Daaaaaaamn Gene Tierney is a cold bitch in this one. My eyeballs have experienced plenty of femme fatales since starting this whole Hardboiled Hangover thing, but nothing like the icy chill Tierney’s deranged Ellen Berent character gave off in Leave Her to Heaven. Beneath her technicolor warmth lurks a jealousy that drives her to commit some seriously heinous acts, which must have been teetering on the razor’s edge of the censor board’s moral standards. Backed up by Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Craine, and John M. Stahl’s sharp direction, Leave Her to Heaven is a beautiful and brutal melodrama.
Ellen Berent comes from wealthy stock. She’s the apple of her family’s eye, but their adoration comes with a hefty portion of trepidation too. As her mother says, “Ellen loves too much.” She hasn’t been the same since her father died, and her kin doesn’t see at first how much it truly damaged her.
On a train she meets successful novelist Richard Harland (Wilde). By “meets” I mean she stares at him until it creeps him out. She explains that he bears a striking resemblance to her deceased father in his youth. He pays the bizarre compliment no mind, but soon finds himself captivated with the woman. They wed and head off to Richard’s rustic retreat in Maine. The problem is Ellen wants Richard all to herself. That doesn’t leave any room for the caretaker or Richard’s crippled little brother, Danny. Her pathological jealousy leads to one of the most devastating death scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Not just in film noir, in any movie.
Ellen sees Danny as a foe stealing Richard’s attention away from her. One day while out on the canoe, Danny tries to swim to one side of the lake and back. He’s just learned to swim after having been in a wheelchair, and is a bit too eager to impress Ellen. He begins to drown, and as he sinks beneath the surface, Ellen stares at him behind her sunglasses. It’s horrible to watch. She was in reach, she could’ve saved him, but she lets him die. Damn.
Richard’s devastated, but tries to get on with their life and his new novel. Ellen becomes pregnant, and because she’s absolutely psychotic, she sees her unborn child as another rival for Richard’s jealousy. So she throws herself down a long flight of stairs, making it look like an accident. She kills her unborn child on purpose because she was jealous. Damn.
While she’s recuperating in the hospital, Richard becomes awful chummy with her sister, Ruth (Craine). You know Ellen ain’t standing for that shit! So she delivers her most ruthless act yet: she poisons herself and frames Ruth for it. She kills herself. Damn.
Was there any melodrama as macabre as Leave Her to Heaven beforehand? If there was, I’d like to see it. This unprecedented level of morbidity did garner Tierney heaps of critical acclaim. She’s amazing in this role. And cinematographer Leon Shamroy took home an Oscar for his stunning camerawork. Technicolor always has this warm, glowing vibe to it, so it’s amazing to see those type of visuals used to tell such a damn harrowing tale.