The Heiress (1949) Directed by William Wyler
Money as the root of all evil is a counter philosophy which we actually live through while adhering to monetary systems. In our Western culture and subsequently through other cultures, we live by the dollar, pound, euro, yen, mark or whatever your preferred currency is. I've often wondered what would happen if we all threw our hands up in the air and said to hell with living our lives through this capitalistic nightmare, I just want to do what I want to do and forget this rigid convention. Could the Man stop us? Will society allow me to survive? Eric Cantona suggested something similar last week in telling people to withdraw their money from banks. Why not? What the hell has the bank ever done for me? Oh yeah, charged me interest on using my own money.
Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) is very poor, having used his small inheritance to travel Europe and educate himself. On returning to the US he courts and convinces wealthy but dowdy heiress Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) to marry him. Catherine's emotionally cruel father (Ralph Richardson) thinks Morris a fortune hunter and can't believe such a handsome man would fall for his socially stunted yet wealthy daughter. Of course the premise of The Heiress is the class system, the have and have nots.
But is Morris really a fortune hunter, and if so, if Catherine feels his love and is happy, so what? At the least, Morris' attention to Catherine has finally liberated her from her father's unrealistic expectation. Through their relationship Catherine finally finds her own unconventional voice and level of independence. Morris is not conventional, he would rather be poor and have his freedom to do as he pleases, much against the convention of any day. Can you achieve happiness in a relationship if for one side that happiness is based purely on financial security rather than love? It's this quandary that creates the drama of The Heiress.
The acting is superb, all three principles convey deep character understanding. There is intense and satisfying drama in this excellent film. Although an old picture, the themes of The Heiress (based on a Henry James novel) still ring true today. Freedom of creativity and expression is suppressed to tow the conventional line of having a position and bringing in the bacon. How long can we go on with these dated institutions of decency and what one is supposed to do with one's life? Time for change is coming.
Suddenly, in the course of one day a life that seems to be looking at an empty freezing plateau of nothing, is filled with something exhilarating and new. Something that seems so right, even if at this point it is only a vision without much reality. The important thing is that a person's sense of the future, of the unknown, can in a very short moment change radically.
Change and realization come to us in what appears to be a very short period of time. It is as if ideas and emotions can materialize in us without ever existing before. They land. In The Heiress, Catherine
spends a good many years trying to live life so that it will please her father, until one fine day she realizes that he does not appreciate her but is always cruel and patronizing. The same swiftness of change manifests in her life when she falls in love with Morris – in this case her change is without much immediate benefit for herself.
When she eventually is able to pay back to Morris the pain he has caused her, she has grown out of needing to please others and to fit in. Catherine lives alone with her money, her hobbies and her circle of friends. She is liberated. She closes the curtains, finishes her embroidery, takes an oil lamp and ascends up the stairs with stark shadows cast around her and the sound of Morris pounding on the door. I admire her loyalty to her own dignity, an emotional honesty is her priority now. For 1949 this is a rare portrayal of woman who gains control of her life without being punished for living alone.
Or is it really? Am I interpreting the shadows all wrong? Why the strange ghostly shadows and darkness as Catherine rises up the stairs? What are the film makers suggesting with the ending? Is there a deliberate hint towards all the historical mad women locked in the attic? Is that where she is moving towards with her choices in life; madness, loneliness, isolation with the Brontë sisters or the abyss of the Wide Sargasso Sea?
In the end I am not so sure, but I take solace in the vision of my own future.