The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)
"The Heiress" could probably be the title of a good third of Hollywood comedies from the 30s and 40s, from the admittedly small sample I've experienced. It's particularly appropriate here, because Olivia de Havilland's Catherine Sloper being so utterly lacking in characteristics or personality beside her social status is pretty central to the film's plot. As her father (a very sharp Ralph Richardson*) strikingly puts it in a pivotal scene: "You have nothing else", which is undoubtedly harsh but, as far as the viewer can see, quite accurate.
Before that point, the films plays out almost like a meta mystery, with Wyler playing with the audience's penchants for either romanticism or cynicism. It's hard not to be suspicious of Clift's Morris Townsend from the very start, but Wyler's direction, Clift and de Havilland's performances and especially Copland's score play around with the audience's expectations and emotions, pulling them in the opposite direction so that the film doesn't entirely show its hand too early. There is the old American idea that persistence is a sign of love after all, and it's not hard to read the first two thirds of the film as star-crossed lovers battling an overbearing curmudgeon who can't get over the death of his wife and constantly puts his daughter down behind her back. It could easily turn out to be the tale of a woman gaining her independence and, in the process, helping her father reckon with his grief. That neither of the lovers seems to have much of a personality wouldn't be so uncommon for such a story, after all. There's a playfulness in the storytelling that clashes interestingly with how dead serious the performances are.
It all changes when Richardson openly confronts his daughter, and openly reveals his deep-seated contempt for her. From that point on, the mystery/romance duality disappears and leaves way for a full-on tragedy. Only one of the three characters die, but none emerge unscathed, and de Havilland's performance does a complete 180. The way Wyler films her going up the stairs after realizing her fairy tale was just that is quite striking, and gets repeated for great effect later in the film. As demure and blank de Havilland was in the first part, she becomes something else entirely, feral almost, as she accepts her fate as the most horrible thing that could happen to a woman in victorian society: to become an old maid. I don't know that I can fully reconcile the two halves there, frankly. I think she underplays the romance half too much: it sure creates a huge contrast, but it's also hard to buy her as a consistent character, which is a shame because she really is formidable in the latter part of the film, especially when she gets to enact some small vengeance upon her would-be lover. Wyler's direction also becomes much more dynamic towards the end of the film, which adds to my feeling that the first 30 minutes or so are kinda unengaging by design.
*I wasn't familiar with him, though Letterboxd tells me he's a voice in Watership Down and appears in Time Bandits. Curious to see more, he's very good in this.