Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

Leave Her to Heaven
Leave Her to Heaven (1945 poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

First scene: Deer Lake, Maine

Richard Harland arrives by boat, claims “It’s good to be back.” (We would learn that he had spent two years in prison).

While traveling by train in New Mexico, novelist Richard Harland (Cornell Wilde) meets Ellen Berent (Jean Tierney), a beautiful socialite from Boston.

Ellen is particularly drawn to Richard, as he reminds her of her deceased father, to whom she had an obsessive attachment.

Ellen is visiting New Mexico to spread her father’s ashes, which she does while riding a horse.

She is accompanied by her aloof mother and her cousin Ruth, who was adopted by Mrs. Berent (Richard is surprised when Ruth tells him this, and wonders why she did not say “Mr. and Mrs. Berent” adopted her).

Richard and Ellen discover they are staying with the same friends, and they begin a whirlwind romance.

Richard is fascinated by Ellen’s dazzling beauty and intense personality.

The couple’s affair is interrupted when Ellen’s fiancé, attorney Russell Quinton, from whom she is separated, arrives unexpectedly.

Ellen announces at that time that she and Richard are to be married–to Richard’s surprise.

Ellen and Richard marry in Warm Springs, Georgia, before staying at Richard’s lodge on a lake in northern Maine.

Their domestic life is quiet and stable at first, but it becomes gradually apparent that Ellen is pathologically jealous of anyone and anything Richard cares about, including his family and career.

During an unexpected visit from Ellen’s family, her mother attempts to warn Richard that Ellen is prone to obsessiveness and a compulsion to “love too much.”

Ellen’s resentment only grows when Richard’s beloved teenage brother, Danny, crippled by the effects of polio, comes to live with them.

One afternoon, Ellen follows Danny on the lake in a rowboat as he attempts to swim from one end to the other. Ellen knowingly encourages him to press on, even as he begins to struggle to stay afloat.

She watches from the boat as Danny sinks below the surface and drowns.

Gene Tierney and Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven

Danny’s death is presumed to be an accident, and Ellen feigns sympathy.

After settling at their home in Bar Harbor, Richard is despondent.

At Ruth’s suggestion, Ellen becomes pregnant in an attempt to please Richard, but later confesses to Ruth that she does not want the child, referring to it as a “little beast.”

One afternoon, Ellen throws herself down a staircase to induce miscarriage. She succeeds in terminating the pregnancy.

After recovering in the hospital, Ellen accuses Ruth of being in love with Richard, citing a dedication in his new novel that possibly alludes to her. Ruth rebukes Ellen by accusing her of causing the misery that has befallen the family.

Richard overhears the argument, and he begins to suspect that Ellen is responsible for the deaths of Danny and of their unborn child.

Richard confronts Ellen about Danny, and she remorselessly admits to having let him drown. She then cruelly tells Richard she would do it again if given the chance.

Following the confession, Richard leaves Ellen, but does not pursue criminal action as he does not believe there is sufficient evidence.

After Richard departs, Ellen sends letter to Russell—now the county district attorney—in which she accuses Ruth of plotting to murder her.

Several days later

While on picnic with Ruth and her mother several days later, and unbeknownst to them, Ellen deliberately ingests sugar laced with arsenic.

The poison causes Ellen to go into organ failure over several days, and doctors are unable to save her.

When Richard visits Ellen on her deathbed, she requests in his confidence that she be cremated, and that he scatters her ashes where she spread her father’s in New Mexico, to which he agrees.

After Ellen dies, Ruth has her remains cremated at Richard’s instruction.

Courtroom melodrama

She is subsequently charged with Ellen’s murder, prosecuted by Russell. During the trial, Russell proposes that Ruth plotted to kill Ellen so she and Richard could be together, and frames Ruth’s cremation of Ellen as a calculated decision to prevent autopsy.

A recalcitrant Richard testifies about Ellen’s psychopathic jealousy, insisting that she made her own suicide appear as a murder to punish him and Ruth.

Ruth is ultimately acquitted, but Richard is sentenced to two years imprisonment as accessory in Danny’s death, as he withheld his knowledge of Ellen’s actions.

After completing his sentence, Richard returns to his lodge, by boat, just as he had in the first scene,

He is welcomed lovingly by Ruth, and they meet and embrace on the bridge.


Directed by John M. Stahl
Screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams
Produced by William A. Bacher, Darryl F. Zanuck

Cinematography Leon Shamroy; Color process Technicolor
Edited by James B. Clark

Music by Alfred Newman
Production and distribution company: 20th Century Fox

Release dates: December 20, 1945 (Carthay Circle Theater, L.A.); December 25, 1945 (NYC)

Running time: 110 minutes
Box office: $8.2 million (worldwide rentals)