[SPOILER ALERT! Some major plot elements are included in this analysis.]
“Yes, she was that sort of monster. A woman who sought to possess everything she loved. Who loved only for what it could bring her. Whose love estranged her own father and mother. Whose love pressed her father until he couldn’t call his soul his own. Who by her own confession to me killed my brother, killed her own unborn child. And who is now reaching out from the grave to destroy her own innocent sister. Yes, she was that sort of monster.”
Cornel Wilde to Vincent Price
To some, Leave Her to Heaven is a “ladies picture,” to others a bona fide film noir. Certainly it has a definitive femme fatale in Tierney’s Ellen Berent, who demands unadulterated love from whoever she loves, and that’s a small pool: her father and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who bears a mild resemblance to her late dad. We can only guess at the exact cause of her father’s death. Heart attack? Stroke? Suicide?
The film opens outside Taos, New Mexico, where with her mother Mrs. Berent (Mary Philips) and adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) looking on, Ellen gallops around the crest of a mesa, letting her father’s ashes spill onto the ground before stopping her majestic palomino and leaning forward in silent grief. Also observing from a distance is Richard. A popular author, he is curious about the unfortunate death in the family that occasioned this ritual. After a brief courtship, he and Ellen marry and visit Richard’s young brother in Warm Springs, Georgia. Danny (Darryl Hickman) is making heroic attempts to walk. Moving on to the lakeside Back of the Moon, an isolated Maine lodge, Richard continues his writing when not interrupted by Ellen, who begins to show signs of obsession. She even suspects that her sister Ruth is vying for Richard’s affection. Nor is Danny immune from her misguided suspicions. In her world, no one is allowed to usurp her position as Richard’s perfect wife. Eventually Ruth reveals how imperfect Ellen is:
“I don’t envy you, Ellen. All my life I’ve tried to love you, done everything to please you. Always have. Mother, father and now Richard, and what have you done? With your love you wrecked mother’s life. With your love you pressed father to death. With your love you’ve made a shadow of Richard. No, Ellen, I don’t envy you. I’m sorry for you. You’re the most pitiful creature I’ve ever known.”
In addition to Alfred Newman’s theme and score and the Technicolor cinematography (unusual for a noir but not unheard of), there are striking scenes beyond the early ritual on the mesa, in particular the finale: Richard canoes to Back of the Moon. Spying him paddling across the lake, Ruth rushes to the dock. In a long shot that has the look of a painting, we observe his arrival and her anticipatory stance. A closer shot shows her still planted to the spot, hands at her side, while he slowly exits the canoe. Pause, then embrace. It’s the “genius of the system,” i.e., the art of the classical Hollywood system before it bowed to changing times and supposedly more realistic filmmaking.
Note: Gene Tierney was 20th Century-Fox’s leading lady in one of the studio’s top grossing films of 1944, Laura. She was leading lady in the two top-grossing 20th Century-Fox films of 1945 and 1946: Leave Her to Heaven and The Razor’s Edge. In 1947 she got star billing over Rex Harrison in another of Fox’s successful films, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Although ranked a unique beauty and like many others possessed of a fine resume, Tierney is still neglected when it comes to the pantheon of great stars. Wrote James Robert Parish in The Fox Girls (1971), “As a promising Broadway actress, Gene Tierney was wooed to Hollywood in 1940. At Twentieth Century-Fox, she soon emerged as a carefully groomed screen figure, with aristocratic features. Yet no matter what type of role she attempted, her good breeding and icy hauteur shone through. As a consequence, she became typed as a one-dimensional chic stock figure. She was at her best essaying highly emotional, impersonal characters.”