Gene Tierney is simply unforgettable in the role of a psychopathic, pathological woman on the verge of insanity in Leave Her To Heaven (1945) the most noir-ish of all film noirs filmed in Technicolor. Tierney is the archetype of all the demented women who appeared onscreen for the next few decades, from Bette Davis as Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1963) to Glenn Close as Alex in Fatal Attraction (1987) to Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990).
Hunky Cornel Wilde plays a successful novelist Richard Harland, just out of prison, who falls in love with Tierney’s Ellen Berent during a train trip. They hastily get married, and only then is Richard able to grasp the madness that lurks within the woman he thought he loved. Her thoroughly troubled state progresses, and when it does, no one is left unharmed. Her obsession leads to a bunch of horrible incidents and is the source of grave misery for everyone who so much as looks at her husband.
Berent, who has daddy issues, was previously engaged to an ambitious attorney, Russell Quinton (a hammy Vincent Price), who begs her not to marry Harland because of the bad press it would bring to his upcoming political campaign. Still, she drops Russell and marries Harland, who, at first, is fascinated not only with her beauty but her exotic and intense demeanor.
Leave Her To Heaven is a film about love, but the love portrayed by Tierney is so harrowing and unnerving that it makes one reconsider what love really means. It’s an emotional bloodbath, and a nightmarish realization. Once Harland gets himself into this deranged marriage, he can’t escape his cruel fate. His life is spiraling out of control just as his willingness to live slowly falls away. The only person, who might help him is his wife’s lovely younger sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), but she also becomes a victim of Berent’s sick scheme, as so many characters do in the course of the movie.
The story is told in an extended flashback that constitutes most of the film. Tierney, in an Academy Award-nominated performance, is mesmerizing as the ravishing killer, making Wilde and Crain seem sort of dull by comparison.
Leave Her To Heaven was directed by John Stahl. Born Jacob Morris Strelitsky in Azerbaijan, when Stahl was a child, his family left the Russian Empire and moved to NYC. At a young age, he began working in the city’s growing film industry and directed his first silent short in 1914.
He took the name John Stahl and in the early 1920s, when Louis B. Mayer, a Jew, thought his name sounded was too Jewish. Because, who knew there were Jews in showbiz. In 1924, Stahl was part of the Mayer team that founded MGM Studios. In 1927, he was one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. With the industry’s transition to talkies, Stahl successfully made the adjustment.
For Universal Pictures, he directed Imitation Of Life (1934), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. The following year, he directed Magnificent Obsession, starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. It is Leave Her To Heaven‘s special achievement that Stahl is able to make Ellen Berent both mysteriously unstoppable and poignantly trapped.
Many noirs were shot in shadowy black and white. But, Leave Her To Heaven benefits from Technicolor. Certain visual themes keep returning, especially the image of water surrounded by trees, people moving in and out of silhouette, and the cool greens slashed by the red of Berent’s fire-engine red lips. It is as beautiful in its cinematography as it is frightening in its realization.
Leave Her To Heaven was Fox Studio‘s highest-grossing picture of the 1940s and a critic’s darling.
The film’s title is from William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet. In Act I, Scene V, a Ghost urges Hamlet not to seek vengeance against his mother Queen Gertrude, but rather: “…leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her”.