Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees misses the days when female psychopaths were beautiful, glamorous, and really knew how to dress.
"There's nothing wrong with Ellen. It's just that she loves too much."
Imagine treating yourself to a big box of gourmet chocolate truffles. The really high-class kind—with the gold box, ribbons, and all the trimmings. Nestled in tissue paper, each truffle is made of the finest, richest ingredients, so that they literally melt away on your tongue, and they are flavored with the most mouth-watering natural essences. It's a feast for both the eye and the palate. What pure bliss.
Well, not quite pure. There's the guilt of knowing that these inviting morsels have no nutritional value, for one thing. And no amount of fancy packaging will disguise the fact that that heavy cream will go straight to your arteries (and, if you're female, your hips), and that all that sugar will come back to haunt you at your next dentist's visit. But you don't care. You want to forget being sensible and just wallow in the pleasure. So you wallow.
The celluloid equivalent of this heady experience is Leave Her to Heaven. Lavishly produced, filmed in glorious Technicolor on scenic locations, and starring one of the most beautiful actresses in film history at the height of her beauty, it is packaged to ravish the eyes. The story is as addictive as chocolate, if no more substantial. It's not the kind of movie that's designed to enhance your understanding of the human condition. It's pure, undiluted entertainment—cinematic dessert.
If you don't respect yourself the next day for indulging in it, don't feel guilty. You couldn't help it. Leave Her to Heaven is sinfully delicious.
Facts of the Case
What man wouldn't envy novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde, High Sierra)? While on his way to a vacation in beautiful New Mexico, he catches the eye of dazzling Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) and soon finds himself being wooed by this gorgeous creature. She even breaks her engagement to prominent young politician Russell Quinton (Vincent Price, House of Wax) so that she can marry him. He must be the luckiest man on earth.
The trouble is, Ellen is mighty possessive. She pouts that her husband's work takes him away from her. Although she charms his crippled younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman, Sharky's Machine), she doesn't want the boy around. She even flies into a rage when Richard invites her own mother and her cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain, A Letter to Three Wives) for a visit. At first Richard is unconcerned; what husband wouldn't be flattered that his beautiful bride wants him all to herself? But then Ellen's jealousy begins to show a more ominous side. A sudden, tragic death casts a shadow on their marriage and plants suspicion in Richard's mind. And when Ellen begins to suspect that he is falling in love with her cousin, she shows just how dangerous she can be.
Does the plot sound like a cheesy television movie? Well, you may be thinking of the trashy made-for-television remake, Too Good to Be True, which starred Loni Anderson in the Gene Tierney role. That unfortunate exercise proved that, stripped down to its bare bones, Leave Her to Heaven could indeed be your average female stalker film, a precursor to Fatal Attraction and its ilk. Fortunately, though, here we don't see the story in its bare bones, but clothed in all the glamour of 1940s Hollywood: sumptuous production design, beautiful location scenery, and Oscar-winning cinematography by Leon Shamroy. Even more important than the considerable eye candy on display, however, is the breathtaking Oscar-nominated performance by Gene Tierney.
Although Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain radiate wholesome charm, and Vincent Price does some memorable courtroom grandstanding, this is really Tierney's film. Even though it purportedly tells Richard's story, all the elements seem designed to draw the focus to Ellen: the writing, the blocking—even the costume design, which places her monogram prominently on many of her lounging ensembles as if to blazon her importance to both the audience and other characters. (I like the fact that the monograms also underscore the theme of her possessiveness by branding her clothes as strictly her own; there'll be no nonsense about cousin Ruth borrowing anything from her closet.) The camera dwells on her remarkable face with something like awe, just soaking up her beauty and magnetism. Tierney is so beautiful that the viewer might conclude that she doesn't even need to act—yet her performance here is among her best work on film.
Look at the way she registers melting warmth and womanly allure when charming Richard or his impressionable younger brother; her voice is like a honeyed caress. Then look at perhaps the film's most memorable sequence, in which she mainly sits in a rowboat and watches another character from behind her sunglasses. What we can see of her face seems cold, implacable—chilling, in the context of what else is happening in the scene. It's like a mask carved in marble. When she speaks, her voice is carefully modulated to give an impression of casualness. But beneath that façade is remarkable tension; her stillness is that of intense focus. When she snatches off her sunglasses, it gives us an almost physical jolt to see what they have been hiding: utter ferocity. It's a scene that always gives me shivers. The range and power Tierney demonstrates in scenes like this one are remarkable, and it's easy to understand why she was nominated for the Oscar (she lost to Joan Crawford, another lady who knew a little about ferocity).
Her character is also intriguing in that she subverts the usual gender expectations of the era. Although she is the pinnacle of femininity in appearance, Ellen takes the traditionally masculine role of aggressor in her relationship with Richard; after their first meeting, she is the pursuer, he the pursued. It's Ellen who takes the initiative to bring their engagement about. She further defies feminine stereotype by being competitive, an avid hunter, and strikingly unmaternal. Her behavior toward young Danny ultimately proves that she doesn't have a strong maternal instinct, and when she learns she's carrying Richard's baby, she has the astonishing line of dialogue "I hate the little beast." It's Richard, on the other hand, who fulfills many of the traditionally female functions: Not only is he the passive partner in their courtship, but he's the spouse who shops for baby clothes and decorates the nursery. Ellen's "masculine" qualities are probably meant as warning signals that she is up to no good; by failing to conform to the proper womanly role—in contrast to the gentle Ruth, her eventual rival—she shows a dangerous tendency that will reach fulfillment over the course of the story. But she's so dynamic and captivating that it's no wonder Richard is blind to the warning signs.
Indeed, Leave Her to Heaven functions almost like a gender-reversed gothic romance. Where gothic films like Rebecca and Tierney's own Dragonwyck seemed to send warnings to young women in the audience by showing that the fulfillment of their dreams of romance and an elegant lifestyle could lead to danger, Leave Her to Heaven appears to be sending a similar message—to men. Be careful, guys, it says: Better look beyond the pretty face before you let yourself fall in love. It also seems to be consoling male audience members—again, just as gothic romances console female ones—that they may be better off with their own humdrum lives than the people on the screen; sure, these people may seem to have it all, but they end up suffering because of it. Men in the audience of Leave Her to Heaven would almost certainly envy Richard when he marries Ellen, but by the end of the movie they were probably feeling a lot better about their own wives. ("Martha may not look like Gene Tierney, but at least she's not homicidal!")
The audiovisual transfer on this disc does full justice to the film's visual splendors. The bold, saturated color and exquisite clarity of the full-frame picture (shown in its original aspect ratio) testify to the fine restoration work that's been done. It's true that some black areas seem devoid of detail, but my VHS tape from 1994 reveals the same drawback, which evidently goes back to the source. The slight jitter that bedeviled some parts of the film in that release has now been eliminated. This is a downright luscious-looking transfer. Audio is available in both original mono and a stereo option. The stereo track does create greater immediacy, but it also sounds just a bit echoey and muffled until one gets accustomed to it; I found that on the whole I preferred the original mono track, which is admirably clear and distinct, but the presence of a stereo option is welcome. Worth noting in this regard is the boldly emotional musical score by Alfred Newman, with its portentous drumbeats, which provides the perfect icing for the film.
The primary extra is the feature commentary, which I discuss in The Rebuttal Witnesses below. The remaining extras make up a pleasant little bouquet of goodies. There are two Movietone News segments, which provide footage of the film premiere and the Oscar ceremony at which the film was honored. These segments have evidently undergone restoration and boast beautifully clean picture and sound. A self-navigated photo gallery provides some interesting glimpses behind the scenes, including pictures of the crew shooting on what was evidently a torrid location. We also get the film's theatrical trailer, plus trailers for four other Fox studio classics. Finally, a brief restoration comparison allows us to see the color correction, cleaning, and other techniques that created the handsome transfer we see here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The commentary features film critic Richard Schickel and actor Darryl Hickman, who played Danny. In principle, it's a real pleasure to have an actor who participated in the film present for the commentary. As it played out, however, I began to realize that Hickman's participation here seems to have been a form of revenge. His tone is light, but he has a lot of venom to spew. Fans of Gene Tierney will be taken aback at his constant censure of her as both a person and an actress, not to mention his casually throwing out an observation like "Wasn't she in a mental institution?" while admitting he doesn't know if it's true. (The curious will wish to consult the excellent Biography episode on Tierney for the real story.) When Hickman takes a break from beating up on Tierney, he turns on director John Stahl. By the time he admits that this film was "the most difficult experience I had as a child actor," it's clear that his perspective on the film and those involved with it is tainted by his own bitterness.
Unfortunately, Hickman's reminiscences represent the bulk of the commentary. Schickel's contributions are less prominent; besides providing brief background on the actors, some comparisons of director Stahl's work to that of Douglas Sirk, and occasional insight into particular scenes, he mainly confines himself to verbalizing what savvy viewers will be noticing for themselves. He also doesn't seem to particularly like the film, which makes me wonder why he was brought on board at all. It's a mystery to me why Fox didn't instead tap Jeanine Basinger, who has not only contributed to other Studio Classics commentaries but has written perceptively and entertainingly about this particular film.
Both Schickel and Hickman disparage the acting in the film, so it's worth taking their judgments under consideration (keeping in mind that the performance Hickman praises most is that of—I kid you not—Chill Wills). Both are looking at the acting in this '40s-era film through the prism of a preference for Method acting, which of course had not yet come on the scene when Leave Her to Heaven was made. Perhaps because of this avowed preference on the part of both men, Schickel considers the ensemble here to be too decorous, lacking in fire and tension; Hickman criticizes the actors (especially Tierney) for "indicating," or using external indicators of emotion.
Since I'm accustomed to the acting conventions of the 1940s, none of the acting seems jarring to me; I long ago accepted that performances from this era weren't attempting to conform to modern notions of naturalness. I even accept Hickman's own broad performance, because it's standard for child actors of the era. For a film of that time, the acting style doesn't strike me as problematic. But viewers who share with the commentators a preference for a more modern, naturalistic style of acting—especially those who don't watch many films dating from, say, before the James Dean era—may feel that the cast is studied and dated in their performances.
Finally, it's a bit disappointing not to see a biographical feature on any of the lead actors. I suspect that Fox is trying to avoid repeating supplementary material from disc to disc, and since the studio is saving its Biography features on Tierney and Price for its release of Laura, I'm not really surprised not to see them provided here. Nonetheless, for those who don't plan to add Laura to their collection, the omission may be a real disappointment—especially for viewers who'd like to learn more about the tragic Tierney after hearing Hickman take her to pieces.
Classic movie fans with a taste for bigger-than-life escapist drama will want to snap up this release; this is a movie that elevates guilty pleasure to a level of glamour and sheer fabulousness that our modern films just can't match. Fox's exemplary restoration makes this disc a stellar example of the lushness and beauty of classic Technicolor, and students of cinematography will want to check out Shamroy's Oscar-winning use of shadow and light effects, which give the film a heightened sense of drama. Still waffling? Well, if it's a choice between the chocolate truffles and Leave Her to Heaven, keep in mind that the movie is naturally low in carbs.
Ellen Berent is guilty, no doubt about it. But the court will take Shakespeare's advice and "leave her to heaven"—or to a warmer climate—to answer for her actions. Darryl Hickman is remanded to the custody of a therapist. All other parties are free to go…and will Mr. Price please stop badgering the witness?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Actor Darryl Hickman and Film Critic Richard Schickel
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