“Leave Her To Heaven” won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color), and was nominated for Best Actress (Gene Tierney), Best Sound Recording, and Best Art Direction/Interior Decoration.
"There's nothing the matter with Ellen. She just loves too much."
Made the year after Fox’ primordial noir thriller Laura, the star quality of Gene Tierney was given the full 3-strip Technicolor treatment in this cold-hearted story of a spoiled princess who never learned the meaning of the word "no." Unlike the openly evil Rhoda in the classic 1956 rotten child chiller The Bad Seed, the adult character of Ellen runs on pure instinct; murder and infanticide are merely desperate attempts to preserve the purity of her love, while child monster Rhoda gleefully thrives on tormenting an exceptionally daft adult population.
As Richard Schickel points out in his adequate commentary, Leave Her to Heaven was based on a best-selling novel by then popular author Ben Ames Williams (The Strange Woman [M]), and even with changes to appease the evil Production Code, the story is still a hugely entertaining slab of juicy melodrama and early noir.
Gene Tierney plays Ellen as a haunted, flawed woman who finds her ideal father figure in popular novelist (Cornel Wilde), and the film adaptation regularly exploits the jealousies residing beneath already wounded characters. As monstrous as Ellen is, she maintains some sympathy with audiences because Tierney plays her as a creature with a strong self-preservation instinct who also weighs decisions: the two deaths that ensue occur only after Ellen has clearly recognized opportunity, (briefly) deliberated the consequences, and plotted a strategy where she becomes the central victim.
Her family is completely resigned to her behaviour, and her mother’s numbness – she’s frequently sullen, and seated like a morose statue throughout her scenes – is rather true to life in showing a parent who long ago realized she was no match for a strong-willed child, and just gave up all power to a nascent monster.
As a contrast, Ellen’s adopted cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain) starts off as perky and dressed in homey clothes, but as her relationship with Richard matures, Ruth’s hair, clothes, and demeanor are toned down to more adult designs. When she begins stands up to Ellen’s incessant fishing for private details, Ruth does it with calm and steely eyes. And as glamorous as Ellen remains to the end (even on her death bed, her make-up is pristine and radiant), she becomes a bit comical, wearing silky moo-moos and tied-up hair that almost makes her look homely and pouty.
Ruth’s eventual confession of grievous sins to Richard is also handled with an eye for sharp design: standing with her arms looped in the sleeves of her brown, monk-like robe, her effort to seek contrition from a seated Richard become even more heavy-handed when she kneels for forgiveness in a pose straight from a pious religious drama.
Leave Her to Heaven’s cast is comprised of superb players from Fox’ in-house roster, especially Vincent Price, who tended to excel at cold, arrogant shits, or in this case, a scorned ex-fiance who uses his position as a district attorney to personally prosecute the man who stole his wife, and blemished his social standing at the time.
Now, the actuality of an ex-lover allowed to be chief prosecutor in the death of his ex-fiancee is patently ridiculous, but Price sells it beautifully, beating the truth of illicit love from Ellen and Richard with exceptional ruthlessness, and making Jo Sweling’s dialogue sound like lethal bullets.
The lack of a flashy editing style may be reflective of the period, but director Stahl trusted the audience to use their brains and tie together the burgeoning lover affair.
Case in point: Ellen, irate that Richard’s book is dedicated to Ruth (‘the gal with the hoe’), skims through the pages of the advance copy and starts to put two and two together, realizing the vacation Ruth is describing in idle chatter is a secret rendezvous.
Ruth, in fact, couldn’t care less what Ellen suspects, because she knows Richard will leave the satin bitch. Ellen’s realization, Ruth’s sly pride, and the book’s cover art alluding to the Mexican hot spot are covered in one long medium shot, and it works. Audiences are forced to listen to the dialogue, watch the actors’ reactions, and scan the shot themselves, picking up the humour on their own. Stahl’s direction may have been a bit sedate here; or maybe he knew that audiences would have a bit of fun discovering Ruth’s plans before Ellen – putting them on Ruth’s side without breaking the film’s ‘third wall.’
The Video Editions
Previously released on DVD as part of Fox’ Studio Classics series, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a new HD transfer that’s almost perfect; there are some hot spots and Fox’ digital noise reduction is discretely active, but this is a gorgeous, sharp print with strong details and radiant colours.
Leon Shamroy (The Robe [M], The Egyptian [M], The Cardinal) was one of Hollywood’s great colour cinematographers, and his lighting and compositions are exceptional in this production, especially since the film’s set design remains highly contemporary. The furniture, colours, nick-knacks, and open concept houses are very modern, and the HD transfer really brings out the beauty of the costumes, especially the unique patterns in shirts, and small details in the men’s ties.
Only qualms: with so much time spent on the visuals, the sharp edges in the audio are more noticeable. TT’s disc includes a mono track featuring Alfred Newman’s brooding (and oddly sparse) score, and it’s too bad an alternate mix wasn’t created, substituting the far cleaner master music stems in place of the affected tracks.
Newman’s music still packs a punch in its strategic locations, though, especially the tracking and long shots in Ellen's famous ash scattering in the mountains. The scene’s power, however, comes from the contextual elements that precede it: as the audience falls in love with Tierney’s beauty alongside Richard / Cornel Wilde, and become fully aware of her ‘electric’ love for her dead dad, the scattering montage is the finale to an operatic sequence begun in silence, moving to sparse, breathy dialogue, and sustained and silent reaction shots.
Unique to the 2005 Fox DVD is a stills gallery featuring 22 images, a restoration featurette, English Bullshit Stereo and Spanish Mono sound mixes, and English and Spanish subtitles.
In addition TT’s bonus inclusion of Newman’s score (which includes some bookend studio chatter), Julie Kirgo’s liner notes – one of her best – explains in elegant prose why both the film and its architects deserve admiration. Stahl’s direction is really superb for ‘stoking the fire and observing the lurid flames’ in this gorgeous production, and the cast is uniformly strong.
As beautiful as TT’s Blu-ray is, an opportunity to catch the film on the big screen shouldn’t be missed (see the Editor’s Blog link below for a recap of a 2011 screening). To the other end, Too Good to be True [M], a 1988 TV remake starring Patrick Duffy, Loni Anderson, and Big Hair should be missed.
© 2005, revised 2013 Mark R. Hasan