Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

I have learnt a lot from blog readers and fellow bloggers over the years I’ve been blogging. One thing for which I am especially grateful is recommendations: I’ve had bloggers mention films they like, and more often than not, I’ve ended up at least going and checking it out. Sometimes, I give it a miss (an actor I don’t like?). Sometimes, I watch the film but—perhaps because my expectations might have been too high to start with—end up being too underwhelmed to even want to go through the trouble of reviewing it.

Not this time. Fellow blogger and blog reader Neeru recommended Leave Her to Heaven, and I didn’t just watch it, I watched it pretty much sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what would happen next.

A harried-looking young man (Cornel Wilde) has just returned to his home town after two years in prison. He is met at a lakeside dock by a lawyer named Robie (Ray Collins), who greets him with genuine affection and hands over a boat. The young man gets into the boat, thanks his friend, and moves off across the lake.

Later, Robie, sitting with an acquaintance, tells the story of how this young man (a bestselling writer named Richard Harland) came to be in prison… and that is the story of Leave Her to Heaven.

The scene shifts to several years in the past. Richard is travelling by train, and finds himself seated opposite a very beautiful woman (Gene Tierney). What strikes Richard the most is that she’s reading one of his books, and hasn’t even realized—though she’s looked him straight in the face—that he’s the man whose face is on the back of the dust jacket. They get talking, the woman discovers that this is Richard Harland, and they have a laugh over it.

Richard apologizes to the woman for having stared at her, and she apologizes right back—also for having stared. She tells Richard that he bears an uncanny resemblance to her father, which is why she’d been staring.

This, as it happens, is not to remain a brief on-board-a-train acquaintance; when Richard gets off the train at Jacinto, New Mexico, it’s to find that this woman is also getting off the train there. Her name is Ellen Berent, and along with her mother (Mary Philips) and Ellen’s younger sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), Ellen has come to stay for a few days at Robie’s ranch, where Richard is headed as well.

Within the next couple of hours, as Richard gets to know the Berent family better, he discovers that Ruth is actually a cousin of Ellen’s, who’s been adopted by Mrs Berent (Ruth pointedly says that she was adopted by Mrs Berent, not by the Berents; when Richard wonders about this, Ruth laughs it off).

He discovers, too, that the Berent ladies have come to this corner of New Mexico to hold a funeral ceremony for Mr Berent, Ellen’s father (whose photo is shown to Richard, and he agrees that the old gentleman did look uncannily like Richard).

Ellen explains, in a disturbingly fierce way, that she and her father were ‘inseparable’, and that the two of them used to come to this part of the world every year, because it was their favourite place. So much so that they made a pact: whichever one of them died first, the other would ensure that the dead person’s ashes were scattered in this particular valley of New Mexico. Mr Berent died out east, but Ellen has brought his ashes here.

Mrs Berent (who has never come here before, and looks uncomfortable at having been obliged to visit Jacinto now) and Ruth ride out the next day with Ellen. Richard, unknown to everybody else, watches them from behind a tree and sees Ellen riding swiftly along, holding the urn full of ashes out, so that they are blown about by the wind.

Later that evening, it transpires that Ellen has still not returned from the valley. She had told Ruth and Mrs Berent to go on back to Robie’s ranch because she wanted to be alone for a while. Mrs Berent doesn’t seem especially perturbed, but Richard—by now quite besotted—goes out to search for Ellen. He finds her, and Ellen seems to have expected him to come looking for her. She readily (and in a matter-of-fact way) admits, when Richard points out the ring on her finger, that she’s engaged.

It’s obvious that Ellen, like almost everybody else at the Jacinto Ranch, realizes that Richard has fallen head over heels in love with her. One day, Richard notices that she’s pulled off her engagement ring…

… and later that evening, an incensed (and unexpected) visitor arrives at the ranch. This is Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), an aspiring district attorney—and he’s furious that Ellen has broken off their engagement. It turns out that Ellen had sent him a telegram summarily announcing the end of their relationship. With a smile and a serene look on her face (Ellen always seems to have a look of quiet, calm serenity), Ellen tells Russell that she and Richard are in love, and that Richard has proposed to her. And that she’s accepted.

This, of course, is news to Richard, but he rallies around, dismisses his surprise, and is suitably gratified at having been chosen by this beautiful woman [frankly, if I were in his place, I’d be unnerved enough to run away]. Before he quite realizes it, Richard is married to Ellen, and they go off—without even a honeymoon—to visit Richard’s teenaged brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), in Georgia.

Danny is admitted here at a hospital where he’s undergoing treatment for his legs, which are close to paralyzed. Richard, immensely attached to his little brother, makes it a point to visit him frequently and to spend several weeks there. This time, too, Richard and Ellen spend a good bit of time with Danny. Ellen quickly wins the teenager’s trust, and she’s the one who has long chats with him, sits with him, and attends to him.

On the surface, Ellen seems to be the perfect wife, the perfect sister-in-law. When Richard expresses surprise at her refusal to hire domestic help, she tells him she wouldn’t want anybody else to do anything for Richard. She will cook, she will clean, she will wash and scrub and do everything for Richard, she loves him so much.

The case is the same when it comes to Danny: Ellen is the most attentive, caring and loving sister-in-law Danny could have hoped for. Even more than Richard, it is Ellen who is by his side.

Yet, when Richard suggests to Ellen that Danny should accompany them to their home, a lodge called Back of the Moon (so named because it sits on the shore of a crescent-shaped lake), Ellen is a little rattled. She doesn’t let Richard see her distress, but instead, goes to Danny’s doctor and has a chat with him.

She wonders if this proposed shift would be best for Danny—so far from civilization, from medical help? Doesn’t Danny need to be near here, where he can be attended to by skilled medical staff? What if an emergency should arise? When the doctor assures Ellen that Danny is recuperating well, and that it will do him good to go to Back of the Moon, Ellen, for once, lets her mask slip. But I’ve not had my husband to myself for a single day, she bursts out, in a bitter tirade. Because of Danny, we’ve come scurrying up here, without even a honeymoon. And now he’s all set to spoil the rest of their married life, too, and not leave them any privacy…

The doctor is beginning to look horrified and suspicious, when Richard comes in—and Ellen immediately changes back to being what she always is: sweet, concerned, loving. Even before the doctor can speak, Ellen has given Richard the good news, that the doctor says Danny can come with them to Back of the Moon. She is so excited and happy about it that she insists on phoning right then and telling Danny. And she won’t let Richard break the news: she must tell Danny herself.

At Back of the Moon, though, it soon becomes apparent that yes, Richard and Ellen will have little privacy. Richard spends most of this days immersed in his writing. A close friend and odd-job man, Leick Thome (Chill Wills), who does all sorts of work around the house, ends up being in Ellen’s way, though she doesn’t let him see it. No.  To all of them—Richard, Danny, Thome—Ellen is gracious and kind.

Until one day, when, as a surprise, who should turn up but Mrs Berent and Ruth. Richard, seeing Ellen go all stiff and cold, asks her what is wrong, and she snaps back: she doesn’t like surprises like this (he’s the one who’s arranged for the two women to come visiting, hoping that will make Ellen happy). She wants him to herself. She does not want anybody else around. Not Danny, not Thome, not her own mother and adopted sister.

Mrs Berent and Ruth both quickly cotton on to the fact that, as far as Ellen is concerned, they are unwelcome. Even though Ruth is enjoying herself in a quiet way—she goes out into the garden every day, armed with a hoe (leading Richard to dub her ‘the gal with the hoe’), Mrs Berent insists they leave after a few days.

But that is not enough for Ellen. Danny is still around, a thorn in her flesh, even if she will not let him have an inkling of her feelings towards him.

Ellen takes it upon herself to encourage Danny to go swimming in the lake. It’s good exercise and it’ll make his legs stronger. Danny, eager to prove he’s almost all right now, is more than willing. They won’t tell Richard right now, both of them agree. Telling him at this stage will only make him worry. Danny will practice. Halfway across the lake one day, three-fourths of the way another, and finally all the way. What a grand surprise it will be for Richard! Of course, Ellen is always with Danny, rowing a boat alongside, chatting with him, egging him on.

Until one day.

I began watching Leave Her to Heaven with absolutely no idea of what the film was about (I made it a point to avoid reading anything about it—I wanted to be surprised). I had guessed, of course, given Neeru’s recommendation of this as a good mystery/thriller movie—that something would go wrong somewhere along the way, but I didn’t know when it would happen and how, though (given the start of the film), I guessed Richard would’ve murdered someone. Who? And how? And why?

I was wrong, but even as the film progressed, the sense of unease—which first swept over me when Ellen calmly tells Russell Quinton that she’s now engaged to Richard—continued to mount. And by the time I reached the point where I’ve cut off the synopsis in this review, I was pretty much sitting bolt upright, waiting to see what happened next.

Superb film.

What I liked about this film:

Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent Harland. I will admit I’m not much of a Gene Tierney fan. I’ve seen her in several films, but none where she really left much of an impression on me. As Ellen, however, she is brilliant. Ellen is a psychopath, a woman so obsessed with the man she loves that she will not let anyone come between them. She is ruthless in her selfishness, unable to see beyond her ‘love’ for Richard.

What makes it even more interesting—and unnerving—is the origin of that possessiveness, the obsession: Ellen Berent is pretty much the epitome of the Electra complex. A woman who is so attached to her father that they almost (or so it appears, from whatever Ellen says and does) create a world for themselves: of places that only they visit, of things they both hold dear, of a pact, even, that stretches beyond death. To Ellen, her father is so precious that she flies into a rage when anybody tries to disturb the memory of him. The very fact that she is fascinated by Richard, enough to insist on marrying him, is unsettling: not because this is a case of love at first sight (it may be so in Richard’s case, but is quite obviously not so in Ellen’s), but because he looks so uncannily like her father.

The script is excellent, especially in its characterization of Ellen and in the progression of the story. Ellen is not shown in black and white, at least not in the beginning: the gradual revelation of her character is what makes her even more frightening a person. She starts off seeming pretty much the quintessential Hollywood film heroine: beautiful, headstrong, impulsive, but also devoted to the man she falls in love with and marries. Sweet, affectionate, charming. Even when the monstrous nature of her emerges, Ellen still has a wide-eyed belief in her own innocence—she did it all out of love for Richard—that (while it didn’t make me feel sorry for her) did make me wish someone had thought of taking this woman to a shrink before things got so bad.

What I didn’t like:

Something relatively minor, but which took away—a little—from the otherwise gripping story of Leave Her to Heaven. Just before the film ends and the reason behind Richard Harland’s conviction and imprisonment is revealed, one important point is left out: where was the evidence? It’s never explained, and if I had been a prosecutor (or a judge) I would have expected something more than someone’s testimony to suffice.

But, despite that hiccup: a good film. More than good.

You can watch Leave Her to Heaven, here.

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38 thoughts on “Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

  1. I love this film too. It’s been a while since I watched and your review makes me want to get my dvd out and watch it now (unfortunately I’m on the bus on my way to work!)…
    It’s one of the best film noirs I have seen and the glorious colour of the film makes it have even more of an impact. I even bought a old copy of the book but have yet to read it

      • Ugh. That doesn’t sound like a Russell one would want her to marry. In the film, the very fact that it’s a yummy Vincent Price makes all of it even more impactful, because one wonders why she would give up a man like that for a relative stranger… until one realizes the Electra complex angle.

        Thank you so much for recommending this, Neeru! I really enjoyed it.

        • You are welcome, Madhulika. I feel it’d have been better all around had Ellen married Russell who seemed to love her with a passion rather than Richard with his ‘girl with a hoe’…

          • Richard, it seemed to me, was quite bowled over by the fact that Ellen was so mad about him. It was only when he began to realize that Ellen wasn’t quite as perfect as he’d imagined, and that Ruth was actually more his type – which happened after they moved to the Back of the Moon – that it perhaps dawned on him that he didn’t love Ellen as much as he’d thought he did.

            And, anyway, there wouldn’t have been a story if Ellen had not fallen for a man who looked so much like her father and had consequently dumped Russell…

            • Obviously, there wouldn’t have been a story had Ellen not dumped Russell and married Richard:). Just meant to say that Russell seemed to understand her complexes more than Richard ever did.

              • I wonder, though, how much Russell really understood her – given that he looked nothing like her father, and so her relationship with him was probably a lot cooler than that with Richard. I wonder how it would have been if Russell, too, had had some resemblance to Mr Berent.

                One could go on surmising. Lots of interesting possibilities here.

                • Well, Russell does say to Ellen something like that he knew that she’d never marry him as long as her father was alive but that he had hopes afterwards. That does show that he was aware of her unhealthy obsession with her father and in a way did comprehend her complexes and yet loved her despite everything. Ellen used him but he remained loyal to her, which I found quite touching. Richard, on the other hand, was just bewitched by a beautiful face and once that started to veer off, their relationship just floundered. Was it so difficult for him to take Ellen for their honeymoon or have just some days of privacy? They were newly-weds for heaven’s sake!

                  As you said, lots of interesting possibilities.

    • “the glorious colour of the film makes it have even more of an impact.

      So true! I think the gorgeousness of the colour, and the beauty of the setting – that lake, the cabin, the mountains, later Maine – and Gene Tierney herself, makes the horror of it even more stark.

  2. You know, I’ve always had a fascination for the full volume bob that Gene Tierney has in this film. I’ve gone through countless stylists trying to get the look right. Obviously, I’ve been influenced by this look, and never realized it!
    Well, thanks, first for the lovely review of the film. This is a must watch now. Cheers! :)

  3. These spunky broads are no good for any man,i would rather go for a hag or a bag than such obvious frigidaires.Too bad i learnt the truth very late and at a price but thankfully not too late.Shammi kapoor after getting besotted with Madhubala soon realized the folly of cavorting with such deceptive,beautifully stacked ice statues that he vowed to work with newcomers who would be glad for a tumble than the likes of big names.Richard never stood a chance being young and an intellectual as well,Ellen was a nut case fit for a padded cell.Any time i would prefer a floozy than a horror like Ellen.

  4. Since recommendations are such dicey things, I am so glad that you liked the movie, Madhulika. I agree with you, the court sequence is really weak. First Vincent Price decides to overact which almost destroys his wonderful depiction of anguish earlier on and then there is that little minx Ruth….

  5. I began reading this, Madhu, with absolutely no inkling of what the film was about. Not even the title stirred my memory. Then, you came to the cutoff point, and I realised I’d watched this on Turner Classic Movies. That triggered my memory of the entire film; gosh, it was horrifying, wasn’t it? I still have goosebumps from remembering that scene on the river with Ellen and Danny. What’s not shown is perhaps as chilling as what is. Loved the review. I’m not sure I can say I loved the film, but it was a brilliant suspense thriller.

    Thanks to Neeru to recommending this, so you could view (and review) it.

    • Yes, that scene on the lake is macabre, but more than that, I was chilled by the calculating way she uses the toe of her shoe to lift up the carpeting at the top of the staircase… oh, God.

      I would say this isn’t a film to love, but I did admire it – the writing (and portrayal) of this character was quite amazing.

  6. Duh;did i overshoot my mouth or what,mebbe it’s the flippancy that i’ve acquired from reading too many saint books.Next time i’ll try purple prose instead of shooting straight.

  7. Madhu,
    I am coming back after watching the film. Your review made the film more enjoyable. (The dark humour is unintended.)

    Ellen’s evil is not by design. She is a prisoner of her complexes and possessiveness. There is a vulnerability about her, which charms Richard in the first place. By the time he realises her dark side, it is too late. He and the other characters around her are caught in a vortex from which there is no escape.

    You and Neeru find the court scene weak. I found it riveting. Russ is professional, but there is also bottled-up anger against Richard which comes out in his aggressive/menacing cross-examination. You have asked, “where is the evidence?” Though I watched the film late in the night in a semi-drowsy condition, I think Richard was convicted not for committing any crime, but for being in the possession of the knowledge of a crime (or crimes). The evidence for this came in Richard’s own statement before the court. Ruth was charged with the crime, for which she was rightly acquitted. The crime(s) I am referring to in the two sentences are very distinct.

    I found Russ (Vincent Price) equally riveting when he first appeared on the screen to face the unflattering news of his ejection by Ellen in favour of Richard. He is hurt, bewildered, angry, and worried (which Ellen cynically describes, for his political career).

    Let me also make a general observation. Whenever I watch Classic Hollywood of the mid-30s and 40s, I can’t help comparing them with our own films. Our films of the period, in comparison, not only lacked in production values, the themes and treatment also lacked sophistication.
    AK

    • AK: Glad you liked the movie. My problem with the court scene is, as I wrote before, that Russ goes OTT in that. Compared to that restrained performance that Vincent Price showed earlier on in the movie (look at his eyes when he sees the woman he loves flirting with another man – what marvellous depiction of anguish) it almost destroys the whole effect.

      Now it has been quite some time since I saw the movie so I can’t recall whether it is Richard or Ruth or both of them being prosecuted but I do remember that the judge completely accepts Ruth’s testimony. How come? Where is the proof she is telling the truth? Ellen is a psycho, undoubtedly, but I found Ruth quite cunning too. It seemed to be that as soon as she saw Ellen and Richard falling for each other, she decided to somehow worm her way in.

      • Neelu,
        You are right, both were prosecuted for the same crime, but as I said Ruth was acquitted, and Richard was convicted for a much less serious crime.

        But I have to disagree with you on how you view Ruth’s character. I did not find any deviousness on her part. Her relationship with Richard is of a friendly sister-in-law. Nothing more than that. The fact that they unite in the end is an outcome of the traumatic events.
        AK

          • No probs, A.K. Sorry, I have to disagree with you. I don’t see the union in the end as just an outcome of traumatic events. Ruth does confess that she loved Richard from the moment she saw him. And as for Richard dedicating his book to Ruth when his wife has just suffered a miscarriage (the truth of which we know but he doesn’t) seems very insensitive to me.

    • I’m glad you liked the movie, AK – and I completely agree with your assessment of Ellen’s character, and Richard’s relationship with her: by the time he realizes the dark side of her, it is too late.

      As Neeru also mentions below, the lack of evidence I referred to was the evidence pertaining to the murders Ellen committed. Ruth is acquitted, true, and Richard is convicted for abetting crimes by hiding what he knew – but on what basis are these verdicts handed out? Only on the word of Richard? What evidence did Richard put forward to prove that Ellen, indeed, had committed the two murders? I cannot see how he could’ve proved those, really. And if he did prove them, I’d liked to have seen how.

      Oh, I didn’t say I didn’t like Vincent Price, far from it. He was excellent in his first scene, and I didn’t mind him in the court scenes either – I just didn’t find the court scenes convincing, though my perception of that is perhaps coloured by the glitch I’ve pointed out, above.

      “Our films of the period, in comparison, not only lacked in production values, the themes and treatment also lacked sophistication.

      So very, very true. The only films I’ve seen that came somewhere close to Hollywood standards when it came to impact and theme are Roti and Neecha Nagar. Production values, I think we couldn’t even hope to match…

  8. This is a fine, interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, “The Great Breening Blogathon:” https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/extra-the-great-breening-blogathon/. It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn’t have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    • Tiffany, thank you so much for commenting, and for the appreciation!

      I would have loved to join the Breening Blogathon – it sounds right up my alley – but I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass this one up. I have a huge amount of work right now, what with one book about to go to press and the editor breathing down my neck for another book (and negotiations on for another…). I envisaged all of this, so have got my next eight posts all ready to be published – since I won’t have time for any movie watching over the next couple of months.

      Thanks again, and I will be checking out your blog as well.

      • Thank you so much for your lengthy reply. I appreciate the fact that you like my blogathon topic. I understand that you are busy. Perhaps in the future when you are not so busy, you could write an article about one of the topics of the blogathon. I would be happy to put a link to it on my website.

        Yours Hopefully,

        Tiffany Brannan

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