel any such preconceptions. It's a potent drama built around a thrilling lead performance by Olivia de Havilland.
Based on a play which was, in turn, adapted from James' novella Washington Square, The Heiress considers the situation of Catherine, a wealthy but exceedingly plain young woman in late-1840s New York who has all but resigned herself to spinsterism when an unlikely romance enters her life. Morris (Montgomery Clift) seems too good to be true: handsome, charming and eager for Catherine's affection, leading her father (Ralph Richardson) to suspect the intrusion of a gold-digger.
Unlike the comparatively plot-heavy works from a similar period milieu, like those of Jane Austen, The Heiress stays true to Jamesian narrative economy, taking a swift deep dip into the emotional and psychological tolls of clashing interpersonal perceptions, and the virtue of hope even in the service of self-deception. De Havilland, although unflatteringly made-down, is somewhat hard to accept as lacking beauty or grace, but she sells dowdy Catherine, at first, with an awkward enthusiasm and, later, with such fiery contempt that the script's reserved narrative actions could be mistakenly remembered as grand, violent events of spectacular magnitude. The Best Actress Oscar-winner is a burning core surrounded by of a cast of characters that seem implausible together: stuffy Ralph Richardson as her prickly father, saucy Miriam as Hopkins her widowed aunt Lavinia, and a woozy laid-back Clift performance that feels completely out-of-period but somehow ping-pongs perfectly off of the others.
I don't know why I think of director William Wyler as just another of many anonymous Studio-era journeyman who cranked out one assignment after another with little personal engagement — I've now seen five of his movies and loved them all. He elicits big, powerful star performances inside surprisingly restrained dramas of varying scope. I need to start taking him more seriously as a filmmaker. While the abrupt ending of The Heiress may leave spoiled contemporary viewers with unfulfilled expectations — wanting something bigger, or simply more — James dishes up exactly all that's needed and Wyler wrings maximum emotions out of parsimonious material.