Saturday Editor’s Pick: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

by on May 6, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat May 12 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]

The annual MOMI “Fashion in Film Festival” regularly dominates our slate of Editor’s Picks. This year’s installment, “If Looks Could Kill,” is no exception. Stahl’s singular and essential Technicolor noir melodrama, “the most frightening film that cinema has given us about the evils of jealousy,” (- Pedro Almodovar), is also part of “See It Big!“.

Guy Maddin for the Pacific Film Archive:

Veteran proto-Sirkian melodramatist extraordinaire Stahl (he had already made solid first versions of both Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life by 1935) creates this most propulsive tale of daddy-complex jealousy with the help of flawless snow queen pulchra Gene Tierney and Academy Award–winning Technicolor cinematography by lens god Leon Shamroy (available for gawking in a newly minted print). Has any woman ever looked more awfully gorgeous than when Tierney casts her father’s ashes across her chest in that luridly empurpled and incestuous consecration? A young Vincent Price is fantastic, as always, as the troubled girl’s jilted fiancé.

Matt Bailey sums up the film’s inclusion in the fest, for Not Coming to a Theater Near You :

Though the story is involving enough to make this film a classic, it is perhaps more rightly renowned for its incredible Technicolor cinematography and strikingly original set and costume design. The look of the film is difficult to describe other than to say that every blue in the film matches Gene Tierney’s eyes and every red matches her lipstick and to insist that this is not an exaggeration. This film features one of the most precisely engineered color schemes in the history of color movies and not a flower, book spine, or tchotchke in the frame clashes or distracts from the overall look. For this reason, even though it is firmly rooted in generic conventions, the film remains very much unlike any other ever made.


Melissa Anderson for the Village Voice:

Within the span of two years, the otherworldly beauty Gene Tierney starred in two films with the same celestial destination: Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy of marital happiness, Heaven Can Wait, and John Stahl’s 1945 lurid marital nightmare, Leave Her to Heaven. In Stahl’s film, Tierney’s Ellen Berent, one of cinema’s most chilling psychopaths, makes life hell for those close to her. “It’s just that she loves too much,” Ellen’s mother (Mary Philips) offers as explanation to her daughter’s new husband, Richard (Cornel Wilde, no match for Tierney’s menace), whom Ellen wants to possess fully. Ruled by pathological jealousy, Ellen simply stares as Richard’s beloved kid brother drowns and throws herself down the stairs to get rid of the “little beast” growing inside her. Though monstrous, Ellen earns a tiny bit of our sympathy, thanks to the odd compassion of Stahl, a veteran of the “woman’s picture.” Lensed by Leon Shamroy, the gorgeously restored Leave Her to Heaven redefines mauve. Tierney lost the Best Actress Oscar to Joan Crawford, playing someone else who loves too much in Mildred Pierce. But Mildred is redeemed as a noble, sacrificing mother; there’s no saving Ellen, whose twisted scheming remains unparalleled.

Martin Scorsese introduces the restoration at the New York Film Festival:

Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

The American family melodrama at its most neurotic. Rich girl Gene Tierney decides that the only way she can corner the affections of her husband (Cornel Wilde) is to eliminate his beloved younger brother, so she drowns the boy in a lake on a beautiful Technicolor day. John Stahl’s 1945 film is so lurid that it seems to exist on another plane of reality: it may be absurd, and even risible, but its single-minded concentration has its own kind of fascination and power. The great cinematographer Leon Shamroy shot it, and the artificial brightness of the 40s color adds yet another level of abstraction—the actors seem enameled against the backgrounds.


Anthony Lane for the New Yorker:

Catch it on TV and you will find yourself complaining, “Please. No one behaves like that.” But there’s the rub. Movies like Stahl’s were not made for TV. Their purpose unfolds only on the big screen, where the blue-velvet skies and the lethally smooth waters of “Leave Her to Heaven” acquire the unquestioned clarity of a fever dream. A scornful James Agee, reviewing it at the time, said that the story might have been “plausible enough in a dramatically lighted black-and-white picture”; but plausibility is not the issue, and color is the lifeblood of the film. When Harland, fresh off a train from the East, wanders out into the New Mexico night, still wearing a dark city suit, we find ourselves at the border where noir and Western meet. As for the brother’s death, with Ellen looking on coolly in white robe and shades, it remains one of the most perturbing in the history of Hollywood, far scarier than anything in “Watchmen”; where Snyder employs the latest tools of computer-generated imagery to jack up the foulness of his violence, and thereby renders it more absurd, Stahl takes the trouble to feel his way into the implications of three-strip Technicolor, and thus into the more vivid hues of the heart. First used for a full-length movie (Rouben Mamoulian’s “Becky Sharp”) a decade earlier, and brought to blooming fruition in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Wizard of Oz,” the new technology reached its astounding apogee in the lips of Gene Tierney, as red as a witch’s apple. Each frame of her seems to be hand-tinted, as if she had ordered it. Her soft voice dies to a low whisper at the close of every phrase. “I don’t want anybody else to do anything for you,” she tells her husband. And with that, the great conservative promise of postwar domesticity—the man, newly arrived or returned, waited upon by his woman—tightens into a threat.


Mark Asch for The L Magazine:

Gene Tierney, in glorious Technicolor, is Leave Her to Heaven’s self-justification, to the extent that it has one. The year after playing the obscure object of desire in the noirish Laura, Tierney is here the center of a genre- and gender-reversal, as this women’s picture funhouse-mirrors Laura’s themes of possession and obsession. Then, men saw their painting and knew they had to have her; here, leading with her avid overbite, she first meets cute with author Cornel Wilde on a train while reading one of his books, his author photo tiny in her hands.

That she hardly blinks once during that encounter should be taken a warning; so too later on, in the empurpled New Mexico night, as she scatters Daddy’s ashes from galloping horseback while Alfred Newman’s tom-tom score thumpa-thumps. Early on in their marriage, which she orchestrates almost by fiat, it becomes clear that her favorite line in the vows was the one about “forsaking all others”, which includes his crippled brother, and her kid sister (and, briefly, his writing: shades of “The Yellow Wallpaper”?). Playing less a character than a rabidly glamorous engine of movie melodrama, Tierney’s in Joan Crawford mannequin mode (Leave Her to Heaven would make a great double feature with Crawford’s black-and-white psych-ward flashback Possessed), most notably bystanding, cold-as-ice, in a drowning sequence that plays like a deliciously horrible Hitchcock set-up, except that director John M. Stahl doesn’t even bother to pretend you’re not squealing in anticipation of the worst. Throughout, Stahl poses his characters in front of lavishly appointed settings — Southwestern ranches and New England cabins — whose colors seem to bulge against their outlines.


Jim Ridley for the Nashville Scene:

Leave Her to Heaven, made in 1945, occupies its own sick ward in the annals of psycho-noir. Noir was typically the province of dark shadows, dim city streets and stark black-and-white. Heaven, by contrast, is horn-honking Technicolor and super high gloss, a two-page Vanity Fair spread of pounding doom. Yet its fussy artificiality evokes a sense of derangement and entrapment that’s somehow even clammier. The more the movie’s characters seek some kind of peace in domestic interiors and wide-open spaces — including, in a scene that traumatized ’40s audiences, an idyllic lake — the harder its unforgettable, insatiable femme fatale digs her nails into their throats.

The director, John M. Stahl, had worked in silents since the 1910s, and his command of this florid material is beyond fearless. With Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning camerawork dousing the screen with cobwebbed shadows and bold scarlet slashes of color, you could watch the movie without sound and still follow its every stairstep down into depravity. The melodrama dares you to laugh at every turn but its treatment of rigidly upheld monogamy and motherhood as invitations to the loony bin is just as startling as it was to ’40s viewers.

If you haven’t seen it — or if you stumbled upon it late on TCM one night and watched it all the way through with widening eyes — it’s likely a wonder to behold on the big screen. If nothing else, you won’t want to be alone when Ellen figures out a horrifically simple solution to that whole baby problem — and the theater is lit by the Medea-like gleam in Tierney’s shockingly eager eyes.



Alt Screen editor Dan Callahan for Slant:

A fevered yet clinical study of jealousy, Leave Her to Heaven is overpoweringly artificial and rococo, with intimations of neurotic fantasies churning away underneath its lacquered, rotogravure images. Immediately pulsing with the thumping drums of Alfred Newman’s stormy score, the film proceeds very slowly at first, as Stahl builds a dreamlike Technicolor atmosphere around his three leads, Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain. These actors are eerily one-dimensional, and Stahl uses their limitations as performers to his advantage, making them look like sleepwalkers in a sort of Life magazine nightmare.

There are visual motifs here that keep returning like bits of recapitulated music, especially the image of water surrounded by trees, people moving in and out of silhouette, and the cool Technicolor greens slashed by the red of Ellen’s fire-engine lips. Stahl uses dissolves for this dream work, of course, but he also takes a big chance by fading to black after an important episode and holding the black out for a beat or two, as if our eyes were involuntarily closing in sleep every once in a while. When we get the image back, everything seems unsettled, disoriented; the bric-a-brac and green cactuses cluttering the sets start to feel suffocating. These black outs last three or four beats as the film goes on, then cease for the last 15 minutes, a perfunctory climax where Vincent Price shatters the mood with his overacting as a prosecuting attorney. In the midst of this courtroom letdown, Stahl focuses our attention on an ostentatious window above the witnesses’ heads that is surely meant to be Ellen’s Cyclops-like eye watching over her own diabolical handiwork. This is a film that exists in some floating subconscious state where any behavior is allowed, where fear and helplessness are inevitable. If Stahl seems close to Carl Dreyer in his ’30s work, with Leave Her to Heaven he plunges headfirst into a sort of cruel, thin Daliesque landscape where an inscrutable beauty’s liberating vengeance has no limit whatsoever.



Glenn Kenny for MUBI:

John M. Stahl’s 1945 Leave Her To Heaven is a terrific film to spring on your less well-informed friends who think 1940s films, particularly 40s “women’s pictures,” as it were, are silly and trivial and kind of bland. Not just because it’s a staggeringly beautiful film, you know, physically; there’s neither a bland nor trivial frame in the whole thing. And it was perhaps never more gorgeous since its release than it is now, in the wonderful Film-Foundation-sponsored Technicolor restoration. Also because this movie has—sorry, there’s really no other way to put it—one of the greatest “Holy shit!” factors, not just in 40s films, 40’s melodramas, “women’s pictures,” you name it, but in all of film.

The picture’s world is art-directed within an inch of its life, not a single detail left to chance. The picture is largely confined to three settings: first there’s the Taos ranch owned by Ray Collins’ Glen Robie, Harland’s lawyer and an old family friend of the Berents. It’s here that Harland and Ellen fall in love. The house itself is rambling, expansive, like the big sky country surrounding it; there’s a romantic majesty to it. Back of the Moon is rustic, woodsy, not nearly as claustrophobic as Ellen complains it is; one’s almost able to smell the pine. The Berent home is Bay Harbor is more ramshackle in a particular Maine tradition. Each of the settings constitute a sub-genre of Real Estate Porn, to be sure. The designs of art directors Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford (not to mention the set decorations by Thomas Little and Ernest Lancing) give cinematographer Leon Shamroy wonderful material to work with, but the film’s look reaches an apotheosis of delirium in the courtroom scenes late in the picture, presided over by Vincent Price, as a vengeful district attorney who some time before was thrown over by Ellen for Harland. The aqua-and-white coor scheme of the courtroom make the action look as if its suspended in the daylight sky, something you’d see in a celestial courtroom imagined by Powell and Pressburger. This particular break from “realism” (something the film wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to in the first place) spins Leave Her To Heaven‘s take on amour fou into some cosmic realm. It provides a strangely heartening reminder of just how exhilaratingly bizarre Hollywood moviemaking could get.



Bloggers extrodinaire Kim Morgan and Farran Nehme Smith (The Self-Styled Siren) take a revisionist, sympathetic take on Ellen. Kim gets the simulcast rolling:

Oh Gene. Or rather, misunderstood Ellen. A woman trapped in her obsession, of course, in her obsession with her father, but then, also trapped within the un-permissiveness of the times. Permission for Ellen to do…what would Ellen do? Perhaps that’s the problem. This is a time when one is not allowed the strength of being… Ellen. I’m not sure when anyone is allowed to be Ellen, exactly, but she is certainly trapped by some force beyond mere psychopathology. Maybe born so impeccable, that unfaltering, that she even frightens herself? She’s not normal. Well, she wants to be normal. A woman who yearns for marriage (to Cornel Wilde, though we’re never sure why, maybe because he seems normal), a private honeymoon, some damn solace, a few less tedious family gatherings and…then… just maybe the desire to NOT procreate (albeit, she changes her mind a bit late in the game).

I know I’m giving Ellen a big break (maybe she should have remained single) but her superiority is a large part of the problem. You could call that pure narcissism, but that’s not what’s going on. She never boasts so much as arrives, right? All she needs to do is walk into a room with those startlingly beautiful blue eyes, flop on a couch and eat a sandwich with that perfect overbite. But it’s not that she appears a mere mortal trapped in some super-human, celestial cage, she’s both sensitive and smart. Maybe a tortured genius. I think this is a woman who suspects that her husband isn’t such a great writer after all (I bet you she’s got five better novels in her than he does). But again, Gene/Ellen is a modern type of woman, a poetic, ingenious woman, and I always get the sense that her inner struggle to express whatever power or talent she has, well beyond her beauty is pure torture. Many may look in her eyes and see cold orbs of hate, but I see… Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle, and beautiful, damnable Richard W. seems especially appropriate since, for some crazy reason, he also managed to write, in ‘Lohengrin,’ ‘Here Comes the Bride’ amidst his Götterdämmerung.



Farran responds:

You’re so right–Ellen is about sublimation. If she could focus that fierce intelligence on art or a career, she might be able to stay away from rowboats. Yet Ellen is memorialized as a monster–”leave her to heaven,” the line from Hamlet about Gertrude. That’s ironic to me in a way that probably wasn’t intentional, since I always thought Gertrude got a raw deal from her male creator. She’s another woman who’s ceaselessly nagged because she wants a man of her own and some peace and quiet.

I always wait for that staircase, for Gene hurling herself down it after carefully leaving one slipper on the top step, like a psychopathic Cinderella. It’s a wicked act, but she tells Ruth just before she does it, “sometimes the truth IS wicked.” Along with Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven dares to go down some dark maternal byways, into things some may feel, but no one wants to admit–in this case, pregnancy as a cage, one that’s about to slam shut for oh, about 21 years. Ellen’s on bedrest, its own kind of “Yellow Wallpaper” hell. (Those insipid posies on Ellen’s dressing-room wallpaper could drive a lot of women to the brink.) Look at what she’s doing beforehand. She’s talking to her own sister about the stroll the girl just took with her husband. Couldn’t Richard be upstairs talking to his wife? Making sure she isn’t bored and terrified, instead of taking it for granted for that she’s rubbing her belly and practicing lullabies? So she grabs her most beautiful robe, and re-applies her lipstick, and she even puts on perfume–because she’s about to go back to Ellen, the beauty, and leave behind Ellen, the terrarium.

For me, the poignant aspect to Ellen isn’t that she’s, well, crazy. It’s that she’s got a face for the ages, but if she isn’t willing to play along, if she insists on being the most important thing in her man’s life, that face avails her nothing. She still loses her husband to a girl who uses niceness the same way Ellen used those sunglasses in the rowboat: as a cover for the schemes churning inside. And nobody will be on her side, except James Agee, bless him, and Vincent Price, and you, and the Siren, and whoever else is crazy enough to say, “I kind of sympathize with her.”



Erich Kuersten also jumps on the Ellen bandwagon, for Bright Lights Film Journal:

As creepy a subtextual indictment of post-code Americana as I’ve ever seen. If we, living as relatively free as we do today, were suddenly stuck in a post-code Americana hell hole like this would we act any different than Tierney’s character?

Where I’m going with all this is to analyze the ultimately corrupting nature of post-1934 cinema’s phony morals; the “as long as you feel bad about it, it’s okay to kill” sort of compromise with the censors. You can see this in the bookends to Winona Ryder’s career thus far: HEATHERS and SEX AND DEATH 101 (which I decried in an earlier post, which each use the killing of dumb jock frat guys as a fake out). The fact is, our stale society needs more LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN-style sociopaths, by which I man girls with cajones enough kill those who would hobble and baby them with Disney-fied prefab beige rusticity. We had THELMA AND LOUISE but somehow the drippy third wave feminism of gourmet shopping swept over the fire, But they’re dupes, man. The whole stylish shoe fetish thing is a scam. These people need shocking; art as shock therapy to jolt them from their carbohydrated stupor. Ellen is an artist, in that sense, a frustrated panther godess trapped in the hell of some L.L. Bean adman’s pre-presentation nightmare. It’s just too bad she couldn’t take a few more of those little bastards out before the inevitable mauve ocean swallowed her.

And Dan Sallitt ponders the Code-enforced limitations on the movie.



“See It Big!” co-curator Michael Koresky for Reverse Shot:

The movie’s pretty damn close to unclassifiable, even as all of its memorable moments are couched in some sort of basic generic playbook. It takes almost an hour before we realize how deranged this tale truly is. As devious as its irredeemable central character, Stahl’s stately misogynist melodrama barrels ahead with increasing absurdity, moving from romantic meet-cute to suspicious manipulation to sheer horror, finally culminating in a courtroom melodrama of such histrionic preposterousness that one’s hands are thrown up in frustration. Even by all-innuendos-considered post-Code Hollywood standards, rarely had a studio unleashed something so seemingly proper, so delicately laced with frilly curtains and gingham, which was so defiantly trashy at heart. For all its bluster and self-pronounced gloss-over-grime, American Beauty could never dream up the sheer vulgarity that creeps into Leave Her to Heaven from the corners of nearly every frame.
Where Leave Her to Heaven stands alone is in its forthrightly alienating tactics—there’s nary an attempt to truly psychoanalyze this monster; we simply watch, as impotently as her husband, as she drags down everyone along with her. In a sense it’s even ballsier than Psycho: as ironic as Hitchcock’s closing diagnostic session was, that film still provided enough of a Freudian groundswell to contain its irrationality. Ellen’s vindictive and vile machinations seem to spring almost out of nowhere, and are frighteningly accepted with a casual, distrustful air by her comparatively well-adjusted family. “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. It’s just that she loves too much,” says her mother, prompting viewers’ foreheads to crease. That’s about as much backstory as we get—yet with Cornel Wilde’s cowardly resignation as off-putting as Tierney’s cunning debauchery, Ellen remains our amoral compass. And she’s unfathomable right to the end, even beyond the grave.
A noir without shadows? A women’s picture that posits its female protagonist as a ravenous, sociopathic schemer? A high body-count thriller in which not one drop of blood is spilled? Leave Her to Heaven doesn’t ultimately defy categorization so much as confound easy readings of classical Hollywood approach. Even in setting, Stahl’s film retreats from convention; its exquisite location shooting, spanning from New Mexico to Maine, provides glorious, sunlit counterpoint to the femme-fatale trickery: by unleashing its monster onto these open vistas as opposed to the shadowy urban backrooms and backlot alleyways usually trod by her ilk, the film provides an air of false reassurance; when the nefarious deeds kick into high gear, you can only suck in your breath in astonishment. Armed with nothing more than a pair of diabolical sunglasses and a smart blouse, Gene Tierney uses her narcissistic glower to perfection, creating a heart-stopping moment to compare with Carl Boehm’s ontological slaughter in Peeping Tom and Richard Widmark’s stairway-to-heaven shove in Kiss of Death. Silent and merciless, Ellen’s becalmed tyranny makes for some of American film’s most truly disquieting moments.


  • Anonymous

    Awesome review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!

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