With its bleak and foreboding subtext of all-consuming jealousy saturating virtually every frame, John M. Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven (1945) remains an impressively perverse and diabolically delicious noir thriller – albeit bedecked in the uncharacteristic trappings of a ravishing 3-strip Technicolor extravaganza extolling the ruggedly handsome and bucolic scenery of New Mexico, Arizona and California Sierra’s Bass Lake. Based on the gripping page turner by Ben Ames Williams, Leave Her To Heaven unfurls more than a modicum of disdain for the fairer sex, herein presented either as a malignancy unleashed upon the uncomplicated world of our male protagonist, writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) or vacuous purity, dulcet while not nearly as intoxicating as the elixir of unscrupulous venom encapsulated in a statuesque beauty, masking a very diseased mind.
Gene Tierney, a stunningly beautiful creature, whose private life would come to mirror at least part of her character’s odd derangement in years yet to follow, is cast as Ellen Berent – an impossible gorgeous woman with piercing blue eyes and lips so lusciously red one could almost believe they had just devoured a rosebush. Tierney, who only a few short years earlier had been miscast as everything from the burgeoning gunslinger Belle Starr (1941) to an oversexed country bumpkin (Tobacco Road 1941), was a very peculiar bird of paradise indeed, thankfully being groomed for better things. On her way to stardom she defied her mentors to marry fashion designer Oleg Cassini; a move that nearly ended her contract at Fox but provided Gene with the necessary escapism from her increasing anxieties at work – at least, for a time.
Knowing how the last act of Gene Tierney’s own life ended – in and out of asylums, enduring electroshock therapy and plagued by crippling bouts of memory loss – unintentionally overshadows her characterization of Ellen Berent in Leave Her To Heaven with an unintentionally eerie subtext that is impossible to overlook. Is she playing the part as written or exposing the first prominent glimpses of that deeper darkness soon to infest her own well-being? We’re never quite sure and perhaps neither is she; with fatalism oozing like sap from every pore, her eyes bizarrely vacant; her lips moist yet lacking inner warmth. In the wake of Hurricane Tierney the rest of the cast merely cling for their lives to Jo Swerling’s screenplay; a cacophony of twisted implosions drawing us nearer to the inevitable and penultimate moment of self-destruction.
Yet, director John Stahl is clever and restrained enough never to allow the toxicity of his star to devolve into grand guinol or worse - rank melodrama that stokes the already three alarm blaze of Ellen’s demented plotting. It’s all just as well, because Tierney’s characterization is far more subtly nuanced. For although Ellen commits despicable to downright vial acts throughout the film – murdering Richard’s crippled brother, Danny (Daryl Hickman) and deliberately killing her own unborn child in a sort of ‘homemade abortion’ by throwing herself down a flight of stairs – our fascination (rather than our repugnancy) is always with her from first moment to the last. She’s a devil; soulless beneath all that glacial exoticism and ever more the imperious gargoyle from under that blood red-lipped congenial smile.
Yet, Ellen Berent is defiantly compelling – not as incarnated death or even the tragically flawed possessive female imbued with the specter of a viper - or is it just rank jealously run amuck – but with a spellbinding Janus-faced austerity; unwilling to pull back from her ‘scorched earth’ desire to completely captivate, yet utterly incapable of perceiving the cataclysms in her own wickedness. Leave Her To Heaven was a project personally supervised by Darryl F. Zanuck – a vehicle designed to catapult Tierney into the stratosphere of super stardom. The movie does just that. Tierney received her one and only Oscar nod for Leave Her To Heaven, losing out to Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce.
Cornel Wilde is often overlooked in reviews of this movie; the undeniable ‘male beauty’ and muscled eye-candy destined to pay dearly for his spur of the moment curiosity aboard a westbound train; thereafter blindly following the enflamed desire of his loins to his own detriment – a fleeting glimpse of salvation tacked on for good measure just before the final fade out. But Wilde’s brooding author is so much more than just the misguided sexy fop who cannot fathom the evil he has brought into his bedroom. There’s an uncanny uncertainty to his performance, a mounting perplexity that tantalizes from the peripheries. In the 1980s, film scholarship infrequently referenced this as the character’s closeted homosexuality, although upon repeat viewing it tends to play much more like enfeebled naiveté.
While the audience is likely to scream out ‘can’t you see she’s no good!’ long before such a revelation comes into Richard’s mind or heart, the moment when he is confronted at trial by venomous district attorney, Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) badgering interrogation – a man who also happens to be Ellen’s ex-fiancée (no conflict of interest there, I’m sure!) with the supposed fancifulness of Ellen’s own heartless brutality since past and having matured him in a more sobering way – begrudgingly confessing to the world that “Yes…she was that kind of monster!” is both a cathartic release for Richard as much as it shatters what, until this moment, seemed an unbreakable loyalty to a woman he once thought he could never live without.
Setting aside for a moment that the movie is photographed in lurid Technicolor, Leave Her To Heaven has all the earmarks of a classic film noir; beginning at the end of our story instead of the beginning; with novelist Richard Harland’s (Cornel Wilde) return home after two long years in prison. The story is regaled to us by Richard’s friend and attorney (Ray Collins); beginning with Richard’s fate sealed mere moments after his reluctant ‘cute meet’ with the beautiful, but decidedly remote socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) on a train heading for New Mexico. Richard’s initial interest in Ellen is predicated on the fact that she is reading one of his books, seemingly without realizing the author is in her midst. Nevertheless, Ellen instantly falls in love with Richard, primarily because of his resemblance to her late father whom she was obsessively attached.
In this early scene one can already sense an element of the damned about Ellen Berent or, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet is quoted, “leave her to heaven…and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her.” While Richard’s gaze is adoringly playful yet cursed by his inability to look beyond Ellen’s fetching visage, her reciprocated stare is both penetrating and suggestively emasculating. It unsettles Richard – who attempts to feign nonchalance and even disinterest, but ends up burning his fingers on a lit match instead. This is perhaps a bit of foreshadowing, for Richard Harland is about to get a very nasty third degree burn; first from Ellen’s jilted fiancé, Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) who can plainly see that Ellen’s commitment to him has cooled beyond the point where she has decided to marry Richard on a spur of the moment.
The whirlwind of this decision is news to Ellen’s mother (Mary Philips) and her younger sister, Ruth (the impossibly precocious Jeanne Crain) but it also turns Richard’s head. He is not thinking clearly at all but rather caught in full ‘chest-thumping’ mode, enraptured by the perversity of the notion – having stolen another man’s prized trophy right out from under his nose. Ellen is a feather in Richard’s cap; a very regal plumage to be sure, but one pricklier than the quills of a porcupine. The next afternoon as Richard observes Ellen astride her palomino, spreading the ashes of her cremated father across the barren desert landscape a queer sense of foreboding loss suddenly overtakes him; perhaps his first fleeting realization that in forgoing Russell’s proposal Ellen has begun to turn his own life to excrement.
Regrettably, what lies ahead will mimic more the trappings of a nightmare than euphoric marital bliss. The most immediate fly in Ellen’s ointment is Richard’s disabled brother, Danny (Daryl Hickman); the one true innocent and loving brother who takes an immediate shine to Ellen as the sister/mother figure he hasn’t had in a very long while. Like all her relationships, Ellen’s initial regard for Danny is tainted with a savage possessiveness to monopolize all of Richard’s time and energies. She tolerates and plies the boy with faux kindness that, at least on the surface, mimics loving concern, while secretly plotting to either keep him in the sanitarium or send him away to boarding school so that she can have Richard all to herself. When Danny refuses to go on her proposed ‘holiday’ Ellen decides there is only one alternative; to dispose of Danny and make it look like an accident.
Ellen coaxes Danny into his daily swim in the pristine lake, despite the fact that its frigid waters are likely to induce a cramp in his already weakened leg muscles. When the cramp does catch the boy off guard, compounded by a dangerous undertow, Ellen quietly sits back with an almost paralytic – certainly, demonic – fascination as she watches Danny slip beneath the calm to his watery grave. Only after she is assured Danny is beyond rescue does Ellen make a dramatic dive after him – done entirely for effect, knowing she will return with a body in the child’s stead. Danny’s death all but destroys Richard’s ability to concentrate on his latest novel. He becomes despondent and aloof – his grief counterintuitive to Ellen’s desire to completely possess him. In his despair Richard turns to Ruth – not sexually – but because he senses in her a more understanding heart; someone who can convalesce and empathize with that vacancy in his own; a void Ellen cannot fill.
Enraged and even suggesting to Richard that he has begun to harbor romantic feelings towards her own sister, Ellen next methodically plots to get pregnant; then has misgivings about the imminent birth ruining her figure, and moreover, detracting from the time Richard is likely to spend exclusively with her. Instead, she plots a more sinister revenge; placing her own life in jeopardy by throwing herself down a flight of stairs to induce a miscarriage. Ellen loses the child. But she has also aborted whatever waning remnants of affection Richard may have had for her. In fact, it has finally donned on Richard that his wife may have deliberately caused the death of Danny and their child. Painted into an impossible corner from which she can perceive no other escape Ellen decides to poison herself; ruthlessly framing her sister as her everlasting revenge to keep Ruth and Richard apart by sending a phony confession letter to Russell Quinton moments before she expires.
Ruth is placed on trial for murder; the prosecution mercilessly pounding away at her alibi and pressuring her to confess her love for Richard. Realizing the sacrifice Ruth has made, and what it will cost her, Richard takes the witness stand in defense of her honor. He testifies under oath that Ellen was insanely jealous of anyone who showed even a remote kindness to him; and reveals that his late wife was responsible for Danny’s death and the murder of their unborn child. Richard’s testimony exonerates Ruth. But it also convinces the prosecution of his own complicity in his brother’s homicide by withholding crucial evidence at the time about Ellen’s actions. We return to the present; the flashback concluding with Richard’s weary return home where he is met by a longing embrace from Ruth.
Leave Her to Heaven is a superior melodrama; full of incendiary suffrage and heart-wrenching turmoil – just the sort of celluloid fodder forties film lovers could not resist – and didn’t. Viewed today, it continues to pack a wallop, ably abetted by Alfred Newman’s ominous score; the main title and central theme a sort of heavenly choir singing slightly off key; suggestively heralding the arrival of our Median tragic goddess. Leon Shamroy, the caustic cameraman, infamous for making actors wait until clouds in the sky had convened into a visually pleasing array, has lensed some of the most sumptuous sequences ever devised for the movies; his meticulous attention to detail, down to casting artificial shadows on the ground in specifically arranged patterns, creates an ever-constricting sense of claustrophobia.
It should be noted that all incarnations of this classy color noir, including Twilight Time’s Blu-ray are not derived from 3-strip Technicolor fine grain elements for the simple reason that no such footage exists. Regrettably in 1976 Fox decided to ‘transfer’ all of its highly flammable nitrate stock by taking original 3-strip Technicolor negatives and without testing them simply combining their individual records into a single dupe negative. As a result of this shortsightedness virtually all of Fox’s Technicolor masterpieces from 1930-1949 have been at the mercy of print masters often plagued by blown out contrast levels and an inherent exaggeration of film grain. To add insult to this injurious assassination of film art, virtually all of the original 3-strip elements and every B&W nitrate negative was junked – rumor has it, by being taken into the middle of the ocean on a barge and cast over the side. The only salvation herein, and it is a minor concession at best, is that Fox’s nitrate print masters all went to UCLA; custodians better equipped to maintain and preserve them for posterity.
So, what does any of this mean for Leave Her To Heaven on Blu-ray. Well, for starters I’ll simply point out that the image on display is NOT glorious Technicolor but colorfully Technicolor-esque; an aping of both the clarity and vibrancy that in no way replicates the true intent of Leon Shamroy’s fastidious craftsmanship. Now, for the good news. Those unaccustomed to what true Technicolor should look like will be extremely pleased with the results. Leave Her To Heaven sports a rather impressive 1080p rendering. Thanks to the many digital tools currently available this restoration may not be an exact replica of the film as audiences first saw it in 1945. On the other hand, and for the most part, it’s not all that far off.
Apart from a scant amount of built in flicker during the scene in the hospital where Richard learns that Ellen has lost their baby, the image is razor sharp and rock solid. Contrast is strong and colors – although untrue to the golden age of Technicolor, are nevertheless closer to their original intent than ever before. The work that has gone into making Leave Her To Heaven look this good ought to be commended. There is nothing more that could have been done under these circumstances. So, kudos to Fox and Twilight Time. Also, the DTS audio yields a richness and precision, particularly to Alfred Newman’s dominant underscoring that has never before been heard. Newman’s music also appears on an isolated track – a blessing that all Twilight Time releases have thus far been accorded. The only other extra is a rather meandering audio commentary that accompanied Fox’s original DVD release from 2002.
I will voice one pet peeve that I have already made known elsewhere regarding Twilight Time releases and it is this; their cover art continues to be quite atrocious. I’m not all that savvy with Photoshop but even I can do better cover art than this! Personally, I would have more respect for these releases if they simply adhered to using original marketing campaigns and poster art. On the inside sleeve we get a reproduction of the original poster art for Leave Her To Heaven. I have already rescanned and reformatted it to fit over the front cover of my Blu-ray. Otherwise, top marks are in order. Again, this isn’t Technicolor – but it is a vast improvement over Fox’s DVD and it does come highly recommended! Let’s hope we see more of the same. Wilson, anyone?!?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)