Although Leave Her to Heaven arrived toward the end of director John M. Stahl and screenwriter Jo Swerling’s careers, the film is rightly regarded as something of a revelation. Actress Gene Tierney’s troubled femme fatale, presented in vivid, hypnotic Technicolor, predates by at least five or 10 years the troubled women that populate the seminal film noirs and melodramas of such Hollywood titans as Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk. While Leave Her to Heaven existed in a state of relative obscurity until Twilight Time’s upgrade in 2013 and this week’s Criterion Collection release, both the film and its artists had a palpable influence on the pillars of Old Hollywood. Stahl’s one-two punch of Imitation of Life (1934) and Magnificent Obsession (1935) were remade by Sirk in 1959 and 1954, respectively, and Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) could easily pass as an extension of the lush nightmare world that Stahl depicted a decade prior. Likewise, Swerling’s craft can be discerned in the bones of both Gone with the Wind (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), titles from the classical Hollywood era that are among the most recognizable to the non-cinephile. Although it might not have the cultural cachet that other wartime relics have attained, Leave Her to Heaven is exactly the kind of macabre, tortured romance that epitomizes both film noir and melodrama — genres that are two sides of the same warped coin.
Before the viewer even knows who novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) is or what he did, they are aware of the fact that he is fresh off of a two-year prison sentence. As he steps into a rowboat to head toward some unknown destination across a lake, his former lawyer — “the one who lost the case for him,” as he so glumly puts it — tells a few onlookers that he’s the only one who knows the whole story. So: In flashback, he takes us back to a fateful train ride to New Mexico. Funnily enough, what initially draws Dick to Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) is his own face. Nodding off in the seat across from his, Ellen has one of his novels cracked open in front of her. The woman’s face is obscured, while Dick’s own portrait on the dust jacket meets his curious glances until her drowsiness takes over and the book drops to the ground. The noise jolts her back to consciousness, but he’s quick to retrieve the novel for her anyway. Now she’s the one staring. “You look so much like my father,” she tells Dick. “When he was younger, of course. Your age,” she clarifies. The two are so enraptured with one another that they fail to realize they’re getting off at the same stop: She’s returning to scatter her father’s remains, and he’s heading to a friend’s ranch to complete his latest work.
Individual commitments soon fade as the two spend an increasing amount of time together and quickly become one entity. They forget about imminent deadlines, disregard prior engagements, and pay no mind to the goings-on of the world that lies outside the confines of the dreamy lake house. For now, Dick and Ellen are in love. A crazy, all-consuming, hyper-accelerated kind of love. As such, it doesn’t take long for the two to marry, and it takes even less time for Ellen’s blind jealousy to show its threatening face. Now honeymooning in Dick’s hometown, the author’s new wife seems dead-set on putting an end to anything that gets between her and her husband. As the novelty of the relationship starts to fade and real life begins creeping back into the foreground, it’s obvious that Ellen wants nothing more than Dick’s undivided attention at all hours of the day — no family, no work, no distractions. Just him, all to herself, and God only knows what she’s willing to do to get what she desires.
Leave Her to Heaven wouldn’t be as effective without its Technicolor storybook gloss. Ellen herself seems ripped from the pages of a seedy pulp novel, a capricious and scheming woman who would feel right at home sparring with Humphrey Bogart in a brooding black-and-white procedural. Yet her status as a menacing storm cloud looming just above an otherwise idyllic fairy-tale world is precisely what makes this so enthralling, and such a bountiful source of inspiration to filmmakers in the back half of the 20th century. The film’s scenario and aesthetic would eventually be emulated in countless other melodramas in the decades that followed. It would even find expression in genres outside of the so-called woman’s film. Martin Scorsese, for example, cites the film as one of his all-time favorites and considers Tierney the most underrated leading lady of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) pastes copies of Ellen throughout the uppity country club that so scornfully judges the couple (Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson) at the film’s center — a batch of cantankerous wives who act like friends but gossip like enemies. Similarly, Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) replicates Ellen in the character of Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone), a vengeful deviant who simultaneously attempts to win the heart of and sabotage the life of a hardworking geologist (Rock Hudson).
This innovative blending of genres — combined with the other key component to Leave Her to Heaven’s success, the winning cast — still doesn’t explain why the film never reached the same heights as subsequent efforts from other filmmakers whom it inspired. In addition to Tierney’s unparalleled performance, there’s also Cornel Wilde’s dashing leading man and Vincent Price’s appearance as a ruthless foil. At the time of Leave Her to Heaven’s filming, Price had just finished shooting Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), a dramatic thriller in which he co-starred with Tierney, who played the title character. Here he projects the no-holds-barred energy and unwavering dedication necessary to make a B-movie like this work. If even one person isn’t on the same page, tonally speaking, the entire picture crumbles. Luckily for Stahl, this isn’t a problem here. Tierney managed to earn herself an Oscar nomination, as did the film’s art directors and sound recorders, while cinematographer Leon Shamroy actually nabbed a win (and rightfully so). With so much skill poured into every inch of the frame, it’s a shame that Leave Her to Heaven fell into relative oblivion: Not only is it virtually unknown among many cinephiles but it’s also unavailable to watch or rent from any of the major streamers. Ideally, Criterion’s much-needed update of Leave Her to Heaven will help it join the ranks of the film noirs and melodramas that have already enjoyed the spoils of the imprint’s approval. After all, those films owe a debt of gratitude to Stahl’s feature. Like faded Technicolor made vibrant once more, this restoration should make things much clearer.
Further Viewing: Imitation of Life (1934, 1959), Magnificent Obsession (1935, 1954), Laura (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), They Live by Night (1948), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), Marnie (1964), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974).
Leave Her to Heaven is now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.