In 1944, author Ben Ames Williams saw his novel, Leave Her to Heaven fly off the bookstore shelves. The popular book soon caught the attention of Daryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox movie studio and in 1945 they released a technicolor treat, Leave Her to Heaven. The film starred Gene Tierney(who would receive a Best Actress nomination for her role), Cornell Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Mary Philips, Ray Collins, Chill Wills, and Darryl Hickman. The title of the book was taken from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet; Act 1, Scene 5, the ghost of Hamlet’s father urges Hamlet to not take out any revenge on Queen Gertrude, but to “…leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her.” The film begins at a beautiful lake in Maine. Glen Robie is at the dock, ready to welcome Richard Harland(Cornell Wilde) back from a 2 year prison sentence. After the greeting between the two friends, Richard gets into a row boat and heads off across the lake to his family’s cabin, which is fondly called Back of the Moon, due to a crater-shaped lake nearby. Glen walks away from the dock and proceeds to sit at an outdoor cafe near the docking area, and has some coffee while sharing with another friend the sad, strange story that caused Richard Harland to spend 2 years in prison. Richard Harland is a writer, a successful one. He is on a train to New Mexico to visit his good friend Glen Robie. Glen owns a ranch house in the New Mexico mountains and it is a gorgeous retreat-I want to visit New Mexico after seeing its beauty displayed in this film! In the train car is a beautiful woman, Ellen Berent(Gene Tierney.) She just happens to be reading Richard’s latest book. After a bit of bumbling hello’s on Richard’s part, he is in awe of such a beautiful woman, Ellen just stares at Richard until a feeling of awkwardness permeates that train car. Ellen finally apologizes and purrs to Richard that she stared at him because he reminds her of her father in every way! At this point, Richard should have gotten up from that train car and insisted on riding up front with the engineers! Guys, if a woman ever tells you that you remind her of her father, I don’t care how beautiful she is, run for the hills!!!
After the train arrives in New Mexico, Richard exits the train and so does Ellen, and her traveling companions, her mother(Mary Philips), and her cousin, Ruth(Jeanne Crain.) Glenn Robie arrives to take all four of them to his ranch. It turns out that Ellen and her father were also friends of Glen’s and often vacationed at his ranch. During dinner that evening, Richard unknowingly asks about Ellen’s father, wondering if he’ll ever get to meet him and learns that Ellen’s father had recently died and that they are there to scatter his ashes among the New Mexico mountains. The next day there is a remarkably dramatic scene of Ellen on a horse, riding over the hills, scattering the ashes of her father, while Richard watches from afar.
Days go by, and Richard and Ellen fall in love, despite the fact that Ellen is wearing a diamond engagement ring! Her fiance is an up and coming lawyer back home in Bar Harbor, Maine, Russell Quinton(Vincent Price.) One morning as Ellen challenges a swimming race with Glen’s children-and Glen subtly warns Richard that Ellen will win the race as she always has to be first-Ellen lets Richard know that she has taken off her engagement ring, taken it off forever! A couple of evenings later, during a rainstorm, there is a knock at the door, and it is Russell Quinton! He has come to confront Ellen about ending their engagement. It is always interesting to see Vincent Price play a non-horror part. He comes off as an austere intellectual, hurt by Ellen’s ending their engagement, and vows that he’ll always love her, then departs. Richard goes to see Ellen after Quinton’s exit, to see if she is all right and she immediately embraces Richard and suggests that they marry immediately and they do.
Ellen tells Richard that she’s not engaged anymore!The newlyweds seem happy, and the film turns to focus on Richard’s only living relative, his teenage brother, who is a polio victim and lives at Warm Springs, Georgia, the treatment facility made famous by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visits. Danny Harland(Darryl Hickman) is a neat kid, never complaining about his affliction, loves and looks up to his big brother Richard, and with Ellen’s daily visits and encouragement, begins to practice walking with crutches instead of being confined to a wheelchair. All seems quite blissful until Richard lets Ellen know that he’ll soon want to move them from Warm Springs to the family cabin, Back of the Moon, in Maine. Richard wants Danny to come with them. Ellen seems to agree to this, but she is secretly sick of Danny and tries to get his doctor to agree with her that taking “that cripple” away from Warm Springs and its care would be a bad idea. Ellen’s way of spitting out the word “cripple” is a shock to the doctor because of her seeming warm and loving visits with Danny and her negativity is disturbing and shocking to the doctor. Seeing that the doctor is now wary of her, Ellen tells Richard in the doctor’s presence that Danny should come with them to the cabin!
Life at the cabin is cozy at first. There is Thome(Chill Wills), family friend of Richard and Danny’s and the cabin’s caretaker. But Ellen is growing increasingly grumpy as she wants to be alone with Richard at the cabin and not have Danny and Thome there at all. She is fit to be tied when her mother and cousin, Ruth, arrive at the cabin, a surprise for her planned by Richard and Danny. It is soon evident to all that Ellen is not a nice person and that she resents all of the people that might enter her and Richard’s life. Mom and Ruth get the hints and soon depart for their home in Bar Harbor, and Thome decides to seek out some new work in town. That just leaves Danny for Ellen to deal with. Before her departure, Ruth tells Richard that she and her mom would be glad to have Danny stay with them in Bar Harbor and attend a school there for kids with special needs; if only Richard had agreed to their offer! I won’t go into anymore details of Ellen’s plan, but Tierney plays it absolutely chillingly, and in bright sunshine, not hiding her crime under the cover of darkness.
By this point in the movie, we know Ellen is evil, and crazy. A bad combination! Richard is growing very disillusioned with the marriage, he is very depressed about his brother, when Ellen announces that she is pregnant! Disillusionment and grief turn to hope as all are getting ready for the baby’s birth, all except for Ellen. She is not happy and even blurts out to a shocked Ruth that she is tired of carrying “the little beast”! Ellen comes up with another evil plan to deal with the unborn baby.
Ellen’s delusions grow and she is convinced that Ruth is trying to steal Richard from her. In a last, desperate act, she writes a letter to her old fiance, Russell, now a prosecuting attorney. Her letter accuses Ruth and Richard of plotting to run away together, that she has told Ruth that she won’t divorce Richard, and that Ruth has threatened to kill her. Ellen’s plan is full of schemes and lies to paint Ruth as a murderess and Richard as a cheating scum of a husband. Price is great as the prosecuting attorney, grilling the witnesses at the trial. Back at the lakeside cafe, Glen sums up why Richard had to serve a 2 year prison term, and says that Richard should have reached Back of the Moon cabin by now. The film cuts away to Richard climbing out of the boat and getting to the dock, with Ruth there to embrace him and a lovely Maine sunset surrounding them.
Why is this movie so good? A movie about a beautiful woman who turns out to be evil and mentally unstable? The acting is great, especially Gene Tierney in the main role, the “Her” of the title. She is so beautiful in the technicolor medium, her wardrobe is great, and she is able to convey the complexity of Ellen so thoroughly with just her eyes, with just a purse of her lips. A lesser actress would be tempted to portray Ellen’s problems with histionics: shouting, flailing around arms, stomping out of rooms, but Tierney plays Ellen with a quiet, icy menace. I am not surprised that she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Cornell Wilde is great as Richard. Besotted with a beautiful wife, showing his growing worry over her negative attitudes to everyone in their life together, confusion as to why his wife would do the things she has done. Jeanne Crain, as Ruth, is a warm and good character, the antidote to Ellen. Crain doesn’t throw her Ruth at Richard, but she does show her character’s growing love for Richard in small ways. Mary Philip’s, a veteran stage actress in New York City, plays Ellen’s mom as cold and distant towards Ellen. We aren’t given a lot of detail about their relationship, but we get an inkling that mom had tried to be loving to Ellen, but due to years of Ellen looking down on her mom and blatently favoring her dad, mom is cold to Ellen to keep a protective wall around herself from all of Ellen’s bitter slings and arrows. Vincent Price is very good as the jilted fiance and later as the prosecuting attorney. He gets to be over the top in the courtroom scenes, but he does that so well and it works nicely. Chill Wills and Ray Collins provide their usual strengths as dependable character actors. Darryl Hickman, the teenaged Danny in the movie, plays his part with sincerity. When he has to roll out of a rowboat, to practice his swimming, he moves like a person with paralysis would do it and I wondered if he did any research with actual polio victims in how to conduct his movements. I purposely didn’t reveal all of the movie’s plot points as I want it to be a surprise to viewers who haven’t seen Leave Her to Heaven before. John Stahl directed this classic, Jo Swerling wrote the screenplay, Leon Shamroy was the cinematographer(and won the Oscar for his work-the technicolor is really stunning in this 1945 film,) and Alfred Newman composed the music. I noticed while watching the film that there are many scenes where no music plays but Newman came up with a dramatic theme for the film that plays over and over at key times for great dramatic effect.
Leave Her to Heaven is available to buy from Amazon or Turner Classic Movies and it is available on Netflix. Clips have been put on Youtube. I just watched it on Turner Classic Movies last week, so check out their schedule for the summer months as it may be re-aired then.