The theme of The Heiress, directed in 1949 by William Wyler, is based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square. Essentially, the book and movie tell a story of emotional despair, rejection, love unrequited, and vengeful retribution. The central character, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), lives in the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. Although she is the heir to a great fortune, she is shy, withdrawn, and emotionally impeded by a strict, detached, and slightly sanctimonious father. The father (Ralph Richardson) has trouble understanding the emotional and psychological needs of Catherine because the wife he loved so dearly, Catherine's mother, had died while giving birth to his daughter.
Although Catherine's father is not capable of giving her the support and attention she craves, a handsome, charming gentleman, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), steps into the picture and becomes everything Catherine could ever want. Naturally, Catherine falls madly in love with Townsend, and they start making plans to become man and wife. While the exceedingly happy Catherine makes her wedding plans, her father is busy seeing through the frail disguise Townsend is wearing. While looking through the eyes of love, Catherine sees only her heart's desire. Her father's eyes, on the other hand, catch a glimpse of reality at its worst. Her father sees clearly that Townsend is only interested in Catherine because her suitor knows that she will one day inherit her father's wealth, along with her mother's. This being the case, her father promises to disinherit her if she marries Townsend. Catherine, with love guiding her heart, thinks she does not care about her fortune and proceeds to make plans to meet and elope with her future husband.
Catherine's emotional and psychological demise begins when Townsend fails to meet her for their elopement as they had planned in the movie or to set a date for the wedding in the book. Now, the awful truth has made itself known: Townsend has only wanted her because of her wealth. Catherine is plunged into a state of despair because of the rejection she is forced to endure.
After the passage of many years in the movie and a couple in the movie, and the death of her father, Catherine does indeed inherit her all of her father's estate in the movie and one-fifth in the book. As one might well assume, her wealth once again attracts her first and still unrequited love, Morris Townsend. On this occasion, however, Catherine is able to see Townsend through a set of new eyes. Her new vision slices through Townsend's false demeanor, and the real man within the fabricated man is revealed to her. Thus, she decides to teach him a lesson much like the one he had taught her. Instead of just sending him politely away, as she does in the book, the cinematic Catherine falls into his arms, forgives him for his transgressions, and makes new plans to elope. Catherine sends Townsend to collects his belongings, and she tells him she will be ready to leave when he returns for her.
When Townsend returns for Catherine, she quietly tells her maid, Maria (Vanessa Brown) to bolt the door so he cannot get in. Now, Catherine's tragic love has completed its full circle. Townsend now ends where Catherine had one begun on the outside of love and happiness, hoping desperately to come in.