Genre: Romantic Drama and Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.
Release Date: December 25th, 1945 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John M. Stahl Actors: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Ray Collins, Mary Philips, Gene Lockhart, Darryl Hickman, Chill Wills
arvard-educated Dick Harland (Cornel Wilde) returns to Deer Lake, Maine, after having spent two years in prison. His old friend and attorney, Glen (Ray Collins), recounts the events leading up to Harland’s incarceration, beginning with the unfortunate man meeting the ravishing Ellen (Gene Tierney) on a train traveling to New Mexico. What begins as a flirtatious bit of ogling (“Oh, I’m sorry; I was staring at you, wasn’t I?”) ends in an embarrassing episode when Ellen catches Dick quoting from the very book (“Time Without End”) that she was reading. It turns out, however, that Harland is the author.
In another coincidence, the two are journeying to the same destination: Glen’s sizable property of Rancho Jacinto, where Ellen’s cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain) and her mother (Mary Philips) will be vacationing. Harland is immediately smitten, but Ellen remains distant, especially as she grieves the recent loss of her father. Plus, she wears an engagement ring, which presents an obvious barrier for Dick. Nevertheless, the two continue to spend time together, allowing Ellen to discover all sorts of details about Harland’s past, and the author to fail to ask any relevant questions about Ellen’s own history – or intentions.
“Ellen always wins.” What starts as something of a romantic drama is routinely disrupted by ominous music (peppered with heavy timpani beats) and Ruth’s classical piano melodies, which impart an unmistakable film noir aura. As the leading couple trades enamored glances and kittenish compliments, Tierney’s femme fatale clearly conceals a wealth of complex machinations, firstly with her former flame, politician Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), and secondly with her unpredictable spontaneity – going so far as to forwardly propose to her latest conquest, mere seconds after announcing to a houseful of guests that they’ve been engaged (despite Dick having no knowledge of the union).
“I don’t want anybody else in the house but us.” The film is definitely a slow-burn piece, taking its time to build up tension and a sense of distrust. Dick’s younger, handicapped brother (Darryl Hickman) presents a nuisance for Ellen, who wants some privacy – an understandable notion for newlyweds. But she steadily concedes more and more instances of disturbing manipulation and jealousy; it’s soon evident that Harland’s friends and family are impediments to Ellen’s complete control over her new husband. But, just as audiences must be patient for unfolding revelations about her motives and plans, the crafty bride exerts a hint of patience herself.
“You can’t have any secrets from me!” Tierney’s transformation from beguiling seductress into unhinged shrew isn’t as subtle as it should be, causing her psychological issues to appear too extreme too quickly (correspondingly, Dick catches on rather easily). Is she crazy? Or is she incredibly calculating? And will she become dangerous? The tension builds nicely, even if the character development is minutely off; the actions grow uncommonly dark, giving the picture an edge over its peers, though the mid-’40s were, in general, experimenting with greater morbidity in their crime dramas. In the world of “Leave Her to Heaven,” deception and envy lead to notions of homicide and infanticide and suicide; Ellen’s lust for attention – a notably serious personality disorder – is certainly a fresh affliction for a leading lady. As she attempts to rid herself of all the distractions around her, Ellen instead destroys the lives of her loved ones.
It’s a fascinating, entirely unique look at a female psychopath – one that shifts from notes on a most devious serial killer to a courtroom showdown from beyond the grave (full of flamboyant prosecutorial grilling that demonstrates the disparity with modern law). It’s slightly overlong and overdramatic, but consistently engaging, with a spectacular performance by Tierney (as well as Price in a minor role) and a sensational conclusion – one that manages not to be hindered by the flashback narrative structure, which initially revealed Dick’s prison sentence. “How can you say such wicked things?” “Sometimes the truth is wicked.”
– Mike Massie