Leave Her to Heaven


Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is a visually and emotionally arresting piece of cinema. Shot in lush, vibrant Technicolor, with an unashamedly melodramatic plot which unfolds in a succession of rustic settings, this is the kind of movie which is guaranteed to root out that perennial bone of contention relating to color and film noir. While I am happy to consider it noir, I certainly respect the views of those who are reluctant to do so. Ultimately though, the labels or categories applied are immaterial, fading to insignificance next to a startling central performance which manages to simultaneously compel and repel, and that is no mean feat.

Alfred Newman’s ominous score sets a sombre tone for the opening on the water in Maine. The arrival of novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wide) is the cue for stolen glances and mumbled words of sympathy. He’s fresh out of prison, having served a two year term and as he sets off across the lake to keep a date with destiny his lawyer (Ray Collins) fills in the background for a mystified companion, and leads the audience into the long flashback that occupies the bulk of the running time. On the way to New Mexico, two strangers on a train exchange some flirtatious banter, the kind that feels light and amusing due to its ephemeral nature. These people are Richard Harland and the intense, and intensely beautiful, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney). She’s been reading his latest novel and, because she hasn’t recognized him as the author, offers a frank and less than flattering critique of the writing. Coincidences wrapped up in misunderstandings are the staple ingredients of many a story and frequently offer a good jumping off point. Here they form the basis for a whirlwind romance which sees Harland bewitched by Ellen, while she casually discards both her old engagement ring and the man who gave it to her (Vincent Price). Make no mistake, this is a love story. However, it is a story of a twisted, all-consuming and all-destructive love, one where insecurity and possessiveness trample generosity and trust, where the heights of joy are abruptly flipped to become the depths of evil. Without going into spoiler territory for those who haven’t seen the movie, the first hour charts Ellen’s gradual succumbing to the persistent whispering of her inner demons, culminating in a scene that is shocking in its coldness. What follows is a rapid downward spiral, leading Ellen ever deeper into a state of moral decay and trapping those nearest to her in the web of deceit and selfishness she has spun.

I have only a passing acquaintance with the work of John M Stahl. I’m aware that he was responsible for the original versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life (both of which would be famously and successfully remade by Douglas Sirk) and I have seen The Walls of Jericho, again with Cornel Wilde. He brings a striking visual aesthetic to Leave Her to Heaven, ably assisted by Leon Shamroy’s sumptuous cinematography, and makes particularly effective use of nature. I have read of the film’s blending of references to Greek myths into the story and while I can see where the connections are being made, I’m not convinced they are all entirely apposite. What does strike me, however, is the significance not just of water, as others have suggested, but of the lake, and its positioning within the narrative at the beginning, in the middle, and again right at the end.

This symbol of life and death, indeed of the journey of life itself, is always present, from a vague and undefined early hope, through bitter tragedy, and finally on to a hard won reward of sorts. One thinks of the lake and its calmness, but it is a superficial calm masking something stirring softly beneath, perhaps something darker and more dangerous. Is there a reflection, as the water reflects and as the sunglasses donned for that darkest of all scenes also reflect, in the beautiful perfection and composure of Gene Tierney’s features?

Tierney could convey a powerful stillness at times that, again like the symbolism and imagery of the lake, is of a deceptive type. There is too that sense of a hidden thing lurking and submerged, revealed or betrayed by the suggestions of hurt, fear, love and on occasion downright malice which flash momentarily from the eyes. She forms the emotional heart of the tale, remaining a slightly mysterious and unknowable figure. The reasons for her murderous possessiveness are never fully explained – there is the obvious attachment to (or obsession with) her late father, yet this only partially explains her behavior, and it would seem reasonable to assume some sense of displacement was prompted by the adoption of her cousin (Jeanne Crain). What matters though is not so much why these impulses exist as the fact that they do. Especially in the first act, she comes across as something of a force of nature, that scene where she scatters her father’s ashes in the New Mexico wilderness, on horseback and with Newman’s soaring music carrying her over the ridges is notable. It serves to point up the contrast with Wilde, who watches it all from afar, meek and passive. In fact, the traditional roles are subverted on a number of occasions: Tierney’s bold and prolonged staring at Wilde at their first meeting is remarkable for its provocative unconventionality, and of course it is she who later proposes marriage, again in contravention of what would have been regarded as the norm.

Crain is fine in her supporting part, but it is a fairly one-dimensional role. Cornel Wilde makes for a personable lead, moving smoothly from love to dismay and on to horror and despair. However, I do wonder how a character who is so clearly unperceptive could make a living as a successful writer. Vincent Price, who appeared in a number of films alongside Tierney around this time including Laura, only has two scenes in the movie. His big moment occurs in the climactic trial where his vengeful and driven prosecutor takes center stage. His remorseless lashing of the witnesses on the stand veers dangerously close to histrionics but also highlights the raw wounds inflicted on his pride and dignity.

Leave Her to Heaven is film I felt was due a revisit for some time now and I was motivated to move it up to near the head of the queue when I read this post last month. That piece expresses some doubt as the whether Tierney’s character can be properly referred to as a femme fatale, and I tend to feel the same. Surely someone ruled by their own destructive impulses belongs in a different category. And so, just as the movie comes full circle, so we finish where we started, pondering the worth of labels. I’ll let others decide what they wish to call the film, I’m satisfied to think of it as simply a great example of the filmmaker’s art.

70 thoughts on “Leave Her to Heaven

  1. A fine, thoughtful review, Colin and your points about the role of water got me thinking anew about this absorbing film. I fall into the camp of those who think this is a noir, spectacularly colourful though it is. It features one of the most chilling killings I have ever seen in a movie. Tierney is wonderful in her role, so lovely at times and so terrifying elsewhere.

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  2. Well done Colin.

    When speaking with others of noir, this one is usually left out of the talk. While it is a first rate film with top work from cast and crew.. It just does not pop up, most likely because it is in color. Myself, someone says noir, and I think dark pools of grey shadows etc. This film does not come to mind till later in the discussion. A shame really as it deserves to be mentioned more often. This is Tierney’s best film in my humble opinion. Again, full marks to our man Colin for putting it up for us.

    Gord

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  3. Again you have made a great choice of film to review and discuss, Colin, and a great way to start off 2022.
    I never tend to think of this film as ‘noir’ yet in many ways it bears many of the hallmarks of ‘noir’. Certainly the glorious Technicolor could work against that view yet actually it almost, here, works in its favour. How can such a beautiful location look threatening? In a way, that brings home the horror of the central character’s acts all the more.

    Gene Tierney never looked more beautiful. That is part of what makes this film so memorable. And it does stay in the memory ever after.

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    • I was fascinated by the movie from the first time I saw it on TV in the dim and distant past. The term is often thrown around carelessly but this is definitely a movie which defies expectations at almost every point.

      While my old DVD looks fine in general, I can’t help feeling disappointed that none of the UK labels ever managed to negotiate a Blu-ray release. Yes, I know there are US versions, but the Twilight Time version was out of my price range and then went out of print, and Criterion releases are locked.

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  4. Great review as always, Colin. Regarding ‘labels’, is it Noir or isn’t it, I think there’s too much time spent on deciding what a category a film falls into. More importantly, is it a good movie and Leave Her To Heaven certainly is.
    The film contains two of the most shocking scenes in any thriller, yesterday or today. Great writing .

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    • Yes, I’m not that bothered these days about the labels people apply, it’s mostly an artificial construct anyway and can end up creating limits, which seems something of a pointless exercise. The quality of a movie is all that matters when you get right down to it.

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    • I don’t know whether that point has been made before although I shouldn’t be surprised if it has. I know comments have been made about Tierney’s character and her association with water, but the lake in particular seems central to the whole story as far as I can see.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fine appreciation, especially re the lake imagery. I’d never seen that Italian poster, which seems a little too “on the nose.” Imagine the film reached Italy some years later? And who would have imagined a forties foreshadowing of the “Deliverance” poster? Alfred Newman is best known for his lush, romantic strings, but he was more than capable of harsh dissonance. The steady drum pulse that underlies the romantic theme is a unique and highly effective touch here.

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    • Newman’s score sets the tone from the beginning and it contributes to the mood of the movie all the way through, an impressive piece of work.
      Where possible, I like to feature posters that are not so well known and I must admit I have a bit of a soft spot for Italian poster art in general.

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  6. Leave Her to Heaven is an absolute favorite of mine. To me this is glorious Technicolor Noir, just like Niagara. It is one of the most beautifully photographed films of the 40s. Leave Her to Heaven is Noir by virtue of the subject matter, possessive love and all-consuming obsession. Madness doesn’t have to lurk in dark shadows. It can blossom in bright sunlight.

    The question if Ellen is a true femme fatale is a fascinating one, after all her actions are driven by mental illness, not by lust for power and money.

    Still, I come down in favor of it simply because Ellen is classic textbook. Ellen’s love (if it can be called that) for her husband is obsessive, disturbing and poisonous. Pathological jealousy rules her life. Nothing and nobody should ever come between her and and her husband and take his attention away from her for even a minute, not her brother-in-law and not even her own unborn child. Whoever stands in the way of her obsession must be destroyed. What she desires must be hers. Heart, body and soul. For Ellen, “love” is about ownership, not necessarily sex.

    Ellen’s other obsessive love, for her dead father, is at the center of the story. Unseen during the entire film, he is like a ghost whose presence invades the lives of everyone around him. Ellen’s love for him definitively has incestuous undertones.
    Unfortunately we never get to know the roots of her insane obsessions, we only get to see the manifestations of it.

    The weak link in the movie for me is Cornel Wilde. I never found him a particularly interesting actor, but his performance is solid.

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    • Excellent response there, Margot, and very well expressed.
      As cogent and persuasive as your case for considering Ellen a femme fatale is, I guess the fact she is basically ill discourages me from describing her so. I suppose it’s similar to the situation with Laraine Day in The Locket, which we discussed back in the autumn.

      Wilde is very quiet in his role here, isn’t he? Actually, I reckon that works as it contrasts with Tierney’s intensity, and Price’s for that matter.

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  7. I’m totally mystified by the idea that Leave Her to Heaven is a film noir. There’s nothing even remotely noir about it. It’s a psychological thriller/melodrama, and a very very good one.

    I suspect that a lot of people insist that it’s noir because of the prejudice against melodrama and against women’s pictures. A lot of people think they can’t argue that it’s a great movie unless they insist that it’s a film noir. Film noir is a label that gives a movie respectability.

    Mildred Pierce isn’t film noir either.

    The film noir label was useful at one time but it’s become an obstacle to understanding the movies of the 40s and 50s.

    Leave Her to Heaven is a superb movie. Calling it noir denigrates it. It’s as if it’s only worthy of being discussed if it’s noir.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can only speak for myself obviously, but the dark heart of the movie that is created by Ellen’s actions tip it into noir territory. I quite agree though that it is melodrama and a psychological drama, and I certainly never feel those types of film should be undervalued – I try to speak up for them whenever possible. But there’s no reason why movies such as those or any movies for that matter) cannot incorporate noir themes; after all, noir is arguably a style rather than a genre anyway.
      This has all developed into a most stimulating discussion, by the way.

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      • I think a noir has to have a true doomed noir protagonist. Someone neither wholly innocent nor wholly guilty. Someone who, in part, contributes to his own doom. A protagonist such as those in Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Scarlet Street. The noir protagonist can be male or female. To me Ellen is a protagonist of a totally different type. She’s a psycho.

        There has to be a femme fatale, who can be male or female.

        A noir has to have the noir visual style.

        There are lots of movies that are noirish or noiresque. Not film noir, but with some affinities to film noir.

        I don’t see any noir elements at all in Leave Her to Heaven or Mildred Pierce.

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        • Fair enough, that’s a strict set of criteria but I reckon it’s also a set which is shared by many.

          I would have rated Ellen as a noir protagonist – I’m not sure how she would have been diagnosed but she was unquestionably damaged.

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    • Dfordoom (what is your name anyway? 🙂 ), for once I must disagree with you. I really think Leave Her to Heaven is Noir and so is Mildred Pierce. Both are melodrama too, which I love btw.

      I think you’re right on the money though when you say too many movies are called Noir though they aren’t. That label certainly gives them respectability and makes them sell.

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  8. I can’t see any valid argument for considering Leave Her To Heaven as film noir but I can see arguments for regarding it as a psychological horror movie. Maybe the movies we should be comparing it to are not film noirs but other psycho killer movies like Psycho or Pretty Poison. Especially Pretty Poison, another truly great female psycho killer movie (with Tuesday Weld giving a performance that rivals Gene Tierney’s).

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    • Is it your assertion then that film noir cannot encompass melodrama? Or should that be melodrama can’t encompass film noir? Whatever. If so, that feels like a very rigid, absolutist position, one which just doesn’t feel right to me.

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      • Is it your assertion then that film noir cannot encompass melodrama? Or should that be melodrama can’t encompass film noir?

        I think it’s probably time to pension off the term film noir. It’s become a label that people apply to a movie simply because they admire the movie. It’s become code for “this is a movie that deserves to be taken seriously” which then implies that movies that don’t qualify as noir are less deserving of respect.

        I’ve also grown to dislike the term film noir because it’s symptomatic of an attitude that only dark pessimistic movies are worthy of respect.

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        • Perhaps that says more about the people who undervalue or fail to appreciate certain styles or genres than it does about the term itself.
          Ultimately, I’d say use the term if you feel it applies and helps you to place a movie, and don’t if you feel it’s inappropriate or unnecessary. At the end of the day, it’s not going to change the movie itself one way or the other.

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  9. Whatever the view on the term ‘film noir’ or the films correctly or incorrectly ascribed to it this is a great discussion. RTHC is the natural home of informed, polite and interesting debate. I love it.

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  10. The idea of Ellen as a Siren is intriguing.

    Given that this was Hollywood in 1945, with the Hollywood obsession with Freud in full swing, are there any Freudian interpretations of Leave Her to Heaven?

    One thing is certain. I’m going to have to watch this movie again.

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  11. Colin, a really good write-up of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN(1945). Your writing caused me to want to see this movie again, so I did. I first recall viewing the movie on WHBQ Channel 13 Memphis in 1975. Looking back I didn’t see it under the best of conditions, which were on a black and white tv, shoved into a 90 minute time slot with commercials. Still, I remember being impressed with Gene Tierney’s chilling performance. I didn’t see it again until 2012 on the FOX MOVIE CHANNEL, and believe you me, it made a difference to view it in technicolor and at 110 minutes without commercials.

    Coming back after re-viewing the movie, I’ve really enjoyed the intelligent discussion of this top-notch disturbing chiller of a horror movie. I’ll leave whether the movie is noir or not to others, but I will say that if it is noir it is a sunkissed one. The movie is hands down “All about Ellen,” because Gene Tierney wipes the floor with the other actors and I really like Jeanne Crain, Cornel Wilde, and Vincent Price. Good gosh almighty, I think it is Tierney’s best performance ever. I don’t want to give away the movie for anyone who hasn’t viewed it, but the two particular chilling scenes are unforgettable. Ellen’s insane jealousy, obsessive ownership, and twisted psychology wrapped in the believable and beautiful Gene Tierney is really something to behold. The movie’s most important and powerful scenes focus on Tierney’s ice cold facial expressions, while even wearing sunglasses.

    I could go on and on about LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN and Gene Tierney’s incredible performance. Needless to say, I highly recommend viewing this movie. I think I may watch it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I may watch it again.

      After Colin’s excellent review and the discussion here I suspect that quite a few of us will be rewatching Leave Her To Heaven. I know I will be. I’ve already ordered a copy.

      Is it Gene Tierney’s best performance? I’d say yes, but she gave quite a few great performances.

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  12. Colin and Dfordoom, Gene Tierney is one of my favorite actresses and she really did give some terrific performances. She appeared on THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW in 1979 promoting her autobiography SELF-PORTRAIT(1979). Douglas asked her of all the movies she had done, which was her favorite and she answered that it was LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.

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  13. Sad news

    Peter Bogdanovich the director of PAPER MOON and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW has left us at age 82.And that great actor, Sidney L. Poitier 94 ,has given his last performance. So sad. R.I.P. to both of these two fine gentlemen.

    Gord.

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  14. It occurred to me that, were Leave Her to Heaven made/released today, and was even just a moderate success, they wouldn’t be able to resist manufacturing a prequel to explain all that background stuff about her relationship with her father etc. in order to ‘complete the story’ (make a fast buck). That’s just Hollywood today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think at the very least, the running time of any hypothetical remake would be inflated so as a backstory could be filled in. I quite like that so little of that is addressed on screen as i can’t see how it would add anything of substance to the viewing experience, if anything it would kill the pace.
      This film is of course an adaptation of a novel, the latter being a form which operates in a very different way and has an entirely different rhythm, so I guess it’s possible the book did contain some of this information.

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      • In this type of movie it’s always best to explain as little as possible. One of the biggest mistakes Hitchcock ever made was including that scene at the end of Psycho that explains everything. At the end of that movie the audience should have been questioning everything they’d seen.

        I believe he included that scene under studio pressure. The contempt that Hollywood studios have always had for their audience is breathtaking.

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  15. Weekend watching.
    Tonight was a 1966 episode of the DANIEL BOONE tv series with Fess Parker as Boone. This episode was directed by veteran big screen man, George Sherman. The cast included Patricia Blair, Robert Logan, John Hoyt, Shug Fisher and Cameron Mitchell. I was in grade 4 or 5 when this was on the tube. We all loved it.

    Gord

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  16. I have just received my second “care package” of film noir reading and memorabilia from Gord. This one had the programs from three noir festivals from past years, with interesting synopses of the movies featured in the programs and making lovely keepsakes. Gord has more of these packages he would like to share with RTHC people, so contact him if you would like a package.

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  17. Great review! I really love this movie. Tierney’s evilness is almost hypnotic, and the gorgeous Technicolor contrasts beautifully with the story’s ugliness. I did have issues with the ending — it feels rushed and nonsensically upbeat (I have no idea how the jurors came up to that conclusion). But I still think this is a great noir.

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  18. Everyone, I just received my first packet of noir packets from Gordon Gates. It contains some really neat materials. The booklets are informative and the photographs in those booklets are great. Also, I like the movie poster postcards, especially the foreign ones.

    Let Gordon know if you are interested.

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  19. Watching for the weekend/
    First up will be 1917 , the WW1 war film from 2019. The bits I have seen look great.

    Second will be 1954s Western, ARROW IN THE DUST with Sterling Hayden, Coleen Grey and Lee Van Cleef.

    Then I will try and work in some PETER GUNN episode if I have the time.

    Have a great weekend people.

    Gord

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  20. Colin

    That will teach me to check your reviews before picking a film. i gave up 20 minutes into ARROW IN THE DUST. A waste of film and my time. Oh well, I still have 1917 and I will replace the duster with 1965s sci-fi film, DR WHO AND THE DALEKS with Peter Cushing. Saw it decades ago and recall liking it.

    Gord

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  21. Pingback: Leave Her to Heaven | WE BELIEVE ANGELS VISIT US!

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