“I’ll never let you go,” Gene Tierney’s Ellen Berent coos to her husband/victim in the 1945 melodrama film-noir Leave Her to Heaven. It’s a sentiment first uttered at an intimate juncture where such words still seem somewhat innocent from her increasingly toxic personality. Indeed, at least in cinematic terms, she’s a character who hasn’t let go, an exotically charged Technicolor femme fatale whose deadly beauty is merely one part of a dangerous trifecta, as equally bad as her bark and her bite.
Directed by John M. Stahl, who would pass away only five years later at the age of 63, with several of his previous titles (such as ‘women’s pictures’ Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life) remade in the 1950s by Douglas Sirk, it remains both Stahl and Tierney’s vibrant stranglehold on iconicity, the power of which can never be usurped (a 1988 television version titled Too Good to Be True and starring Loni Anderson and Patrick Duffy falls far short from the captivating lethality conjured by Tierney, for instance).
Beautiful socialite Ellen Berent (Tierney) finds a match worthy of her fickle wiles in author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), or so she thinks. A whirlwind romance, forcing her to abruptly end her engagement to her other fiancé (Vincent Price) cements the deal. But the idyll Ellen was expecting never quite arrives. Harland, who spends a majority of his hours puttering around with his writing, expects Ellen to join him at his isolated manor at Back of the Moon, to be joined by his younger, handicapped brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) and their friend and employee Thorne (Chill Wills). Ellen’s lack of privacy with her new husband is further frustrated when Richard invites Ellen’s mother (Mary Philips) and adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) for an extended visit. Tragedy strikes when Ellen cruelly allows Danny to drown, thinking she’ll at last be alone with her husband—but the incident only drives him away from her and into the arms of another sympathetic listener. But Ellen’s ploys are far from over…
What sets Leave Her to Heaven in a league of her own goes beyond Leon Shamroy’s lush Technicolor cinematography, in which Tierney’s beauty, as Megan Abbott’s insert essay points out, appears so pristine she appears hand painted. Sure, there are a handful of other color noirs which provide successful counterpoints to the standard, usually highlighting the beauty of their femme fatales (Allan Dwan’s underrated 1956 James M. Cain adaptation Slightly Scarlet comes to mind). But it’s Tierney’s crazed potency and Jo Swerling’s (Hitchcock’s Lifeboat; Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) toothy screenplay which really allow for her Ellen Berent to subvert the standards of 1940’s cinema and expected roles of women, especially the rigid social codes established for privileged white women.
Ellen Berent is nearly reptilian in her overwhelming desire to own Wilde’s passive author—as many have pointed out before, she asserts an agency which positions her in the masculine role of the relationship. Her inability to conform to her own gender norms is another sly subversion—she’s like an alien in the midst of her peers, destined to hang herself with her own rope (but in a way which exerts control from beyond the grave, itself a subversion of the insidious production code which insisted on the punishment of its wayward villains).
Tierney is also rather sympathetic—her lashing out is in a response to being denied what she’s been taught to expect from a marriage, her conditioned ideals of love after courtship. After all, she never really gets a honeymoon period, and the murder of the loveable but omnipresent Danny is catalyzed by Harland’s denial of intimacy—again, a reversal of gender stereotypes.
Tierney was a prominent Hollywood player throughout the 1940s, starring in productions for Lang, Lubitsch, Von Sternberg (the underrated 1941 melodrama The Shanghai Gesture) and a trio of Otto Preminger noirs like Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and the equally devious Laura (1944). But it’s Leave Her to Heaven, Tierney’s sole Oscar nominated performance, which burrows into our own animal brains because its about the baseness which we’re taught to repress and starve, and the fantastic potential waywardness when it’s allowed to be unleashed by enabling social circles.
Ellen Berent is a lethal predator for love, and sadly, comes to find it’s merely a cursory illusion—she was and is an example of an enduring truth, which Kipling so smartly anointed, “the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”
Film Rating: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆