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Leave Her to Heaven
DirectorJohn M. Stahl
Release Date(s)1945 (May 14, 2013)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
“Of all the seven deadly sins, jealousy is the most deadly...”
That line comes early in the 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven, and its truth is borne out more than once during its 110-minute running time. The 20th Century Fox film – a rare but successful blend of dark film noir and brightly-hued Technicolor drama – has just arrived on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and it’s as gripping as ever.
Though director John M. Stahl’s picture opens with a shot of a book, opening in the style often associated with animated adaptations of fairy tales, there’s little fantasy in what follows. The foreboding, pounding drums of Alfred Newman’s score set the tone for the tale of love gone horribly awry. As written by Jo Swerling (the original librettist of Guys and Dolls) based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams, it’s told in flashback, allowing for the obligatory “happy ending,” or something like it. Gene Tierney, in one of her films released in the immediate aftermath of Laura, has her only Academy Award-nominated role as the seductive Ellen Berent, who sets her sights on novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde). Ellen ensnares Richard and quickly leads him into marriage, so captivated is he by her beauty, but once they are man and wife, it becomes clear that the union isn’t enough for the increasingly possessive Ellen. “People you love don’t really die,” Ellen matter-of-factly insists in one chilling moment that offers insight into her psyche. The epitome of the cool femme fatale, Tierney’s breathy Ellen is accurately described when one character opines, “If you’d lived in Salem one hundred years ago, they would have burned you!” Indeed, Swerling’s script keeps the stakes high and there are plenty of double meanings and other instances of foreshadowing present in his dialogue.
Leave Her to Heaven has been compared to a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, which is somewhat ironic considering that its director Stahl helmed the original versions of Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession, films later remade by Sirk. (In fact, the latter might have made for a perfectly acceptable alternate title of Leave Her to Heaven!) There are many heightened moments – such as when desperation finally cracks through Ellen’s steely veneer in a confrontation with a doctor over the fate of her husband’s younger, polio-afflicted brother (Darryl Hickman) – but Tierney’s and Wilde’s portrayals both have their share of nuance. It’s disturbing to watch Wilde’s kindhearted Richard all but unaware of what the audience already knows about the depths of Ellen’s obsession.
As Ellen’s adopted sister Ruth, Jeanne Crain is her opposite number. Ruth is cute, not stunning; warm rather than icy; and compassionate instead of manipulative. She also enjoys gardening, whereas it’s impossible to imagine her sister getting her hands dirty – at least while tending the garden, that is. As Ellen seethes at any kindness Richard shows Ruth, tension mounts in Stahl’s capable directorial hands. There are still moments that can shock, nearly seventy years later, such as Ellen’s impassive gaze in one pivotal sequence with Hickman’s young Danny, or her simple assessment of her unborn child: “I hate the little beast. I wish it would die.” Stahl’s picture is deliberately paced, but rarely less than compelling. Leave Her to Heaven only threatens to loosen its grip on the viewer during a climactic courtroom sequence with a severe Vincent Price as the determined district attorney who once called Ellen his fiancée. Price makes a brief appearance early in the film, but returns to steal its last fifteen minutes as this grandstanding figure. The courtroom scenes have a different feel than everything that’s come before, but Price, Wilde and Crain all make the most of them.
A major strength of Leave Her to Heaven, and indeed, what sets the film apart, is its use of lush, sunny daylight settings and bold Technicolor to tell its dark, murky film noir story. Stahl and cinematographer Leon Shamroy (Cleopatra, Planet of the Apes) revel in their location shooting, which took place in New Mexico, Arizona and the California Sierras. The bucolic scenery takes on a new dimension and an ironic sense of menace; Shamroy received an Academy Award (one of four wins in his lifetime) for his work on Leave Her to Heaven.
The 1080p presentation in the film’s original aspect ratio is solid on this new Blu-ray, with detailed images and a lovely vibrancy to many of the outdoor location shots. Flesh tones are the least successful aspect of this transfer, with a pancake makeup-type color at times appearing unnatural. Color is such an important part of the legacy of Leave Her to Heaven, and the presentation here is above average, if not impeccable. Sound is a perfectly acceptable DTS-HD Master Audio mono track.
Twilight Time’s raison d’etre has been to release films on Blu-ray with an isolated score track, and frequently that special feature is the sole bonus. Thankfully, that’s not so with Leave Her to Heaven, which includes a number of additional features (including those ported over from the previous DVD). Most interesting are the commentaries by film historian Richard Schickel and actor Darryl Hickman, seemingly edited together to play as one. Hickman’s memory is strong, allowing for sharp and rather opinionated remarks filled with candor. He remembers Tierney as “patronizing” and “cold” but (obviously) “beautiful.” He keenly observes that Shamroy created a “romanticized reality” with his use of shadow and light, cracking that “the lighting got more time than the actors.” He’s also critical of Swerling’s dialogue and even takes other actors to task for “indicating.” But he offers a fascinating insider’s look, with Schickel providing additional background on the movie.
Alfred Newman’s brief score sounds terrific as an isolated figure; it’s also been recently released on compact disc by the Kritzerland label paired with Newman’s music for Take Care of My Little Girl (which also starred Jeanne Crain). Twilight Time’s BD also makes room for the theatrical trailer and two snippets of Movietone news footage from the premiere and Oscar night. The premiere footage at the original Carthay Circle Theater is most enjoyable, with glimpses of producer Darryl F. Zanuck as well as Vivian Blaine, Jane Powell, Roddy McDowall, Victor Mature, and other stars of the era. This limited edition of 3,000 units also includes a booklet of informative liner notes by Julie Kirgo.
Leave Her to Heaven has been championed by filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese for its genre-bending qualities. The memorable Technicolor noir appears to its best effect on home video yet thanks to Twilight Time’s Blu-ray.
- Joe Marchese