Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Masterpieces of American Cinema

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.”
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 colorful lurid film noir. 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, which may explain why it has become a cult movie, frequently shown in retrospectives (Film Forum showed a new restored print) and festivals.
The film uses the framing device of a flashback, which informs the audience about a personal tragedy that has befallen the writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who has served two years in prison.
The story proper begins on an accidental meeting on a train. Riding to a ranch where he is to work on his new novel, Richard meets a beautiful woman named Ellen Berent (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, and days later they marry, without really getting to know each other.
Cutting their honeymoon short to visit Danny (Darryl Hickman), Richard’s crippled brother, Ellen devotes her time to helping Danny learn how to walk. On the surface, Ellen seems to be the considerate wife and sister-in-law–until she learns that Danny will be living with tem at their Maine cabin. Obsessive in her jealousy, and refusing to “share” Richard’s love with anyone, Ellen begins to devise a malicious plan 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. But then 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 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 didn’t report her criminal negligence. In the end, Ruth awaits 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, her Hippolythean stance as she scatters her father’s ashes while on a horseback, and a Medea-like murder of her husband’s young brother and her unborn child. For other critics, she is a devouring, castrating female in the mold of Medusa or Cousin Bette.
This mythic aspect of the story is emphasized by the smooth, marble planes of Tierney’s face and the specific clothes she wears.
Director Stahl underlines the extreme contrasts between Ellen and all the other characters, placed against the placid surroundings, 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. 
Ellen’s deviance is monstrously frightening, because she commits murder by inaction rather than violence. 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; she 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 as the predatory male.
But the film belongs to Tierney, representing her most memorable work. A classic noir femme fatale, Tierney’s Ellen is a woman of monstrous selfishness, referred to as an ogress but celebrated by Stahl as an imperious goddess 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 ofImitation of Life” and Magnificent Obsession” (both pictures were later remade by anther 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 engineered mise-en-scene and calibrated tone takes full advantage of the text’s excessive potentialities and extreme color schemes. Take the scene, in which she coldly plans and then throws herself downstairs to abort her baby, which is truly frightening. Or early on, 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
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.
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)
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