Set in 18th century New York, “The Heiress” seems like a typical period drama about (what else) the prospect of marriage. But unlike most romances, this film features no feisty fem. The titular character Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) is plain and boring – a maiden who’s an old-maid-to-be. Even her well-meaning father thinks she’s too dull to woo the opposite sex. Consider her sole great skill: embroidery.

At one party, however, a handsome man (Montgomery Clift) pursues her, soothes her with words, and moves her on the dance floor. Catherine is instantly smitten and soon, the suitor suggests of sudden marriage. Alarmed and concerned, Catherine’s father reins in the galloping relationship. Can this love be explained by its perplexing nature? Or it can all be simplified in matters of finance? When a dreamy but broke guy courts a rich but dreary heiress, suspicions are bound to arise.

“The Heiress,” like its heroine, looks ordinary on first impressions. You’d never mistake it as a classic when it plods through its premise. But once you reach that intriguing turning point, the movie improves considerably. The second act grows sparks as one event triggers another. Doubts lead to questions. Questions incite confrontations. And confrontations exhume the hidden truths and frustrations. Screenwriters Augustus and Ruth Goetz have fashioned a solid story structure here. It is masterful in the way characters slowly emerge above the 18th century demure and unleash their emotions.

With a juicy material like this, the actors amply squeeze out their talents. As Catherine’s father, Ralph Richardson turns in a well-adjusted performance. The role could have been portrayed as purely intellectual snob. But Richardson is smart to engage sensibility into his act. It’s a welcoming trait that makes the character surprisingly accessible. On the flip side, the viewer will have a trickier time assessing the role of the boyfriend. This is thanks to Montgomery Clift who does a fine job of obscuring the man’s objective. Alas, as attractive the actor is, I wish the Mr. Clift could have imparted more charm, sexuality, and flashes of cunning. This could have enlivened the earlier scenes and provided greater impact on the latter events.

Of course, of all the actors, Olivia de Havilland is unequivocally the best. This is, without a doubt, her movie. Her Catherine goes through a transformation that is both credible and drastic. It is a feat for the ages and one that’s rightly rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. The film also garnered accolades in original score, art direction, and costume design. Its black-and-white cinematography should have won too. The movie creates some striking shots; one includes an inventive viewpoint simply involving a mirror by the stairs. In a way, that creative framing is symbolic of the movie’s visionary motto: Nothing is plain and boring when seen from a refreshing point of view.

Grade: A-

Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, and Miriam Hopkins
Based on the play by
Augustus and Ruth Goetz
Screenplay by
Augustus and Ruth Goetz
Directed by
William Wyler

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