I watched Leave her to Heaven (1945) but unlike other films it’s stayed with me. I had every intention of watching The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) that night, I changed my mind at the last-minute and what a chance I took on this very dark yet starkly colourful film noir. I was considering how it would look if I was to convert a short section to the traditional black and white, so it would conform to the visual style of the genre. The longer the film was playing I knew that such an intervention would only be detrimental to the film. The contrast too high, the use Technicolor the dazzle and lure you into the dream world that is little more than an illusion. For what lies beyond the lake in the opening scene is trap which an innocent man falls into. What looks like a treat, the wide open countryside, the greenery hiding narrative that is about to unfold before us.
A quiet man – Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) lands of the water from a biplane that has brought him back home, a place that holds bitter-sweet memories and the start of a new chapter in his life and his new-found freedom. The lake I know is where the iconic boating scene takes place, but that has to wait, I want to see how it all unfolds, courtesy of his old friend and lawyer Glen Robie (Ray Collins) who allows us to flashback to their first meeting on a train. It’s all by chance that they meet, two strangers, but that end there when she’s Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) reading his novel on the train. This is only revealed in a later scene, but allows him to get closer to her, using a passage from his book to hook her under his own spell.
The chance encounters allowed to continue as the train stops in New Mexico, even staying at the same accommodation so far its a really nice coincidence that these two have met and been able to see each other is all pure Hollywood. As the Bernet family have come to a resort to scatter their fathers ashes. A connection to the late father and Richards made, they look the same, its uncanny or fate, I’ll let you decide in a bit. It’s clear that he’s falling for her, and she’s reeling him slowly as they get to know each other at the resort, its casual yet there’s an air of mystery. He’s enjoying all of this and even the temptation of her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) who doesn’t even know he’s being tempted. Its one holiday brimming with 1940’s style temptation, something I’ll return to later.
The honey trap is finally triggered with the arrival of ex-lover and lawyer (running for district attorney) Russel Quinton (Vincent Price) when out of nowhere Richard and Ellen announce they are getting married. A shock not just to us, but to Richard whose as shocked as us, we have entered the realm of melodrama, the fast-moving unpredictable (take that lightly) world of storylines going off to the deep end. Have we just met the ultimate femme-fatelle of film-noir. This the first sign that this woman is not about to be walked all over. The traditional role of the man proposing to the womans dismissed, she is wearing the trousers in this relationship. We can see that Russel is no longer the object of her affections and this act tells him that she no longer wants him, its final, its fast its fantastically come out of nowhere to end one relationship and further another one, simply by moving her net from one man to another.
The melodrama element of the film is cleverly enhanced by the Technicolor, signalling the look of Douglas Sirk’s in the following decade. If we look even further forward to Gone Girl (2014) which I will touch on later we can see how the manipulating woman can really screw over her husband. Leave Her to Heaven is the first time we are really seeing a woman manipulate a married man. Sure film-noir is full of women who use and abuse men to their own means, usually the men are either single or on the run, or hopelessly in love with the women of the film. The man object of desire is the woman’s object of control, leaving the man broken and unable to go on. The trap laid here in New Mexico see Richard being emasculated, becoming the stay at home husband. When they finally marry, we meet his brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) who has spent the last few years in a sanitorium, having lost the use of his legs through unmentioned accident, it’s all about his recovery that speeds up with the arrival of his brother and new sister and law. She makes her mark in his life, she’s playing the big sister, wanting to earn his love. It doesn’t take much, this is the beautiful Tierney who glistens in a rare colour film.
Danny’s introduction in the film shows how Ellen’s starting to get into the family, adapting to married life, or adjusting her plans. We next see her in the doctor’s office, who she manipulates to withhold Danny’s discharge, before Richard enters when she announces that he’s coming home. Completely having control over the men and the situation in this scene. They are left bewildered and surprised, again another example of emasculation, the fear that women can rise up from the kitchen and take control, this shows the male fear of how far it could go. And boy does it go off to the deep end as the film progresses from the death of Danny that she doesn’t prevent, allowing him to drown, only looking on with cold contempt for the innocent boy who has given her only love. A classic scene that stays with you long after the film is over. She only gets worse, as she falls pregnant, however that would only bring more people into the relationship that she wants with Richard, keeping him solely for herself. Committing this awful acts, not so much for attention but to ensure Richard’s commitment to her, not so much the marriage but to stay under her control. Is this psychological domestic violence, it surely comes close.
The final nail in the coffin, literally and metaphorically is a suicide that she frames as murder on her sister. Seeing how the couple after seeing Richard drift away and back towards the temptation that is Ruth who has been around since Danny’s death. It’s a cold and calculated and all for maximum effect. Her death sparks a court-room drama ending that begins to answer the opening of the film, where has Richard been for two years, and how did he end up there. What makes it worse is that Ruth’s framed for the murder. Allowing for Vincent Price to return in what is probably a pretty substantial part for the actor even in a supporting role, he tears up the set with his performance, he’s in control, this is his world where he can see justice carried out against the family that had cast him aside in favor of the stranger. It’s just full of classic court-room scenes, adding to the drama that has already happened as we get closer to answering that question of how and why.
Coming back finally to Gone Girl which sees a manipulative wife, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) who frames her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) for her murder. Of course the structure and plot are very different, combining flashbacks to explain how they both met, whilst also showing how both are coping and understanding the situation. Amy enjoying sticking the knife into his back for his infidelity. The use of media who share the “story” as it unfolds in the modern-day world of fast-moving over dramatised news, all for ratings. Amy and Ellen both have the upper hand over their husbands, more literally in Gone Girl when he finds a gift of Punch and Judy puppets. Nick begins to understand what is going on and knows ultimately hes trapped unless he can find a way to break free. Ellen goes even further, shes doesn’t just plan her death meticulously, she sees it through and is twisting the knife from the beyond the grave. Amy is not that brave, preferring to come back and honor the image of marriage. No such thought goes through Ellen’s mind. If anything Leave her to Heaven is really the darker film, if ever remade it would be far darker than Gone Girl leaving it in the dust in terms of psychology and violence. The media in the latter film really makes it more contemporary, it wouldn’t be needed for a Heaven remake. I just hope they never do that.