I knew John M. Stahl’s 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven by reputation only until I got the new release from The Criterion Collection for review. I had heard it referred to as a technicolor noir, and one that was quite dark. I had heard great things, including that it was a masterpiece. All that I heard was true, but not sufficient to describe this film. I was not prepared for the seductive horror of Leave Her to Heaven! I loved it!
The film begins at some point a few years after the main events have played out. Richard Harland, an author, has just been released from prison. We don’t know what he was in prison for. When we flash back, knowing Richard’s going to do time makes us wary of what would otherwise appear to be the prelude to a happy life with the beautiful Ellen Berent, played by Gene Tierney. Leave Her to Heaven was made in 1945, just after Tierney had become a star with 1943’s Heaven Can Wait and 1944’s Laura. This role is a surprising turn for her, and is now my favorite of the three.
When we first meet Ellen, she is travelling to New Mexico aboard a train. Richard, the author of the book she is reading, is sitting just across from her.
Their romance blooms — or flares, really — in New Mexico, where Ellen and her family have gone to spread her father’s ashes. We know that Ellen loved her father deeply, and she is drawn immediately to Richard because he looks a bit like him.
Richard, for his part, is taken with Ellen. She’s kind and mysterious and, though engaged, gives him reason to think she might be persuaded to change the course of her life so that it includes him.
Things really look ideal. Richard gets to write while everyone else enjoys their holiday comfortably on this lovely property, and love is in the air.
But that love takes a frightening turn quite soon. Within a couple of days, Ellen has broken her engagement with an ambitious attorney, Russell Quinton (played by Vincent Price). Quinton shows up quickly and is handled well by Ellen, who simply tells him that she and Richard are engaged to be married, and that the wedding will be happening the next day. This is all new to Richard, who mostly stands behind them, uncomfortable and unsure what to do.
Ellen always wins, but winning isn’t enough for her, and this is where the film really picks up steam fed by the fires of hell. After their wedding, Ellen feels, probably quite rightly, that Richard is not as attentive to her as he should be. Rather than honeymoon, they go to visit his disabled little brother, Danny. It’s clear that Richard’s love for Ellen is based on something other than friendship and trust. She sees that between him and Danny.
Worst, she sees it between him and nearly everyone else in the film, including her own family. Richard has his own beautiful lake property (there are three unique and distinctly gorgeous locales in this film) in the woods, and for him nothing could be more romantic than taking Ellen there, along with Danny, her mom, and her adopted sister/cousin Ruth (played by Jeanne Crain). There’s Ellen in the background, refusing to enjoy Danny’s trick and making it hard for Richard as well.
The film continues to descend into depths I really was not expecting. It’s terrifying any time Ellen shows us she has an idea for one more way to get Richard to herself.
I loved this film. It explores love and obsession as few others have. After all, there is nothing to suggest that Ellen doesn’t truly love Richard, it’s just that her love has such gravity it creates a hungry pit that cannot be satisfied. It’s a love with a singular fixation on the object of her affections, and it demands the same in return. Though this radiating, dangerous magnetism is actually one of the things that makes her so attractive and alluring, Richard cannot give her this, at first because he is too naive and blind to her understandable need to be with him alone, at least on their honeymoon, but soon it’s apparent no one could satisfy Ellen’s demands.
Though there is no doubt Ellen’s downright diabolical, I don’t think the film simply demonizes her and leaves her as a flat character. On the contrary, she is complex and intelligent. She recognizes and can articulate that Richard loves her deeply, though he doesn’t like her. Most of the time she is in complete control and knows how to put on a face to give people what they want so they do what she wants. Like the film, she knows how to seduce with beauty and luxury that covers a much darker heart. Tierney and Stahl know how to play the character as vulnerable and disturbed when no one is watching, and often when she is contemplating something that proves she is capable and willing to do anything to win.
Before I end, I want to talk about the film’s color. It’s beautiful, and the new Criterion release looks fantastic. It might be strange to see a 1945 noir in technicolor, but it works as so much more than a gimmick. The first section of the film, after all, is all beauty. We see the beauty of these fantastic locations. The fabrics look luxurious and compelling (and I’m not someone who looks at costumes much). It’s a rich film, and we are invited to enter as if we are entering a lovely dream. But things are not as they appear. Each location reveals tragedy and darkness beneath the serenity. Soon we realize that this is Ellen as well.
The Criterion release is worth it for the picture alone, and it doesn’t have a lot more in terms of supplements. However, the one substantial supplement it does have is exceptional. This is a twenty minute interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith. She does a wonderful job talking about Stahl (and the relationship of some of his films to those of Douglas Sirk in the 1950s; by the way, you can see Stahl’s 1935 adaptation of Magnificent Obession on Criterion’s release of Sirk’s 1954 adaptation of the same title), Tierney, and this film in particular. She’s insightful and interesting to listen to. I was thrilled, then, with the entire package.
If you, like me, are new to Leave Her to Heaven, I encourage you to take advantage of the new release as soon as you can.