Tuesday, February 6, 2007

THE HEIRESS (Paramount 1949) Universal Home Video

William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) is a chilling character study in cold-hearted spite under a veneer of cultured manners. Based on Henry James' novel, Washington Square, and set in the elegant refinements of New York, circa 1849; Olivia de Havilland is Catherine, an awkward introvert living under the subtle tyranny of her doting father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Sir Ralph Richardson).

Catherine’s late mother was a sublime creature of stately elegance and accomplishments. Though Dr. Sloper takes every initiative to transform his daughter into a carbon copy of his wife, he also seems to derive a perverse pleasure from reminding Catherine how little there is of her mother within herself. Hence, the child is reared with a litany of inbred insecurities that cripple her social development.

The greatest concern for Dr. Sloper is what will become of the millions Catherine will inherit from his estate upon his death.
Hence, when a penniless, but handsome and sophisticated young man, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), begins to court Catherine, her father becomes suspicious of his intensions. Catherine is plain and boring, Dr. Sloper deduces. She has absolutely nothing to offer this stud but money. Refusing to surrender the only love she has ever known, Catherine abides her father’s will when he threatens to disown her. To prove his point about Morris, Dr. Sloper arranges a series of events that alter and shatter both Morris and Catherine’s chances for happiness.

The film is a striking and detailed portrait of class hypocrisies. Director Wyler bates his audience with the promise and prospect of reconciliation doomed to tragic extinction. An elegant, perverse and ultimately scintillating critique of base brutalities set beneath cool manners, The Heiress is a film brimming with intense melodrama. It is a must have.

Universal’s DVD is quite adequate. The B&W image is relatively free of age related artifacts. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered with deep solid blacks and very clean whites. Occasionally the pristine quality falters into moments where film grain becomes heavier than one would like, but overall, this is a satisfying visual presentation of a much neglected classic.
The audio is mono but well represented.

The only extras are a brief introduction from TCM host Robert Osbourne and the film’s original theatrical trailer. In keeping with previously issued classic titles – Universal does not provide a separate menu for chapter stops, though one is able to advance through various predetermined chapters on this disc.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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