Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Directed by John M. Stahl
Produced by William A. Bacher, Daryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay by Jo Swerling
Based on the novel Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams
Cinematography by Leon Shamroy
Edited by James B. Clark
Music by Alfred Newman
20th Century Fox
(1:50) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
“And I’ll never let you go. Never, never…”
I was not surprised to discover that director John M. Stahl had worked in silent film. Leave Her to Heaven, in fact, could easily have succeeded as a silent movie. Just imagine the scene with Danny swimming, the revelations Richard learns, Ellen’s trip… But I’m getting ahead of myself. As much as the film could have succeeded as a silent, I’m thankful it’s not one.
For those who haven’t seen it, Leave Her to Heaven starts, as many great (and some not-so-great) film noir titles do, with a flashback. It’s a flashback that I believe would spoil the film, so I’ll skip it. For all practical purposes, the story begins on a train to New Mexico as popular novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) sits opposite a woman reading one of his novels. She has no idea she’s sitting across from the author, but stares at him as if she does. Richard learns that the young beauty is named Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), a gorgeous woman from Boston. Richard further learns that he bears a striking resemblance to Ellen’s deceased father, whose ashes she has come to New Mexico to scatter as per his request.
After such an introduction we know these two are going to spend some time together, so why not have them staying at the same desert resort? Ellen’s mother (Mary Philips) and sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) are also there. After Richard and Ellen begin a whirlwind affair, they’re visited by someone else: attorney Russ Quinton (Vincent Price), whom Ellen is supposedly engaged to marry. Oops… Guess Ellen forgot to tell Richard that little bit of information.
All of this leads to Richard’s marriage to Ellen and their life together at his lodge in northern Maine, where he gets to work on his new novel, and Ellen cooks and tends the place. Everything’s wonderful until Richard’s brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), crippled by polio, arrives for an extended visit, which Ellen doesn’t like, wanting Richard all to herself all the time. Then Ellen’s mother and sister arrive unexpectedly, which drives Ellen to…
I can’t tell you that. You have enough information to know that Ellen is consumed by jealousy, allowing absolutely no one to infringe on her time with Richard. There are scenes which I simply cannot tell you about, at least two of which must have elicited gasps from the film’s 1945 audiences and are still quite shocking today. These scenes and many others work because of Gene Tierney’s amazing (and Oscar-nominated) performance, John Stahl’s direction, and Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography.
Many of the film’s locations are in breathtakingly beautiful natural settings in broad daylight, not the typical places where most film noir stories are set. Yet even early on, Shamroy gives us enough shadows in enough of the right places to clue us in to the fact that this is more than drama or even melodrama. Don’t let the Technicolor brilliance and sunny outdoor scenes fool you: this is pure film noir. (Also contrast how Shamroy uses light and shadow during the early part of the film with the later courtroom scene. In particular, he expertly employs the use of shadow on Vincent Price during his first scene, then presents him practically in full light in court, suggesting that he is now arriving at the truth.)
And don’t let anyone tell you that Gene Tierney doesn’t kill it (no pun intended) in this role. She doesn’t come across as cold and calculating by just standing there. No, just watch her eyes, how she walks into a room, looks into a mirror. This was Tierney’s finest moment, and if it hadn’t been for Joan Crawford’s comeback performance in Mildred Pierce, I believe Tierney would’ve walked home with the Oscar.
Once again, credit Stahl for learning how to tell a visual story during the silent era. Reaction shots, not only from Tierney, but also from Wilde and the rest of the cast are expertly arranged and delivered with maximum impact. Words aren’t necessary, not when you have these faces and a tremendous Alfred Newman score to back them up. But Stahl does so much more.
The film’s most famous scene, of course, occurs on the lake when Ellen takes Danny out to practice his swimming endurance. The first time I saw this film, only five years ago, this scene was stunning, but today it was even more so. Ellen makes statements to Danny while they’re both in the boat, statements that don’t have all that much meaning until you’ve seen the film for a second time. That knowledge drives the intensity and horror of the scene off the charts.
END OF SPOILER
After first viewing Leave Her to Heaven at Noir City DC in 2015, I considered it a good film noir. Now after a second viewing, I consider it superb and can’t wait to get my hands on the Criterion Blu-ray (maybe Santa will drop it down the chimney). If you’ve been hesitant to watch the film because you’ve heard “It’s not really noir,” shut those voices down and watch a great film featuring one of the greatest femme fatale performances of all time. Watch it through Noir City International, where you'll see a wonderful intro and outro by Alan K. Rode.