Thursday, April 14, 2022

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

Leave Her To Heaven is a 1945 romantic/crime melodrama which some people consider to be a film noir. I don’t think it’s film noir but it’s a great movie.

It’s based on a bestselling 1944 novel by Ben Ames Williams, and the differences between the novel and the film are subtle but extremely interesting.

On a train to New Mexico novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meets Ellen Berent. She’s reading his latest novel but it’s sent her to sleep. When she awakens they start to talk and Ellen decides that Richard reminds her very much of her now deceased father, to whom she was devoted. As luck would have it both Richard and Ellen have the same destination. They’re going to be spending a holiday at Glen Robie’s ranch.

Also at the ranch are Ellen’s mother and her adoptive sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Richard isn’t looking for a wife but he’s fascinated by Ellen. She has fallen obsessively in love with him. After a whirlwind courtship he finds himself married to Ellen, without quite knowing how it happened. Ellen had been engaged to rising District Attorney Russ Quinton (Vincent Price) but she breaks the engagement to marry Richard.

Richard and Ellen movie to Richard’s lakeside cabin at a place he calls Back of the Moon. It’s isolated but Ellen doesn’t mind that. She doesn’t need anybody but Richard.

There is a complication. Richard has a much younger brother, Danny. After a recent bout of polio Danny can’t walk properly and never will be able to. Danny is determined to go to Back of the Moon with Richard and Ellen, and Richard is determined to take him there although Ellen has made it very clear that she wants to be alone with her new husband.

Tragedy strikes, leaving Richard devastated. He does have one shred of comfort to which to cling. He’s going to be a father.

Tragedy strikes again.

The marriage becomes rather rocky, Ellen is jealous of her sister Ruth’s very obvious attentions to Richard, and his equally obvious attentions to her.

And then something happens which brings what’s left of Richard’s world crashing down on him.

One very significant difference between book and movie is that in the book Richard knows from the beginning exactly what happened on the lake. He is also practically certain he knows what happened on the stairs. In the movie he has no reason to suspect that there was anything suspicious about those events. That makes the behaviour of Richard in the film much less admirable, even reprehensible. His decision to dedicate his new novel to Ruth rather than Ellen seems cruel and spiteful and unjustified. It’s the sort of thing that any woman would regard as an insult.

In both novel and movie Ruth has a more-virtuous-than-thou butter-wouldn’t-melt in-my-mouth vibe to her but in the movie her behaviour comes across (to me at least) as scheming. When you know your sister is a jealous possessive woman it’s not a good idea to throw yourself at her husband. At best it’s unwise, at worst it’s conniving. Richard and Ruth are far less sympathetic characters in the movie than in the book.

That’s partly a result of casting decisions. Jeanne Crain is just a bit too glamorous as Ruth, a bit too obviously a threat to Ellen. Cornel Wilde’s performance as Richard is colourless and dull and we never have the slightest idea what is going on in his head.

It a weird way this turns out to be an advantage to the movie. It puts the focus squarely on Ellen, since she’s the only interesting character in the movie. Fortunately she’s a very interesting character indeed (which is helped by Gene Tierney’s riveting performance). We don’t care what happens to Richard and Ruth. We’re too entranced by Ellen. We want to know what makes her tick, and Tierney does an extraordinarily good job of letting us see into Ellen’s head.

Ellen is mad, but her behaviour makes sense from her point of view. She simply isn’t capable of seeing anything else as important other than her love for Richard, and her need to be loved. In the movie, compared to the novel, we can feel some understanding of her actions. They’re evil actions, but in Ellen’s mind they’re justified. And she really does have cause to believe that her love is under threat.

Perhaps if Richard hadn’t been so thick-headed and insensitive Ellen wouldn’t have snapped. Taking his new bride to Back of the Moon and bringing Danny along, with Danny occupying the bedroom next door with paper-thin walls so that everything that happens in one bedroom can be heard in the other - that was not really a smart move. Perhaps a smarter more sensitive man would have recognised Ellen’s desperate need to be loved, and for that love to be absolutely exclusive.

Gene Tierney gives one of the great film performances. Ellen is not sufficiently in control of her own actions to qualify as a true femme fatale in my opinion. I’ve already mentioned the problems with Cornel Wilde’s performance. Vincent Price is quite good as Ellen’s cast-off fiancé.

John M. Stahl was a director with a flair for melodrama. He does a fine job here. The famous scene on the lake remains possibly the most chilling moment in cinema history. There are several other memorable scenes - Ellen casting her father’s ashes to the wind being particularly effective, and important in revealing facets of Ellen’s character.

Leave Her To Heaven is melodrama but it’s great melodrama. Very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed Williams' novel Leave Her To Heaven at Vintage Pop Fictions.

No comments:

Post a Comment