Thursday, October 17, 2013

Classics: A Review of Leave Her to Heaven by Lauren Ennis

Always sleep with at least one eye open

Before Rebecca De Mornay rocked cradles and Glenn Close boiled rabbits, Gene Tierney was the frighteningly beautiful face of domestic horror. While horror is a genre often associated with brutal violence and grotesque monsters, some of Hollywood’s most effective scream fests are those that show us the horror within the seemingly mundane aspects of every-day life. One such film is the 1944 classic Leave Her to Heaven, which shows the unnerving lengths at which a seemingly average woman will go once scorned. In this tale of love gone terribly wrong, Tierney’s lovely psychotic reminds us that sometimes the most dangerous monsters are those that walk in broad daylight.

The film starts as once renowned novelist, Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), returns home after a stint in prison. As the locals speculate about Harland’s mysterious past, his friend and lawyer, Glen Robie (Ray Collins), attempts to dispel rumors by telling the tale of Harland’s crime and conviction. The film then flashes back several years as Richard is riding a train to Robie’s New Mexico ranch. While on the train, Richard meets, and is instantly infatuated with, beautiful Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), who also happens to be traveling to the Robie ranch. During his visit, he is increasingly fascinated by the already engaged Ellen, and pursues her against his better judgment. Ellen coyly encourages his affections and eventually tricks him into proposing to her when she tires of her district attorney fiancée (Vincent Price).

The couple is quickly married and seem on their way to marital bliss until Richard’s polio stricken younger brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), moves in. Although Ellen initially appears devoted to Danny and dedicated to helping him recover, it is later revealed that she has less than selfless motives. When Danny’s doctor insists that he is well enough to come along on Ellen and Richard’s delayed honeymoon trip, Ellen becomes furious at what she sees as an intrusion upon her marriage. She begs the doctor to lie to Richard in order to prevent him from taking Danny on the trip. Although Ellen attempts to rationalize her motives, the doctor sees through her façade and realizes with disgust that she is jealous of Richard’s relationship with Danny. Ellen’s jealousy becomes increasingly problematic when the trip is interrupted by not only Danny, but also Richard’s friend, Thorn (Chill Wills), and a surprise visit from Ellen’s family (Mary Philips, Jeanne Crain).  By the end of the trip, it is obvious to all concerned that Ellen’s relentless need to possess Richard is a symptom of something far more serious than spousal affection or personal insecurity. Despite her best efforts, Ellen is unable to stop herself from “loving too much” and takes increasingly drastic measures to ensure that her husband remains hers alone.

Always wait one hour before swimming with a psycho
One of the most notable aspects of this film is the way in which it delivers chills without relying upon typical genre tropes. For instance, while most horror films take place at night, almost the entire story is set in glorious sunshine. Similarly, Richard is trapped not in an isolated location befitting a serial killer, but in the friendly crowds that spark his wife’s fatal neurosis. Also, the characters are plagued not by a supernatural or external force, but instead by the increasingly erratic behavior of someone they love. Through its refusal to rely upon the standard horror formula, the film is able to present viewers with an unusual set of scares that lead us to question the supposed safety of our own mundane lives.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this film is its villain. While numerous films before Leave Her to Heaven have used the femme fatale stock character, few have been able to present a deadly beauty who is also three dimensional.  While Ellen does commit atrocities against her friends and family, she still manages to incur some level of sympathy. For instance, in her first meeting with Richard, her unwitting criticism of his novel is charming rather than abrasive, and shows that she is an intelligent woman capable of making her own opinions. It is difficult for viewers to fault her later in the story when she adheres to standard Hollywood advice and follows her heart to marry Richard, even if it is at the expense of her dull fiancée. Similarly, Richard’s constant refusal to be alone with his wife is understandably frustrating and initially seems to indicate a problem with his psyche rather than that of the neglected Ellen.

The most disturbing aspect of Ellen’s character is the fact that those around her possess the resources to help her cope with her compulsions, but refuse to utilize them. After an outburst at a family gathering, Ellen confesses to Richard that she knows something is “wrong” with her and begs him to help her overcome it. He then speaks to Ellen’s mother and asks what is causing Ellen to act out. Mrs. Berent dismisses the matter saying that Ellen “just loves too much”, and Richard is content to leave the matter without asking for further explanation. Through these two scenes, it is obvious that Ellen’s family are well aware of the fact that she is suffering from a mental illness but choose not to provide her with the help she so obviously needs. As a result, Richard and Ellen’s family are in many ways the true villains in the story as they watch Ellen put herself and others at risk, but consistently fail to stop her.

Although Leave Her to Heaven contains a riveting story, it would not have been nearly as successful without an able cast to support it. Gene Tierney earned her star status in her subtle portrayal of Ellen’s gradual descent into madness. In Tierney’s hands, what could have easily been a one-note or hysterical performance is an unnervingly believable portrait of a woman who has succumbed to her own worst instincts. While his performance is not as strong as Tierney’s, Cornel Wilde is likable and genial enough to garner audience sympathy and interest. Although her character takes time to become relevant to the plot, Jeanne Crain holds her own as Ellen’s sensible sister, particularly in the siblings’ final showdown. Vincent Price makes the most of a thankless role as Ellen’s jilted fiancée, and adds entertainment value to the otherwise out of place trial scene. Finally, Darryl Hickman adds genuine warmth and innocence to his portrayal of Danny, but his “awe shucks” performance style so common to 40’s child actors has not aged well.

Leave Her to Heaven remains one of the most interesting twists on horror through its combination of excellent cinematography, ample performances, and a truly gripping story.  At one point in the film, Glen tells Richard that “Ellen always wins”, and her unforgettable portrayal by Tierney ensures that Ellen will continue to win amongst classic film audiences. I recommend this film to fans looking for an unconventional approach to Halloween happenings and a twisted take on love.

Stop yelling at me!!


  1. I always wondered what would have happened if Rhoda Penmark grew up (jk). This sounds deviously chilling. I am going to have to check this one out

  2. I just read a review online that described this as an almost sequel to The Bad Seed, eerie, right? Let's just say this one could have done for lakes what Psycho did for showers and Jaws did for beaches...