Leave Her to Heaven: Cult Movie–Noir in Red Color

Last week, in one of my many sleepless nights, I began watching “Leave Her to Heaven” at 3am in the morning and continued to view it with excitement and exhilaration to its last frame two hours later.

I am not sure that I can explain rationally as a scholar or a critic what makes this picture, which I have seen at least a dozen times, so mesmerizing, though I realize that it’s riveting on any number of levels.  All I know is that this film noir in color gives me the kind of pleasure that very few contemporary films do now a days.

Centering on an insanely jealous, cold-blooded murderess, splendidly played by Gene Tierney in an Oscar-nominated performance, John M. Stahl’s “Leave Her to Heaven” is one of the most intensely cruel and colorfully lurid films ever made.

In 1945, at the end of WWII, a cycle of films known as film noir dealt with the issues of obsession, addiction, and jealousy, including “The Lost Weekend,” “Mildred Pierce,” “Spellbound,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “The Woman in the Window,” and “Leave Her to Heaven.”

According to Variety, “Leave Her to Heaven” was the second highest-grossing film of the year, a blockbuster by today’s standards.  The most commercially popular picture in 1945 was “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman.

Though rooted in some of the conventions of the noir and psychological melodrama genres, “Leave Her to Heaven” is a one of a kind work. This may explain why it has become a cult movie, frequently shown in retrospectives (Film Forum showed a new restored print a year ago) and festivals.

The film uses the framing device of a flashback, which informs the audience about a personal tragedy inflicted upon a writer called Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who has served two years in prison.

The story proper begins on an accidental meeting on a train, which proves to be fateful and fatal.  (Trains seem to encourage such meetings, as evident in several Hitchcock movies, including “Strangers on a Train”).

Riding to a ranch where he is to work on his new novel, Richard meets a beautiful woman named Ellen Berent (jean Tierney). Unbeknownst to either of them, they are on a journey to the same ranch. Although she is engaged to be married, Ellen falls hard for Richard. Just a few days later, they get married, without really getting to know each other.

Cutting their honeymoon short, they visit Danny (Darryl Hickman), Richard’s crippled brother. Ellen shows maternal instincts in devoting her time to helping Danny learn how to walk, and the lonely boy responds to her attention with warmth and excitement.

On the surface, Ellen seems to be the considerate wife and sister-in-law–until she learns that Danny will be living with them at their Maine cabin. Obsessive in her jealousy and refusing to “share” Richard’s love with anyone, Ellen begins to devise malicious plans to keep Danny, and anyone else who might interfere, out of sight.

In order to be Richard’s sole companion at his “Back to the Moon” (also the title of his book) lodge in Maine, she sends his handyman Thorne away, lets his crippled brother Danny drown, and then murders their unborn child by throwing herself down a staircase.

All along, she feels threatened by the presence of her kind and sensitive adopted sister, Ruth (Jeanne Crain), to whom Richard dedicates his book.

Ellen later admits to Richard that all the recent accidents were planned by her in order to maintain their love. When she realizes that he’s about to leave her, Ellen kills herself with poison in a way that incriminates both Richard and Ruth.

At a court trial, which occupies the film’s last and weakest reel, Richard is acquitted of Ellen’s murder, though he is convicted as an accessory to her crimes as he had failed to report her criminal negligence.

But all ends well, and Ruth waits for him at the lodge when he is released from prison.

The critics Meredith Brody and Lee Sanders have pointed out a strong mythical element running through “Leave Her to Heaven,” from Ellen’s Electra-like adoration of her father, to her Hippolythean stance as she scatters her father’s ashes while on a horseback, to a Medea-like murder of her husband’s young brother and her unborn child.

For other critics, Ellen represents the type of femme fatale, who’s devouring and castrating in the mold of Medusa or Cousin Bette.

Director Stahl underlines the extreme contrasts between Ellen and all the other characters, by placing her against the placid surroundings, such as the pristine lake in Maine.

One of the film’s indelible images is a scary scene that depicts Ellen as she watches her husband’s crippled brother drown just a few feet from her. In a state of trance, she becomes a pure object–she is as cold, impassive, and frozen as a marbled statue. It’s impossible not to notice the smooth, marble planes of Tierney’s face and the specific clothes she wears.

Ellen’s deviance is monstrously frightening, because she commits murder by taking an active inaction rather than engaging in an act of violent killing.  Her blank expression and statue-like posture are underlined by her heart-shaped sunglasses, which conceal not only her eyes but also her soul.

At the time, audiences condemned Ellen as a symbol of sheer evil. However, psychoanalysis would support the references of the film’s title to a different plane of reality; Ellen interacts with her society as an alien. (It’s interesting to note that in some texts, mental illness was referred to as alienism, and psychologists as alienists).

The film is famous for its incredible Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography by Leon Shamory, strikingly original set and costume design, and meticulous attention to detail.  For example, the blue objects in the film match Tierney’s eyes, and the red ones match her lipstick.

While Cornel Wilde elicits empathy as the “normal” and “straight” man, the loyal husband, Vincent Price gets no sympathy in playing the predatory male.

But the story belongs to—and is owned entirely by–Jean Tierney, representing her most memorable work. A classic noir femme fatale, Tierney’s Ellen is a woman of monstrous selfishness.  She is referred to as an ogress, but is celebrated by director Stahl as an imperious goddess who’s defined by tyrannical emotions.

The film is made by one of the melodrama genre’s greatest directors, John M. Stahl, who also helmed the first versions of “Imitation of Life” and ”Magnificent Obsession” (both pictures were later remade by another melodrama maestro, Douglas Sirk).

In many of Stahl’s features, the heroines are super-real individuals, frustrated by their dull surroundings and unimaginative men. Society might see these women as unnatural and mentally ill, but Stahl perceives them as strong, provocative, and unfulfilled.

Stahl’s precisely elaborate mise-en-scene and calibrated tone give full expression to the text’s excessive potentialities and extreme color schemes. Take the truly frighteningly scene, in which Ellen coldly plans and then throws herself downstairs to abort her baby.

Or early on, when Ellen is seen on horseback, scattering the ashes of her father to whom she was completely devoted.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 4

Actress: Gene Tierney

Cinematography (color): Leon Shmaroy

Interior Decoration: Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford, art direction; Thomas Little set decoration

Sound Recording: Thomas T. Moulton

 

Oscar Awards: 1

Cinematography

Oscar Context:

 

In 1945, Tierney competed for the Best Actress Oscar with Joan Crawford who won for “Mildred Pierce,” Ingrid Bergman in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” Greer Garson in “The Valley of Decision,” and Jennifer Jones in “Love Letters.”

The Interior Decoration Oscar went to “Frenchman’s Creek,” and the Sound Award to “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”

 

About Gene Tierney

A great beauty, Gene Tierney was also a versatile actress. Born November 20, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York; she died in 1991 of emphysema.

She played supporting parts in several plays on Broadway, including “The Male Animal” (1940), which was seen by mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who signed her to a long-term contract at Fox. At first, she played mostly routine female leads, before making a strong impression in two film noirs: “Laura” in 1944 and “Leave Her to Heaven” in 1945, for which she received her first and only Oscar nomination.

 

Cast

Ellen Berent (Jean Tierney)

Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde)

Ruth Berent (Jeanne Crain)

Danny Harland (Darryl Hickman)

Russell Quinton (Vincent Price)

Mrs. Berent (Mary Phillips)

Glen Robie (Ray Collins)

Dr. Saunders (Gene Lockhart)

Dr. Mason (Reed Hadley)

 

Crew

Produced by William A. Bacher

Dirceted by John M. Stahl

Screenplay: Jo Swerling, from the novel by Ben Ames Williams

Camera: Leon Shamroy

Technicolor consultant: Natalie Kalmus, Richard Mueller

Editor: James B. Clark

Art Direction-set Decoration: Lyle Wheeler, Muarice Ransford; Thomas Little, Ernest Lansing

Music: Alfred Newman

Sound: E. Clayton Ward, Roger Heman

Special Visual Effects: Fred Seresen

Makeup: Ben Nye