“Only I know what I lost when she died — and what I got in her place.”
Peary further notes that “it’s obvious… [Catherine] has been deprived of love and affection her whole life by her father and other men”; when watching how she “endures her father’s subtle insults”, we can tell that “she has been his target for so long that she accepts them as part of the daily routine”. Indeed, seeing poor Catherine endure so much — and then watching her taken in by Clift’s charms, with only heartache of one kind or another sure to follow — is more than many viewers may want to subject themselves to. But de Havilland’s performance is so achingly vulnerable — and the screenplay (by Ruth and Augustus Goetz) so finely crafted — that we can’t help watching in morbid anticipation to see how Catherine will proceed. Ultimately, The Heiress becomes a tale of sad revenge, as Catherine suddenly realizes she has endured a lifetime of unwarranted mistreatment from her emotionally abusive father, and must tap into an inner strength she’s only beginning to realize she possesses.
While de Havilland’s performance is universally acknowledged as masterful, opinions differ widely on how successful (or not) Clift is as Catherine’s ambiguously-motivated suitor; personally, I find him nicely cast, with oodles of requisite charm and good looks, and fully believable as a closet cad. Meanwhile, Richardson gives a chilling performance as Catherine’s father (the things he says!), and Miriam Hopkins is convincing in a supporting role as Catherine’s over-eager Aunt Lavinia. Adding to the film’s power and authenticity are fine attention to period detail, skilled direction by Wyler, and a noteworthy score by the inimitable Aaron Copland. Film fanatics shouldn’t miss seeing this classic literary adaptation at least once.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)