However, Montgomery Clift plays Townsend in an enigmatic manner, and viewers can debate his true intentions. Catherine's father, played by Ralph Richardson, and her Aunt Lavinia, played by Miriam Hopkins, take opposite sides in Townsend's pursuit of Catherine. Although both her father and her aunt appear to see through the handsome suitor, Aunt Lavinia is practical and sensitive to her niece's emotional needs, and she counsels compromise in pursuit of happiness, if only fleeting. However, Catherine's father is unyielding and essentially unloving in his opposition to the match. Throughout, Dr. Sloper compares his daughter's virtues to those of his late wife, and Catherine comes up lacking in every quality that he values. Sloper threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries the suitor.
Montgomery Clift may appear shallow and transparent to some, but in essence those are the traits of his character. While Morris is slick and obviously fawning, he is not intelligent enough to be totally deceptive. Only someone as naive and needy as Olivia could fail to grasp that Morris may want something more than her love. Olivia de Havilland transcends her other performances and skillfully and convincingly evolves from a shy, introverted girl into a strong, vengeful woman. De Havilland has often portrayed women who appear genteel and soft on the outside, but whose hearts and backbones can harden into pure steel (e.g. Gone with the Wind; Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and Catherine Sloper is the finest of those roles. With able support from Richardson and Hopkins, Clift and de Havilland make the most of an outstanding screenplay, which was adapted from a stage play. William Wyler directs with a sure hand, and the atmospheric cinematography captures 19th century New York life. Period films are often unraveled by their hairstyles, which generally owe more to the year in which the film was made rather than that in which the story is set. However, even the coiffures excel in "The Heiress." De Havilland's hair looks authentic 19th century and underscores Wyler's fastidious attention to detail.
With an award-winning de Havilland performance, a handsome Montgomery Clift on the brink of stardom, and an engrossing Henry James story, "The Heiress" is one of the finest films of the 1940's. Without qualification, the film holds up to and merits repeat viewings if only to better argue the underlying motives of Clift and the fateful decision that de Havilland has to make.