Revenge: Cold, Cruel, and Cool

     Imagine what you do if a lover who jilted you long ago made a sudden sweeping entrance back into your life. One might be tempted to accept this as an act of the divine and return to the love shared in the past. One might also never forget (or forgive) the horrible act that destroyed a wonderful relationship and enact a scheme of horrible revenge. The Heiress, which William Wyler directed in 1949, depicts such an act of revenge. This cold revenge is enacted with brilliance and brings me to a new appreciation of Mr. Wyler's vision for Henry James's Washington Square (1880).

     The story begins with the lonely Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) who compares his daughter (Olivia de Havilland) to his dead wife. The good doctor's daughter can never match the radiance, grace, or kindness of his beloved. It appears that the young Catherine never has her father's blessing or unconditional love. Catherine suffers this silently day by day as we watch her cross the screen with a type of distant longing on her face for some form of paternal bond.

     The young Catherine gets swept off her feet by the dashingly handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). Morris is only appealing on the outside, though; for inside is a man who is the definition of "self-centered." Against her father's wishes, she decides to marry Morris. When Morris hears that Catherine is out of favor with her father and his money, he takes the next train out of town.

     Sometime later, Morris returns offering his love to Catherine once again. She agrees to marry him; but, when he returns, she sends her maid Maria (Vanessa Brown) to bolt the door closed and refuses to let him in. The movie closes with Morris bashing on the door for all he is worth and Catherine striding in victory up the stairs. Perhaps it was her father's refusal to love her as he should that spurned her towards this action. Perhaps, she realized that Morris had no appeal to her anymore.

     I think both of these conditions worked in tandem to give Catherine the strength to turn her back on the man that once turned his back on her.

David Martin

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