Film review by Jason Day of Leave Her to Heaven, the melodrama about a woman possessively in love with her husband. Starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde and directed by John M. Stahl.
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Richard Harlan (Cornel Wilde) is a successful author who falls in love at first sight with fellow train passenger, the mysterious and intense Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney). After holidaying with her adoptive family, the two marry and settle into domestic bliss. But Ellen quickly becomes resentful of their family and friends fearing they will ostracise her from him. She sets about correcting this, by any means necessary, to keep her man all to herself.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
And I’m never going to let you go. Never, never, never.Ellen (Gene Tierney) declares her love for husband Dick (Cornel Wilde).
Before I write about the movie I must note something – could you cram anymore people called Gene/Jeanne into one film?!
For John M. Stahl – leading Hollywood melodrama director – calling out directions on set must have led to confusion. From Tierney, Crain to Lockhart, even one of the costumers is EuGENE Joseff.
But it’s the Gene of Tierney most people talk about and the one who nabbed a top role in 1940’s American cinema, that of the manipulative, murderous Ellen of Ben Ames Williams’ novel (the title is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the ghost urges his son Hamlet not to take revenge on his duplicitous mother).
It turned out to be a prestigious hit for 20th Century Fox, the second highest grossing film at the 1945 box office with estimated international box office earnings of $8.2m.
Considering the uncomfortable subject matter and how resolutely unsympathetic Ellen is, this is amazing for the time. Even to this day the movie can wrong-foot modern audiences used to spirited female leads back in the day none the less swooning and falling into the arms of a strapping leading man.
(It even gets a U rating from the British Board for Film Classification, even with a scene in which Tierney, all bouncy brunette hair, shades and ruby red lips, casually sits back and watches as her brother-in-law drowns).
Spirited is a patronising term for someone line Ellen Berent-Harland. She is sexually active from the first time her urbane and (supposedly) cerebral husband claps eyes on her.
He tries to get the upper-hand by picking up the book she has dropped (he is its author; it seems she doesn’t know this) but Tierney brushes this off until he sits down and stops towering over her.
Now more physically more matched, she determinedly stares at him, keeping a frozen, basilisk-like gaze on him. He shifts in his chair and reaches for a cigarette. But the stare continues…Dick is totally within her tractor-beam sights.
It’s uncomfortable for him and for us, so why does he engage her in conversation? Especially when she reveals she’s been looking so intensely at him because he exactly resembles her father.
Why isn’t he pulling on the alarm cord and running for the hills?
Well, it’s because she looks like Gene Tierney one of the most ravishing, ghostly beautiful women of the silver screen. And here she is in what is probably her finest cinematic hour, captured in the most gorgeous and radiant of technicolor processes (master Leon Shamroy is the man behind the machine). The movie is so drawn-in perfect, sometimes it looks like a cartoon.
From her strained and creepy voice to her cool, standoffish demeanour, Ellen is someone you should always keep one eye on (the other being on a safe and swift exit). Tierney doesn’t shirk from the nasty side of this woman, she fully embraces it. It’s woven into her DNA.
As she discusses with a doctor about not having her brother-in-law live with them, her fingers are so tightly knotted it looks like she could break one or more of them. Yet her face remains expressionless, like a stunning mask even as she shouts the word “CRIPPLE!” much to the progressive doctor’s consternation.
Ellen is an out and out bad ‘un and the reason this film is so enthralling is because the writer and director run with that.
Scattering her dead – but never to be forgotten – father’s ashes she carries them on horseback like a lone soldier going into battle. With Ellen the mould was very definitely broken after first being cast. Wilde watches the ashes moment from the sidelines with what appears to be admiration.
Or is he bewitched by this sexually confident lady? Dick is a difficult one to figure out. For the most part, not picking up on tragedies that befall when his missus is around could be put down to plausible deniability. After all, would a husband who sees his wife billing and cooing over his disabled brother immediately believe she is responsible when he drowns after a daily swim?
But even a man as slow on the uptake as this must think something is up when his wife maintains a stone cold silence when other people are around. Or is the swim supervisor when his disabled son drowns. And then ends up at the bottom of stairs after her pregnancy is announced.
Another Freudian moment but the house they are staying in is full of priapic cacti. Has Ellen potted these here, or her gardener sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), who likes to spread her green fingers around the places she stays (later on at Dick and Ellen’s own home, she takes this hobby outside, planting her roots near to Ellen’s front door).
NB: As an aside about Freudianism and girls with Daddy complexes, this film does mirror some aspects of Tierney’s own real-life. She was brought by a strict Irish father who (like her younger brother and sister) she idolised, despite his disciplinarian attitude. The two later fell out when Tierney married a Hungarian Count who was older than her who her father felt was out for her money. Ironically, years later her father embezzled money from his then famous daughter to prop up his floundering business leading to their estrangement.
In the final analysis, the sad fact for Ellen is the more she manipulates to retain her man’s affections, the more she ends up pushing him away and into the arms of her adoptive sister who she always been in competition with. Ruth is a woman who still exhibits controlling behaviours but is much more tender than Ellen.
Do men need a woman to take the reins, to lead at home and, possibly, beyond? Wilde’s character certainly does but at least with the apparently unhinged Ruth he forges a successful sexual partnership with a ‘good’ sister.
Cast & credits
Director: John M. Stahl. 1hr 50 mins/110mins. 20th Century Fox. (PG).
Producer: William A. Bacher.
Writer: Jo Swerling.
Camera: Leon Shamroy.
Music: Alfred Newman.
Sets: Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler.
Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Mary Philips, Ray Collins, Gene Lockhart, Reed Hadley, Darryl Hickman, Chill Wills.