Leave Her To Heaven Review

I love you so, I can’t bear to share you with anybody
Ellen Berent

I have a confession to make. I’m desperately in love with Gene Tierney. Of course, I don’t mean the real Gene Tierney, a tragically disturbed woman much of whose life was hell, but “Gene Tierney”, the actress whose ethereal beauty became a work of art when appearing in films such as Laura, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Whirlpool and most of all, Leave Her To Heaven. Always good at playing characters with a dark side, in John M. Stahl’s extraordinary Noir-melodrama she plays a woman who doesn’t have anything except a dark side. For some reason, the more irredeemable she becomes, the more glowingly beautiful she seems. This is something which probably transcends rational explanation but it’s part of the fun of this kind of shamelessly trashy movie; we can wallow in the attractions of corruption while remaining untainted by them.

In Leave Her To Heaven, Tierney plays Ellen Berent, a society beauty who rapidly becomes involved with Richard Harland (Wilde), a writer. Undeterred by a vague sense that something is awry, Harland feels that he’s in for a happy, settled married life. But he gradually comes to realise that Ellen is far from the perfect bride she appears to be and his suspicions are concerned when he discovers that his new wife is ruthlessly and violently separating him from anyone who might compete with her for his affections. Her mother says, “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. She just loves too much”; an obvious candidate for understatement of the century.

This highly coloured melodrama is effortlessly dominated by the leading actress and Tierney grabs the chance to play a thoroughly bad girl with alacrity. Ellen isn’t really sympathetic and there’s no sentimentality about how she is presented, both of which were very unusual at the time. But we’re drawn to her, not only because she’s so gorgeous but because she gets some of the best dialogue. ”Don’t look so downcast, I’ll still be able to vote for you,” she tells Russ (Price), the politician whom she jilts in favour of Harland. There’s also something rather impressive – perhaps even frightening – about her ruthless single-mindedness and strength of character, neither of which were generally considered admirable qualities in women during the 1940s. Just look at the scene where she allows Danny (Hickman), Harland’s handicapped brother, to drown in the lake. The camera stays on her face; impassive, glacial, unflinching. She’s genuinely iconic here, as she is in the extraordinary, gloriously camp scene where, on horseback, she scatters her father’s ashes around the New Mexico mountains. We don’t like her but there are some things which transcend likeability and Tierney finds ways to evoke them. This is summed up in the magnificent, wordless sequence on the staircase, one of the finest pieces of acting you’ll ever see.

Part of Gene Tierney’s luck as an actress lay in her coming to stardom at a time when women’s parts were becoming more interesting. She took full advantage of the period when the “woman’s picture” was at its zenith and in John M. Stahl she found the ideal director. Stahl had made such extraordinary examples of the genre as Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession and he was highly skilled at probing beneath bourgeois respectability to discover the cracks underneath the façade. In this respect, Leave Her To Heaven is perhaps his greatest achievement, delving deep into the superficial beauty to reveal the rotten heart within. There’s real cynicism here and it’s this which relates the film to the thematic conventions of Film Noir. In style, of course, it’s probably not a Noir – purists would argue that Noir has to be shot in black and white. But the themes - obsession, cruelty, unsentimental pragmatism, evil flourishing in an impotent world -
are Noir through and through and it’s not hard to see Tierney’s Ellen as the evil twin sister of Laura, drawing men to her and peremptorily devouring them. It also has to be said that Leon Shamroy’s stunning 3 strip Technicolor cinematography manages to find shadows and corners of darkness even in the wide-open landscapes of Maine. Shamroy won a well deserved Academy Award for his work here and lovers of ‘proper’ Technicolor will be in seventh heaven when they watch this film.

If the film has a serious flaw then it’s the somewhat colourless nature of the supporting cast. Cornel Wilde was never a particularly great actor but he could summon up a kind of dogged presence. In this movie, however, he seems completely dominated by Tierney and while this is appropriate enough for the character, it means that we lose interest in him far too quickly. In this respect, Richard Harland always reminds me of the characters played by Farley Granger in Stranger on a Train and Robert Cummings in Dial M For Murder. These good, slightly naïve men are no match for the complex, gleeful evil which they come up against and they ultimately fade into the background while their malevolent opposite numbers flourish in the limelight. In Hitchcock’s films, you got the feeling that the Master wasn’t very interested in his ‘heroes’. In Leave Her To Heaven, it’s as though Stahl was so preoccupied with his leading lady that every other consideration was secondary. This is understandable. Tierney gives her all to the role and she ends up being the most interesting and complex person on the screen. It’s a rather simple psychological concept of course and the Freudianism of the father-obsession which is occasionally hinted at is laughably simplified. But this doesn’t really matter unless you make the mistake of taking the film seriously. The rest of the cast doesn’t get the screen time they would need to make much of an impression but it’s worth mentioning Vincent Price’s contribution as the ex-fiance – even in a small role such as this, he has such presence that he bursts off the screen and makes you sorry that he doesn’t have more to do.

Leave Her To Heaven is a wonderful movie; rich, lurid, slightly deviant and thoroughly satisfying. It’s not a great work of art in a traditional sense, although the visuals certainly approach aesthetic greatness at times. But it’s great trash – using the word ‘trash’ in a non-pejorative sense - and, as Pauline Kael so memorably argued, there are things in great trash which you can’t find anywhere else. Most of all, it’s got Gene Tierney’s greatest performance, one which reveals the icy heart that can lie behind ravishing beauty.

The Disc

In Martin Scorsese’s superb documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies, he included Leave Her To Heaven, showing clips which demonstrated the beautiful cinematography. I remember thinking that this could be absolutely ravishing on DVD and Fox’s R1 release doesn’t disappoint.

This is a staggeringly good transfer, up there with the best that Warner Brothers have produced – and that’s high praise. It’s the best work I’ve seen from Fox for a while. The colours are quite staggering, there are no problems with over-enhancement or artifacting and the grain is fine and beautifully cinematic. I can’t imagine the film ever looking better than it does here.

The re-mastered soundtrack in English mono is absolutely fine and offers a good presentation of music and dialogue. I’m not sure what the point of the alleged Stereo remix was but it doesn’t seem much different from the two channel Mono mix. There is also a Spanish mono track present.

The extras are more minimal than on the earlier Fox Studio Classics releases. There’s a commentary from Richard Schickel and actor Darryl Hickman which is variable in quality. It contains some interesting comments and Hickman is fascinating on the subject of Stahl’s bullying directorial style. But he’s also a little too eager to dish up the dirt of Gene Tierney and you end up wondering what’s happened to him in the intervening years to make him so acidic. Schickel’s comments are sporadic and generally a bit dull. This isn’t one of the better commentaries from the Fox Studio Classics range.

We also get a very pleasant stills gallery, two Movietone News segments – about the premiere and the Oscars presentation – and a fascinating restoration comparison. Finally, there are five theatrical trailers present – one for Leave Her To Heaven and previews for In Old Chicago, The Snake Pit, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Three Faces of Eve.

The film is subtitled in English and Spanish but the commentary is not.

Leave Her To Heaven is irresistible, twisted fun which features a brilliant central performance. The DVD looks marvellous and for this alone, is highly recommended.

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