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Leave Her to Heaven
Fox Studio Classics

Leave Her to Heaven
Fox Home Entertainment
1945 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 110 min. / Street Date February 22, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Mary Philips, Ray Collins, Darryl Hickman
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Art Direction Maurice Ransford, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor James B. Clark
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Jo Swerling from the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Produced by William A. Bacher, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by John M. Stahl

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Leave Her to Heaven is almost a contradiction in terms, as it's considered a film noir yet is filmed in gleaming oversaturated Technicolor. Its claim to fame is an audacious storyline, a grim tale presented with picture-postcard visuals and a high technical polish.

Only three years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock wanted his Suspicion to end with a cold-blooded murder followed by a kind of revenge from beyond the grave. That idea was considered too morbid for multiple reasons. In this picture, a psychotic wife starts killing competitors for her husband's attention, and then plots to ruin his life even after she's gone. Otto Preminger used at least some ambiguity several years later to portray a similar "can't help it" domestic killer in his Angel Face - in this annihilating melodrama Gene Tierney's Ellen Berent is simply a serene beauty with a father complex and a homicidal disposition. A good joke title might be The Revenge of Laura.


Author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meets the beautiful Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) on a train and is smitten by both her and her interesting family, especially her half-sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain). Ellen's controlled exterior masks a strange inner turmoil; she seemingly falls in love with Richard because he resembles her beloved dead father. She maneuvers him into a quick marriage and all seems to go well until Ellen feels crowded by Richard's attention to his invalid kid brother Danny (Darryl Hickman). In fact, she becomes pathologically aroused whenever her exclusive control over Richard is threatened by outsiders, even members of her own family. Nobody realizes how severe Ellen's condition is, until ...

In film school Leave Her to Heaven seemed both daring and subversive. A gorgeous beauty queen, poised and gracious, is actually a mad killer that decimates her well-to-do American family from the inside out.

John Stahl made a name for himself in the 1930s as a director of enormously popular women's pictures, but what would seem like the perfect vehicle for comment on the old formulas remains a very restrained and superficial film. Some scenes have an undeniable power. Although Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde are a supremely attractive couple, neither really does much with their role.

Ellen Berent has a number of faces - placid, self-assured, irate, confused - but as much as we like to gaze at Gene Tierney, she doesn't communicate much and we have to look to the dialogue for meaning in her scenes. She cleverly maneuvers handsome Richard Berent into a hasty marriage proposal, but we don't understand why she doing it or what she feels about it. Cornel Wilde's role, or his playing of it, is also on the thin side. He's as likeable on screen as Tierney is mesmerizing, but when it's obvious to everyone but Richard that Ellen is a black widow, Wilde isn't a good enough actor to keep us interested. He doesn't seem to understand that Ellen has needs of her own and comes off as a sweet-faced dolt of a husband, like Kent Smith in The Cat People. Not that the script helps any. A demanding wife usually exppresses her needs - time alone, a honeymoon, maybe - and the problem is that hubby doesn't care. Here husband Richard does care, but Ellen is incapable of communicating her feelings directly. Even though it's obvious that Richard would take any of her desires seriously, she can't put a sentence together that says something like, "We're just married, I'm sick of sharing you with other people all the time, and this is important."

So Leave Her to Heaven is quickly set up for what at the time must have been some hair-raising murder scenes, especially from a writer (Jo Swerling) that once specialized in lighthearted Frank Capra movies. (As the disc packaging doesn't divulge the then-taboo nature of Ellen's killings, Savant won't either.)

Swerling's script retains the simple psychologizing of Ben Ames Williams' novel. Ellen was obsessed with her father and sees in Richard the perfect mate because of his physical resemblance to him. Everything follows from there, with little development. Ellen is eventually dismissed simply as "one of those monsters who ...", the same words used to describe the evil small-town doctor in King's Row.

Luckily for Richard, Ellen has a wholesome and healthy younger sister Ruth. She's played by Jeanne Crain as the real answer to what a man needs instead of the glamour dream he wants. Ellen deals in abstractions and power plays, cleverly using her dull fiancée (grim-faced Vincent Price) to force an engagement with Richard. Ruth is always seen tending gardens, growing things, mending clothing - she's an Earth spirit to Ellen's harpy, get it?

Leave Her to Heaven is awash in production values and swanky settings. Ellen's family is headquartered in some beautiful New Mexico scenery (Sedona, Arizona?) and Richard's hideaway lodge is on the shore of a Maine lake and only accessible by canoe. We expect the beautiful clothes worn by Ellen to be impressive but the Technicolor sheen makes everything on screen seem to drip money, even the old "woodie" station wagons that glow in waxed browns and greens. Leon Shamroy's camera (in original prints) gives the film the surreal look of a too-perfect magazine layout of the day. It's not a particularly noirish look - there are few shadows in the film - but it is arresting. John Alton would successfully create a more appropriate Technicolor noir look ten years later in the underachieving but great-looking Slightly Scarlet.

That brings us to Alfred Newman's interesting score and the film's oft-cited funeral on horseback. Newman's main theme is an ominous and pallid clarion call, a series of dynamic notes that play off a heavy funereal beat. It segues into a short passage that sounds like classical opera, and then pays off in more downbeat notes, like a doom-laden dirge. It almost resembles something Bernard Herrmann would do, even though he'd orchestrate it differently. The music gets our attention over the Fox logo and is given a full workout in an early scene set at dawn atop a mountain, that plays like a ritual from a Greek tragedy. Ellen rides up and down the crest of a trail atop a beautiful horse, distributing the ashes of her dead father. The shots aren't much - Leave Her to Heaven doesn't go in for dynamic angles - but the music lends a weird grandeur to the wordless proceedings. With Sedona looking like some fantastic other world, it's a prime example of a "music and landscape" tour-de-force such as can be found in movies like Garden of Evil, The Big Country and First Men In the Moon.

Fox's Studio Classics DVD of Leave Her to Heaven looks fine in nicely restored color that almost but not quite captures the delirious intensity of original prints. That's nobody's fault as video just can't equal the look of Technicolor in its full richness; the image is great but I remember Tierney and Wilde's faces glowing as if they were painted Barbie and Ken dolls, too artificial to be human. The sound is strong, with the Newman score standing out in good relief.

Richard Shickel shares a commentary track with Darryl Hickman. Shickel does a full autopsy of the movie from every angle he can think of while Hickman goes through his career as a child actor in complete detail. It's quite an interesting story, especially when he's describing how Elizabeth Taylor suddenly changed from little kid to attractive woman overnight at the age of fourteen (he's polite and respectful). There are some trailers for other Studio Classics, a restoration demo and the expected snippets of newsreels showing Fox films and actors receiving Oscars. Bob Hope does some nice schtick with Peggy Garner of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The boxtop photo is identifiable as Gene Tierney only after we've seen the movie. Most of the time she wears her standard drop-dead-beautiful mask of a face. Who would have believed that an overbite could be so sexy?

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Leave Her to Heaven rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, restoration demo, trailers, newsreel clips
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 15, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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