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.