Morris Townsend: Portrayal of a Con Man

         They say it is not always easy to catch a con man. Con men are generally slick enough to slip through a person's fingers as easily as water. Their charm and good looks can blind a person to their motives. They seem to be honest in what they say but in fact are after something else (usually money). Indeed, con men can be tricky fellows, but they are not invulnerable. As we shall see, Morris Townsend in Henry James's 1880 novella Washington Square (as well as William Wyler's 1949 film adaptation, The Heiress) was definitely a con man, and he got what he deserved by the end of the story.

         Morris (Montgomery Clift) had no real job to speak of, nor did he have money. Catherine's (Olivia de Havilland) father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson), was considerably wealthy. Dr. Sloper was wealthy enough that, if Morris could get his hands on the money, he could live rather well without ever having to do any real work. So Morris set out to capture the heart of Catherine Sloper, the young girl who was destined to obtain Dr. Sloper's fortune.

         In the beginning, Catherine was considerably naïve, possibly even downright gullible. As was mentioned previously, the victim of a con man is generally fooled by his charm and good looks. Catherine was no exception. She believed wholeheartedly that Morris genuinely loved her; and, as a result, she fell in love with him almost immediately. They hit it off, and it was not long before the two wanted to marry.

         Dr. Sloper, however, was no fool. Though he had not always been the best paternal figure he could have been, he could tell that the unemployed, penniless Morris wanted little more from Catherine than her money. He demanded that Morris leave his daughter alone, much to Catherine's dismay.

         It was easy to see that Dr. Sloper was right when Catherine became willing to forgo her $20,000 inheritance from her father in order to marry Morris. Upon hearing this from her, he packed up and ran, as any con man would. If she were to have only the $10,000 from her mother, then his ploy was not going to be worth it. He blew his own cover. Catherine snapped out of her gullibility when he left, and she later did inherit at least some of Dr. Sloper's fortune after his death. A minor difference between the book and movie occurs here. In the book, she gets a fifth of it because she refuses to tell her father she will give up Morris, although she does anyway. In the movie, however, Catherine gets all the money because Dr. Sloper refuses to disinherit her when he is about to die.

         Like many con men, Morris was not one to give up. He could not let Catherine forgo the fortune that he wanted so badly, so he decided to wait a while and try again when the suspicious father was out of the picture, as any good con man would. He eventually returned many years later. Another difference between the movie and book occurs here. In the book, Morris returns old, fat, and bald, while the movie portrays him as still young with a new moustache. In both versions, he tried to con Catherine into believing that his leaving was for her own good, but she did not buy it this time. She refused to take him back politely in the book. She was more secretive in the movie, and Wyler had her go so far as to trick him, much in the way Morris had tricked her the night that he had left. Catherine was no longer the gullible young girl that Morris could easily con. Instead, she had become more like her father than Morris, Sloper, or even the story's audience (of both the film and novella) could have possibly anticipated.

         Morris was definitely a convincing con man. He had all the qualities one would expect from such a person--charm, good looks, and seemingly honest appearance. Yet when we peer through the veil of his supposed love for Catherine, we can easily see that his true goal was her money and not her heart.

Brandon Hale

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