Leave Her to Heaven is a movie that impresses me more now than it did the first time I saw it. As is the case with many great movies it helps if you already know how the plot turns out, so you can concentrate more on how the story is told rather than on the story itself.
Interestingly enough it was apparently a movie that got mixed reviews at the time of its release in 1945, which strengthens my belief that it’s a movie you need to see, then go away and think about, and then see again.
Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) is a novelist who travels to New Mexico to stay with the Berent family. When he gets there he finds that the stunning young woman he met on the train is the daughter of the household, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney). He’s understandably fascinated by her beauty, and by a slight oddness in her manner. She’s engaged to Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), an ambitious lawyer running for district attorney. That doesn’t stop her from flirting with Richard Harland. Pretty soon she has discarded the engagement ring and is proposing marriage to Richard.
Her sudden decision that Richard is the man she wants and her absolute determination to get him is the first sign that perhaps Ellen is just a little unstable. There are a couple of other very subtle warning signs. Ellen’s father had died not long before and it appears that her love for her father was rather obsessive. And there are even more subtle hints that Ellen is inclined to jealousy.
Nonetheless Ellen and Richard settle into Richard’s remote fishing lodge in Maine where Richard will work on his next book and all seems to be going well. Ellen is clearly head over heels in love with her husband. They’ve been joined by Richard’s much younger brother Danny, a teenager who is suffering from some disability that makes it impossible for him to walk unaided. Danny is pretty annoying, but Ellen seems to be more than just annoyed by him. She resents his presence there. She wants Richard to herself.
Later on she will react in a similar way to the presence of her adoptive sister Ruth. She is unable to bear the thought of anyone coming between her and Richard, or of having to share him in any way with anyone else. As the movie progresses her jealousy becomes more extreme and she expresses it in increasingly destructive and catastrophic ways, leading from one disaster to another.
The overwhelming first impression of this movie is its gorgeousness. This is not just a movie made in Technicolor, it’s a movie that makes the fullest possible use of the potential of Technicolor. The lushness adds to the atmosphere of over-ripeness, of emotional excessiveness, of extremeness. Everything is excessively bright and visible, which is the way Ellen sees the world - she sees too much, everything has too much significance, she suffers from emotional and sensory overload.
John M. Stahl’s direction is fairly restrained, which is the right approach. There’s no need for fancy camerawork when the plot is so melodramatic and the emotions are so over-the-top. But whenever he needs to grab our attention he does so with superb skill. The scene on the lake (I can’t say more for fear of spoilers) may be the most chilling scene in any movies of the 40s. There’s also a brief moment where Ellen is about to wave to Richard then changes her mind because there’s no point. In a few seconds it sums up her entire tragedy, her inability to escape from her own interior world.
To me that’s the essence of the film. Ellen is incapable of interacting with the world or with other people in a meaningful way. She is incapable of friendship. But she is capable of love and since she knows no other way to make contact with others she loves much too intensely. She is completely unable to comprehend other people’s actions and motivations and continually misinterprets both. She then becomes more isolated and more paranoid. And having no friends there is no-one to tell her that she’s starting to behave in a very dangerous manner.
She’s certainly a monster, but she’s a human monster and there are reasons for her madness. Gene Tierney’s performance is extraordinary. She makes Ellen believable and comprehensible and even sympathetic. It’s a bit like Peter Lorre’s performance in M, making a character who can’t possibly be sympathetic engage our sympathies anyway, even while the character appalls us at the same time.
It’s an outrageous movie but it’s done with sufficient conviction and sufficient skill and somehow it all works.