The memory of a brilliant but deceased mother impedes a timid young lady’s social progress in this William Wyler film.
The Heiress is a 19th century drama adapted from a Henry James novel and a Ruth and Augustus Goetz play. The plot hinges on whether penniless Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) is offering affection and devotion to shy Catherine Sloper (Olivia DeHavilland) or, as the wealthy lady’s father and prominent surgeon (Ralph Richardson) argues, is merely prospecting for a fortune.
Dr. Sloper‘s sister warns that Catherine cannot “compete with this image you have of her mother. You‘ve idealized that poor dead woman beyond all human recognition.” Still, the doctor takes no heed.
Although there are portraits of her around the house, Mrs. Sloper is, wisely, never clearly shown to the audience. We, like Catherine -who never knew her mother- must rely on the embellished memories of an angry man in perpetual mourning for his wife. Catherine‘s father has effectively made the late woman a shadowy interloper in her own daughter’s future.
One scene in particular shores up the idea of mother inadvertently creating an abbreviated future for Catherine. When Morris’ sister, Mrs. Montgomery (Betty Linley) calls on Dr. Sloper on the latter’s invitation, the literal image of Mrs. Sloper is a point of conversation. Mrs. Montgomery eagerly anticipates meeting her prospective sister-in-law, but before she does, the woman notices a framed portrait of a lady on the table. She picks it up and asks if this is the doctor’s daughter . The woman seems visibly deflated when he assures her that the beauty in the frame is not Catherine but her mother.
After the two agree on the deceased woman’s loveliness, plain-featured Catherine enters. It’s too late. Mrs. Montgomery’s mind is a blank slate which has become filled with the family’s old habit of making Mrs. Sloper the standard. Catherine has little chance of creating a good first impression here, as is her lot in life. Mrs. Montgomery’s paradigm shift is emphasized in how she interacts with the portrait once Catherine enters. The film version boosts the presence of the mother more in this scene than does the play.
Onstage, Mrs. Montgomery is directed to pick up the miniature as Dr. Sloper calls for his daughter, then replace it on the table when Catherine enters. With this gesture thoughts of the mother gently waft in and out of the audience’s mind during Mrs. Montgomery’s visit and through to the end of the scene when Morris himself comes to call and sits at the center table. However, the movie is more relentless in driving home the point.
The cinema’s peculiar properties and the placement of characters allow Mrs. Montgomery to hold Catherine’s past in her hands in a way which - almost like a knife- truncates the young lady’s future. This could not have been done as effectively in the play since audience members have different vantage points. Plus the Goetzes do not allow for this kind of positioning.
After a few painfully awkward exchanges between the two ladies, Mrs. Montgomery exits the house, never to be seen onscreen again. The lady figuratively takes with her not only the image of Mrs. Sloper in mind, but also Catherine’s and Morris’ plans for marriage. The downward spiral of an already tenuous courtship begins in earnest once the entrenched familial image contaminates the thoughts of even this open-minded visitor to the Sloper residence.