Retrospective film review: Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) directed by John M. Stahl, starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain & Vincent Price.

Think you know Film Noir? Think again. Leave Her to Heaven is one of the most sinister, dark and unnerving examples of the genre, and it’s filmed entirely in Technicolor. But don’t let this put you off – the film’s rejection of the Noir conventions of chiaroscuro only add to its power, and the vivid palette and lighting design (for which Leon Shamroy won the 1946 Oscar for Best Color Cinematography) render the film’s subject matter even more ominous.

Gene Tierney stars as Ellen Berent, a glamorous socialite who meets novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) on a train to New Mexico and, drawn to him for his resemblance to her deceased father, kick-starts a passionate and turbulent marriage that draws in those around them, particularly Ellen’s adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) and ex-fiancé Russell (Vincent Price), and Richard’s young brother Danny (Darryl Hickman). For Ellen’s beauty disguises jealousy and cruelty in her heart, and she will stop at nothing to keep her husband all to herself.

Tierney is something of a forgotten star today, but her performance in Leave Her to Heaven was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1945 (she lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce). She is flawless in her portrayal of Ellen’s incestuous and pathological obsessions, and her beauty dazzles in a way that the greatest stars of traditional black & white Noirs never can. At once menacing and mesmerising, soulful and psychotic, it is one of the most unusual and powerful performances you’re likely to see in Golden-era Hollywood.