John M. Stahl, 1944
Starring: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price
“There's nothing wrong with Ellen. It's just that she loves too much.”
A lovely young woman, Ellen, meets a writer, Richard, on a train ride west. They quickly fall in love, though Ellen is there to mourn her father, with whom she was inseparable. She likes Richard, because he reminds her so much of her father. She casts aside her fiancé, an attorney, and essentially tricks Richard into marrying her. Though they are happy at first, Ellen is desperate to be alone for their honeymoon, but Richard invites her mother and sister to visit, and his disabled younger brother, Danny, to live with them. Ellen’s insane jealous deepens by the day. She is cold to her mother and sister, and tries to get rid of Danny by sending him back to the hospital. When that doesn’t work, she casually lets him drown out on the lake near their cottage.
A distraught Richard doesn’t suspect her at first, but their marriage has obviously taken a turn for the worse; he spends all his time with her sister. Ellen wins his attention back by becoming pregnant, but is repulsed by the child growing inside her. She throws herself down the stairs, killing the baby, but is still unable to have Richard all to herself…
Based on a novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams, the excellent script was penned by Jo Swerling of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), another film about domestic unhappiness. Director John M. Stahl (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life) does a solid, confident with one of the most unusual, singular films of the ‘40s. Though Leave Her to Heaven is generally classified as film noir, it is one of the rare entries in the series to be shot in color, Technicolor, no less. This was Fox’s most successful film of the ‘40s, which belies its incredibly unpleasant subject matter.
Similarly to Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven has elements of melodrama that serve to confuse and disorient, particularly when some truly lurid, horrible acts occur. Leave Her to Heaven approaches noir subject matter in a totally fresh way. It does have a femme fatale – Ellen – but she is not a murderess because of greed, she is simply obsessed with Richard and determined to have all his love for herself. Film noir commonly treads the troubled ground of trying to make sense of changing gender roles during WWII and post-war America – this literally takes us to a scene of domestic bliss and turns both marital happiness and gender roles on its head.
There is seemingly one horrifying scene after another, each building in intensity. Ellen admits to being obsessed with her recently deceased father and dumps his ashes all over herself during an odd memorial ceremony where she rides on horseback through the desert. Her behavior worsens after her marriage to Richard, culminating in the drowning of his brother and, somehow even worse, throwing herself down the stairs to induce a miscarriage. This is domestic life at its most horrible and nightmarish.
The two murder scenes – where Ellen kills Richard’s brother and then their unborn child – are vivid and terrifying. In such moments, it is difficult not to see this as a horror film. The cold, psychopathic Ellen, as she watches Richard’s sweet, disabled brother thrash around and then drown in the lake – prefigures Hitchcock’s Psycho or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, as well as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. As with Peeping Tom, there is a tragic element to the story as well. Looking at Leave Her to Heaven through the lens of nearly 70 years, it’s easy to see that Ellen is unwell and is likely suffering from a treatable personality disorder.
It’s clear that Ellen’s mother and sister treat her with kid gloves, indicating that they know something is very wrong, though no one, at any point, attempts to help her. From the first ten minutes of the film, they are reluctant to mention her father’s death, as if they are trying to pretend it never happened. Her obsessive relationship with her father is uncomfortable and has an inevitable incestual slant. Their relationship is never openly discusses; this impenetrable silence extends to other areas of the film, quickly.
It’s weirdly easy to sympathize with Ellen and though she handles it in a monstrous way, her plight is certainly a frustrating one. All she wants is some time alone with her husband and – presumably – sex. She complains that the walls of their cottage are thin and the acoustics are annoying perfectly, implying that everyone in the house will hear what’s going on in the bedroom. Not only does her husband refuse her any alone time by presenting a constant, unending stream of visitors and family members, but he also consistently surprises a woman who states time and time again that she hates surprises. To add insult to injury, he redecorates her beloved father’s room and has the incredibly bad taste to dedicate his book (the first he has written during their marriage) to her sister, who he has been spending all his time with.
Gene Tierney is excellent in the role and this is truly her film. She was nominated for Academy Award for the film and brings both her beauty and icy reserve to Ellen. One of the most popular noir actresses of the ‘40s, Tierney was fresh off of Laura (1944), another film about obsession – though in that film she was the victim, not the perpetrator. Oddly, she was also in the similarly titled Heaven Can Wait (1943), Ernst Lubitsch’s film about marital bliss. Sadly, Tierney herself suffered from mental health issues throughout her life, namely depression, which made it difficult for her to work at times. Thanks to a friendship with Humphrey Bogart – developed during The Left Hand of God (1955) – he encouraged her to seek psychiatric treatment after recognizing symptoms that his sister also allegedly suffered from. The early years of her treatment were unpleasant. She was given shock treatment, which she hated, and she ran away from the hospital. She attempted suicide and was institutionalized off and on for several years, though kept up with her career.
Ellen’s suicide is yet another indication of untreated mental illness, frustration, and sexual repression. Like the typical femme fatale, she ruins the life of the protagonist, as well the “good girl” trope – in this case, her sister. She poisons herself and frames her sister, who nearly goes to prison for murder. Her last act is ultimately one of self-destruction, though it’s impossible to see a truly happy ending in the film as Richard wearily makes his way back home, after two years in prison.
Hungarian actor and director Cornel Wilde (High Sierra, The Big Combo) is decent as Richard, but he’s essentially playing a passive cookie-cutter character, though it works perfectly in the film. Like several other film noir protagonists, Richard is a writer and was presumably a loner before his marriage to Ellen. In typical film noir style, he struggles with masculinity and, in this case, fails at nearly every turn. Ellen is a better outdoorsman and can out-swim, hike, and ride Richard. He is unable to protect any of his family members from her and didn’t even propose marriage – she essentially tricked him into it. He is also unable to sexually satisfy his wife, rejecting sexual, romantic love for a family-saturated version of domestic bliss. He is also utterly passive to the last. Instead of acting on his environment, he is pushed through the film by the women around him, particularly Ellen. Finally, and most frustratingly, he fails to ever know or understand his wife.
Keep an eye out for a young Vincent Price, who makes a somewhat surprise appearance as Ellen’s attorney fiancé. Though he disappears for most of the film, he returns at the end for an incredibly bombastic trial scene that is one of the best in ‘40s or ‘50s cinema. As always, he’s an excellent orator and is almost diabolically captivating. Price previously appeared as Tierney’s fiancé in Laura, so it’s nice to see them together again after such a short time.
In addition to the solid script and excellent performances, the incredible visuals are another remarkable component to this unusual film. The wonderful art design from Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford has a degree of precision and control not seen in many other films. Not a single object or color is out of place, and nearly everything seems designed to either contrast or enhance Tierney. And though the majority of the film takes place in natural setting – in the woods, by a lake, in the desert – it feels more like a clothing catalogue than scenes of the wilderness. This controlled, prescribed element also adds a strong feeling of fantasy to the film. While more traditional film noir works often operate under nightmare logic, this manages to trump them all with its bold, almost lurid, unrealistic colors and some fantastic cinematography from Leon Shamroy.
Leave Her to Heaven is a strange, unsettling work, and one that will likely leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. It is available on DVD and comes with the highest possible recommendation. On a final note, and one that I hope with further sum up this filmic experience, is the meaning of the title. It comes from a conversation between the ghost and title character in Hamlet: "Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her" (Act I, Scene V).