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.
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.