Movie still from 1945's "Leave Her to Heaven."

Leave Her to Heaven April 26, 2017        

Though it’s lensed in a candy-colored Technicolor which inspires remembrances of the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven is anything but rosily dramatic. This is a film which homes one of cinema’s great villains.  Only the villain isn’t your typical Frank Booth or Darth Vader, operatically evil and eerily unflinching.  The villain of Leave Her to Heaven is an ethereally beautiful, 20-something brunette who looks like a cheesecake model but is actually a cold-blooded killer.


She is Ellen Berent (a superb Gene Tierney), a glamorous socialite who could rival Rita Hayworth or Yvonne De Carlo in her sheer ability to stop any man dead in his tracks just to get a closer look at her radiant beauty.  We’re initially introduced to her in a similar fashion: she’s taking a train back to her family’s sprawling property when she catches the eye of Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), an author about her age and about her male equivalent in terms of cinematic allure.


The attraction proves mutual, perhaps even stronger on Berent’s part due to her obsession with her late father, whom Harland resembles.  After a quick courtship which prompts Berent to jilt the man she’s engaged to (Vincent Price) and which sees Harland get to know Berent’s family better than his own, the two are married.  Berent persuades Harland to move with her to “Back of the Moon,” a lakeside property in the middle of nowhere.


The union is blissful for its first few days – Berent and Harland’s investment in one another, at least physically, has hardly waned since the day they first met.  But time reveals that the doting, possibly too loving Berent isn’t exactly a harmless kind of caring.  She loves too much, so much so that she wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone she believes threatens Harland’s love for her.


Over the course of Leave Her to Heaven, she manipulates, sabotages, and murders, all the while keeping her luminous beauty so intact that we’d never much expect her to be the beast she really is.  Keeping a straight face and assuring us that maybe this isn’t a thriller (more psychological horror with a mean streak), the movie is a gorgeous, scary film noir which exaggerates romantic and erotic jealousy.  We’d be inconsiderate not to respond to its ingenious ways of conjoining the pretty with the poisonous.  


It’s grandiose and slightly overwrought, but it’s precisely overblown.  Jo Swerling, who uses Ben Ames Williams’ 1944 novel of the same name as his source, carefully enlivens the superfluousness of the original material and finds common ground between implausibility and genuine terror.  And the movie parallels his calculated writing.  It could go flying off the rails at any moment, and yet it inspires terse dread that keeps us compelled.  Even its loud, extravagantly stagey finale feels right.


It’s the performance of Tierney, though, that makes Leave Her to Heaven such an exceptionally unsettling feature.  Twenty-five at the time of the film’s release, Tierney was at the height of her career, coming off the notable successes of Heaven Can Wait (1943), a timeless black comedy, and Laura (1944), the classic noir picture in which she played the title character.  


But it was Leave Her to Heaven which solidified and continues to solidify her standing as one of her generation’s finest performers.  Any actress can play a femme fatale with enough impishness to prove themselves lucrative.  But Tierney takes the done-to-death character type a step further.  We can see her hatred, her psychiatric instability, rumbling in her eyes.  Her every move is motivated by unbridled jealousy and delusion, and Tierney’s characterization is sharper than the point of an ice pick.  She demands that we try to get inside her head, her character difficult to pinpoint because her dementia seems so authentic.  


Tierney received her sole Oscar nomination for her performance in the film, and it’s an understatement to say that her work in Leave Her to Heaven is the best of her career.  Few other films allowed her to showcase her performative brilliance as exquisitely.


The film, and Tierney’s performance, was recently dissected in a thought-provoking Village Voice piece which paired the movie with Laura to ponder why femininity essentially becomes a prison in both features.  Leave Her to Heaven, though, becomes the more discussed film in the article, coming to the conclusion that Tierney’s “face is like a lake where the smallest ripples feel profound, and she understands that beauty can be both weapon and wound.”


Nothing captures the power of the movie better than that statement.  Here is a film that subverts the age-old fascination with youthful female beauty and its eventual destruction and ensures that that fascination become something entirely more sinister. Leave Her to Heaven is never obvious.  It’s perpetually scheming, lurid.  To watch it is to be imprisoned by it – it’s magnetic, eye-catching, and best yet, chilling. A