Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Richard (Cornel Wilde), a successful writer, is on his way to meet a friend in New Mexico. While on the train, he cannot help but admire a woman sitting right across his seat. It is perfect timing that she drops her book so he rushes to pick it up for her. Her name is Ellen (Gene Tierney) and she has family in Rancho Jacinto. A few more words are exchanged and, as is usually the case with strangers, the conversation dies down. Despite the silence, Ellen stares at Richard; she reminds him of her father as a young man.
From watching the chance meeting unfold, one might assume that “Leave Her to Heaven,” based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams and adapted to the screen by Jo Swerling, is some kind of a goofball comedy. On the contrary, it is a noir picture that contains one of the most despicable and unapologetic villains: Ellen, a very jealous woman who will go as far as killing another person just so she can have the unsuspecting writer all to herself.
To less observant viewers, Tierney’s performance might appear one-note. When the man she loves is looking right at her, she adopts the mannerisms of what she might consider to be a girl so deeply in love. But when he is not looking, her body stiffens and there is a coldness in her eyes. But what Tierney does is smart: by playing within what seems to be a limited range of emotions, her presence becomes all the more chilling. Her eyes are never warm—only less cold. When she is sad, perhaps genuinely, her eyes are hidden by shadows or the camera is so far that a precise emotion cannot be read. I enjoyed that there is room to wonder if she is a true sociopath.
Suspense bubbles underneath but the film offers some amusing turns. For example, when Ellen does not get what she wants and the exact way she wants to have attained it, I was tickled by the way she tries to suppress being upset. Because she is so vile, I wondered if it was kind of rotten of me to root for bad things to happen to her. Ellen is consistently under control of her comportment. When she appears to be losing control, is she really? It will take multiple viewings to know for sure.
The film is a walking contradiction. The choice to show the images in color allows an already compelling material to have more depth. The colors pop but the content is dark. It offers many beautiful images—the performers’ faces, what they wear, interior and exterior decors—but it is filled with deplorable behavior and sadness.
Everyone appears to be living wealthy lifestyles, from a well-decorated vacation home in the desert to a posh cabin by the lake, initially inviting, sure, but many of us will probably not want to live their lives. There is a lot of repressed animosity and therefore a lack of communication. Inevitably, this leads to problems. The relationships among Ellen, her mother (Mary Philips), and adopted sister (Jeanne Crain) are especially awkward. When there is laughter, it feels superficial—not at all the type we have—boisterous, silly, unrestrained—in our own homes, happy homes.
“Leaver Her to Heaven,” directed by John M. Stahl, is almost like—and I mean this without being snide—a very good soap opera. I make that comparison because dramatic soaps almost always showcase a villain we love to hate. We want her to get caught and it is so frustrating that she gets away with being so evil until—maybe—the end of the story. But the story here separates itself from a soap opera by not giving easy answers. It does not let the characters get away so easily. The ending feels exactly right but it is, in its core, bittersweet.