John M. Stahl's 1945 picture Leave Her To Heaven, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams, opens with a simple scene wherein a man named Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) strikes up a conversation with a beautiful woman sitting near him on the train. This woman, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), is reading Harland's latest book, though she doesn't realize she's sitting next to the author. At any rate, they hit it off and as luck would have it, they're both off to the same ranch for a little rest and relaxation. He's going there to work on his next book, and she's going there to connect with her family and scatter her father's ashes at a place that meant a lot to the two of them.
Before you know it, Richard and Ellen have fallen fast in love. She's no longer wearing the ring she wore when they first met, and it isn't long before they've decided to get married. It's an impulsive decision to be sure, but it feels right to the two of them. Meanwhile, Richard befriends Ellen's mother (Mary Philips) and sister, Ruth (Jeanne Crain), but is unprepared for a surprise visit from his new fiancé's ex-fiancé Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), an ambitious lawyer with political aspirations. Regardless, he's sent on his way and Richard and Ellen continue their relationship. After leaving the ranch, they head to visit Richard's injured younger brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman). He and Ellen seem to hit it off, but then, her behavior starts to change a bit. She wants Richard all to herself, making quips about not wanting anyone else around. He doesn't take it too seriously at first, but it soon becomes obvious that what he initially thought was flirtatious banter is, in fact, quite serious.
Like her mother says, "There's nothing wrong with Ellen. It's just that she loves too much."
A deliberately paced film that morphs seamlessly from a romance into a tight, noirish thriller, Leave Her To Heaven is every bit as good as its reputation would have you believe. Stahl's direction is impressive, giving us just the right amount of character development to work with how the storyline unfolds. We know fairly early on in the film, if we're paying attention at least, that there's something a little bit off about Ellen, the way she jumps from Russell to Richard so nonchalantly being the big red flag, but so too do we understand why he'd fall for her. Gene Tierney's physical beauty is obvious, she was a gorgeous woman, but her character's personality is alluring in that she says the types of things that a man in the forties would want to hear. She tells him they don't need a maid, because she doesn't want anyone to take care of him except for her, for example. On the surface, this is a sweet thing to say to someone, to be so in love with them as to want to be their ‘everything,' but at the same time this also serves as foreshadowing as to where things are headed. The first half of the movie is full of little moments like this that add up to really give the film's finale some serious impact.
The performances are excellent across the board. Cornel Wilde has all the leading man charm you'd want from a Hollywood star circa 1945. He's dashing and handsome and noble and likeable. He wants his relationship with his beautiful new bride to work, and so too does he want to be a good ‘in-law' to Ellen's mother and sister. More importantly than that, he wants to care for kindly young Danny. He plays the part perfectly, but not quite as perfectly as Gene Tierney, who is absolutely pitch-perfect as Ellen. We like her from the start, we understand completely with Richard is so taken with her, not just physically but emotionally as well, and damn it all if she doesn't just nail it here. She's able to ‘flip the switch' and go from kindly and caring to devious at the drop of a hat and make it look perfectly normal, perfectly natural. The supporting cast is also strong. Darryl Hickman is good as Danny in a ‘gosh, shucks, golly gee!' kind of way, while Vincent Price is excellent in a small but very important part as Ellen's former flame. Throw in Jeanne Crain and Mary Philips and yeah, this cast shapes out really nicely.
Production values are excellent. The cinematography is beautiful, the compositions are prefect. The score highlights the romance, the drama and the tension with class. No complaints here at all, really, this shapes up to be a remarkably well-made picture.
Leave Her To Heaven arrives on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection taking up 32GBs of space on a 50GB disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.37.1. Taken from a ‘new 2K digital restoration by Twentieth Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation' it generally looks very nice. There isn't a massive difference between this release and the previous Twilight Time Blu-ray release (which has been out of print for some time now), both are taken from Eastmancolor elements (the original Technicolor elements having disappeared years ago) but the overall picture quality here is quite strong. The bit rate is very strong and as such, no issues with compression to note. Detail generally looks quite nice and the colors are just fine given the elements left for the transfer. The image is filmic throughout, showing no noticeable issues with noise reduction or edge enhancement.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language 24-bit LPCM Mono track. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. The track is clean and nicely balanced, letting the score in particular shine through quite nicely. Dialogue is always easy to understand and there are no audible issues with any hiss or distortion to note.
The main extra on the disc is a new interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith that runs just short of twenty-seven-minutes. In this piece, the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City speaks about director John M. Stahl's unusual background and life as well as his early days in the business, his work in the silent film industry and then his later pictures, including this one. It's quite an interesting look at a fairly enigmatic filmmaker!
Aside from that, we get a theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. The disc comes packaged with an insert booklet that contains an interesting essay on the film by novelist Megan Abbott as well as cast and crew credits for the feature and some technical details about the presentation.
Disappointingly, the commentary, the Fox MovieTone newsreel and the isolated score from the previous Blu-ray release have not been carried over for this Criterion Collection reissue.
Leave Her To Heaven is a fantastic thriller and an excellent noir picture. The direction is top notch, the cinematography is gorgeous and the alluring Gene Tierney couldn't be better in the lead role. The Criterion Collection bring this title back into print with a strong presentation and a great interview with Ms. Smith, though it's a shame that the other existing extras are nowhere to be seen. Regardless, this is a strong package overall and comes highly recommended.