From 20th Century Fox
Directed by John Stahl
There are reasons why Leave Her to Heaven would land on my favorites list. Some of you may recall that in an early post I said 20th Century Fox was my favorite studio. This film is one of the reasons that is so. I loved the gritty stories Fox seemed to acquire. Darryl F. Zanuck bought a lot of novels and made the most of them. This one, based on Ben Ames Williams' popular dramatic book, featured one of the great villainesses of the silver screen.
In her all too brief 1979 autobiography, Self-Portrait (Wyden Books, cowritten with Mickey Herskowitz), Tierney says she lobbied for the role of Ellen, knowing it would be a stretch for her (which she welcomed) from playing someone's girlfriend or wife and would be a noteworthy followup to her previous year's success, Laura, something of which Fox was already quite aware. They populated the film with some of their hottest contract players.
Beautiful as Tierney was, Jeanne Crain, playing her sister or cousin, depending on one's point of view, matched her in the glamour department. Equally gorgeous was the stunning color photography by the renowned Leon Shamroy (who rightfully won the Oscar), the vivid locations, the great sets. There is a haunting score, more than tinged with danger and threat, aided and abetted by kettle drums. Fox was impressed enough with the dramatic score to substitute it for its usual logo theme. The visuals and sounds gently assault the senses and make the overall film utterly watchable.
Another thing I was taken with here is the focus on jealousy, which is the true villain of the piece. Tierney is a wife obsessed with her husband (who resembled her beloved, late father) and is jealous of anything that takes up his time. I was raised around jealousy and am quite the fan when it comes to exploring it and Leave Her to Heaven is just about the best in this arena.
Ellen meets Richard (Wilde), a novelist, on a train, notices his strong resemblance to her father, and is determined to win him. They end up staying at the same New Mexico location (she's there to spread her father's ashes) and before they leave after just a few days, she announces they will marry. In those first days Richard has a sign or two that something odd is afoot, starting when Ellen says both she and her father were at their happiest when they were together. He is concerned one point that she may be lost on a horseback ride alone and her mother says not to worry, nothing ever happens to Ellen.
But things happen to others. In one of the most haunting scenes from any film of the 1940's, Ellen allows her crippled, teen brother-in-law (played winningly by the under-rated Hickman) drown while she watches from a rowboat. Donned in dark sunglasses (perfect touch) and a white robe, she sits there expressionless and demonic as he calls out for her help. His crime? Loving his brother as much as he did and taking up his time.
She gets visibly annoyed and strident when her mother and sister show up for a surprise visit. She is determined to rid their rural retreat called Back of the Moon of the longtime friend/handyman. When Ellen tries to cheer Richard up after his brother's death, she impulsively decides to have a child but when Richard gets too excited about the impending birth and spends too much time with the sister looking for baby clothes, Ellen chillingly throws herself down the stairs and loses the baby.
Ellen says she will never let Richard go. Never. And ultimately she pulls off the final betrayal with dire consequences for her husband and sister. The story is told in flashbacks which adds a bit of mystery.
Ellen's kind of woman is unable to express love to anyone in any healthy way. With a man, she must control and manipulate. She has so little confidence in herself or any real know-how in how to be a supporting partner that she fears her husband will stray. Not only would she rid the area of people, she would get rid of his favorite tie because it was his favorite tie. Ellen is insane, something her family seems to be aware of, and we become clear on it as Richard does. Tierney gave her best performance in this film and well-deserved her only Academy Award nomination. She lost the award to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce.
Director John Stahl is all but forgotten by today's audiences but in the 1930s and 40s he was one of the go-to guys for women's pictures and an obvious choice for Leave Her to Heaven. Some of his other work included the original Imitation of Life and one version of Back Street and also When Tomorrow Comes, Our Wife, The Foxes of Harrow and The Walls of Jericho.
One more accolade must go to Kay Nelson and her stunning 40s clothes. My God, could they dress in those days... and in this case, I mean the women and the men. It didn't hurt that the characters were all well-to-do and could afford the snappy threads.
It is funny noting how writing a good character bumps up against the moral climate of the times. Ellen and Richard sleep in twin beds which she would never have permitted.
Leave Her to Heaven certainly bordered on film noir. Its gorgeous use of colors took it out of the film noir category as well, but it still had that feel with menace lurking at every turn, in every corner, and featuring such a bad girl.
I always loved the title. I never knew or really gave any thought to where it might have come from. Just recently I learned it is a line from Hamlet.
Here, check this out:
Next posting: Review of Hysteria