[Great Villain Blogathon] Sometimes the Truth is Wicked: Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven

This is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon. Disclaimer: I’ve been disgustingly sick for a week, and this is the best I could do. Oh, and spoilers! There are [a few] slight spoilers!

“Sometimes the truth is wicked.”

The world would be an easier place to navigate if all toxic substances were marked with a skull and crossbones. Unfortunately, some poisons shimmy through the cracks and enter polite society unnoticed or unheeded. There are few things deadlier or more intriguing to citizens at large, than evil wrapped in a pleasing package. From real life to pop culture: Oh, how we love good-looking villains!

Gene Tierney

Gene Tierney is at her finest as Ellen.

The film universe of the 1940s is full of swanky dames and femmes fatales, duplicitous creatures out for revenge or a fast buck. They seem to inhabit one vast, inescapable hellscape: smoky, urban, gritty, and ruthlessly relentless. There are no winners, only: comers, takers, makers. Leave Her to Heaven’s Ellen Berent Harland (Gene Tierney) is a rule-breaker, a curious abstainer from the decade’s expected bad-girl protocol. She is neither noir cookie nor hard-hearted moll, but something infinitely more frightening: charming, civilized, and unstoppably obsessed. Her love, bleeding out, cannot be stanched.

Ellen’s milieu, too, is different. She carves a path of cunning and destruction through some of the loveliest natural backdrops on film this side of Westerns. It’s a Technicolor world, full of towering pines, deeply blue lakes, and handsome mountains surrounded by sunshine and clean air. Beauty kills as well as the beast.

“With your love, you’ve made a shadow of Richard.”

Cornel Wilde

Cornel Wilde as Richard is quiet, complex, and capable. The always-excellent actor remains underrated.

Young novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meets Ellen, his soon-to-be wife, on a train bound for New Mexico. Their initial conversation, though brief, makes quite the mutual impression. They meet up again just minutes later on the station platform: the two not-quite strangers are to be guests at the same ranch. Within days, they are married. What passes between that first feverish glance and the marital bed is a series of calculated, one-sided maneuvers more than a willing courtship. Dick, for all his passion, is a most reluctant groom. Ellen, however, once aroused, refuses to be ignored-or denied. She lobs her special brand of coquetry-disguised-as-disarming candor straight at her beau’s heart, time and time again. It’s a smooth ride, except for one niggling detail: her abruptly discarded fiancé, Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), refuses to be thrust aside as easily as she’d like.

No one makes an on-screen entrance quite like Mr. Price. He shows up on the doorstep of the ranch house, fresh from a cross-country dash, with a ferocious rainstorm raging like a belligerent chorus at his back. Throwing over any character played by the quietly menacing actor is never a good idea. Ellen, of course, prevails this time: Quinton’s pleas find no willing ear, and he exits into the night.

The happy couple-for they are happy, as ignorance is bliss-are soon a chummy threesome. Forgoing a honeymoon, they join Richard’s kid brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he is receiving treatment for Infant paralysis. The siblings enjoy a close, warm, convivial relationship. Ellen, loving Richard as she does-grotesquely, obsessively-is consumed by hatred for anything and anyone with a claim on his time or heart. Everything, it seems, is an impediment to her only goal: full and free possession of her husband. From this moment on, her surface serenity and kindness is but a ruse.

The Harland family eventually travel to Richard’s beloved cabin in the wilderness, which he calls Back of the Moon. Idyllic, sun-kissed days passed in isolation and comfort are too crowded for Ellen. She bristles at the presence of family and friends, the walls are thin, voices grate. And, Danny. There is always Danny, so good-natured and eager to please. She’s had enough of that.

Boat Scene

An afternoon on the lake doesn’t end well. Darryl Hickman as Danny is natural and unaffected.

No matter how diligent she is, obstacles keep popping up. Richard doesn’t take the tragic death of his brother lightly or easily. Imagine! Never fear, Ellen knows just the cure for those “my-disabled-teenage-brother-just-died” blues: a baby!

“Ellen was jealous of Ruth.”

Jeanne Crain

Jeanne Crain as Ruth is as she always is: pleasant, strong, and alluring.

Ruth Berent (Jeanne Crain), Ellen’s younger cousin/adopted sister, is in the unenviable position of being both lovely and blameless. She’s tranquil and tolerant-the perfect emotional foil for the combative and egotistical Ellen. Her calming goodness and unshakable dignity are the rock of the story, her morality its undeniable heart. This is not another battle in the Madonna vs. Whore war, though. Ruth, if anything, shines as she does because she is an example of health and sanity in a world dominated by dark deeds. In due time, she develops a deep and platonic relationship with her brother-in-law that simply cannot be tolerated. Into this nest of complex human relationships is to be added another, sweeter voice: Ellen and Richard’s baby.

Impending fatherhood has the intended effect on Richard: it mellows him back into something like love for his wife. Ellen, on the other hand, is made wretched by the very thing that is working so well in her favour. She hates being pregnant, is repulsed by what it has done to her appearance, and is disgusted by the thought that there will soon be another being vying for Richard’s time and affections. What is a woman to do? Many, many evil things…until one of them finally sticks.

Leave Her to Heaven Staircase Scene

Don’t try this at home.

“I’ll never let you go.”

The truth will out, it has been said. Falsehoods and iniquities usually make their way into the open, whatever the cost in time or regret. Even seasoned schemers lose a round now and then. And thus a marriage based on wicked obsession is bound to end. Ellen is finally dealt the one blow she cannot beat back: Richard leaves her. This is when things really go south. Everything that came before? Oh, that was child’s play. Tea and crumpets. Unicorns and rainbows.

 **End of Spoilers**

“But Ellen had lost. I guess it’s the only time she didn’t come out first.”

Ellen has one final contrivance up her expensive sleeve, an apocalyptic “Screw you!” to those who prevented her from having her way. Russell Quinton, with a voice like a boa-constrictor, is back for (Ellen-sanctioned) vengeance. Who will suffer, and who will prevail?

Vincent Price in Leave Her to Heaven

Vincent Price as District Attorney Russell Quinton: romantic revenge is serious business.

From Bestseller to Blockbuster: The Adaptation

 Leave Her to Heaven was adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name. Allowing for necessary omissions and additions, the film is pretty faithful to the book. The puzzle pieces are the same, even if they are in places re-assembled differently. The result retains the spirit of the original, which is an accomplishment. Both are highly plot-driven. Whilst the characters are dimensional and emotionally tortured, neither version wastes time on psychological analysis. The theme of how obsessive love made manifest wrecks lives is put across via action and not wordy meditation. The film covers the major bullet points of Ben Ames Williams’ text but, more importantly, it also captures the suffocating desperation of the source material. The two large-scale natural disasters of the novel go uncovered in the screen version, doubtless due to time and expense. Although integral to the pacing of the book, they are not necessary here. 

An exceptionally talented cast and crew make this book-to-film adaptation one of the finest dramas of the 1940s. Gene Tierney’s performance as the emotionally corrupt society girl is taut and savage. It is ripe with an unexpectedly elegant brutality that undermines and transforms the very nature of screen villainy. Not every bad-to-the-core dame wears torn stockings and cheap, slinky gowns. Designer slacks and fashionable bathing suits do a better job of masking evil. Sometimes poison is high-class, and it has never looked better than it does on Ellen Berent Harland.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)-110 MINUTES

CAST: GENE TIERNEY (ELLEN BERENT HARLAND); CORNEL WILDE (RICHARD HARLAND); JEANNE CRAIN (RUTH BERENT); VINCENT PRICE (RUSSELL QUINTON); MARY PHILIPS (MRS. BERENT); RAY COLLINS (GLEN ROBIE); DARRYL HICKMAN (DANNY HARLAND).

CREW: JOHN M. STAHL (DIRECTOR); JO SWERLING (SCREENPLAY); BEN AMES WILLIAMS (NOVEL); ALFRED NEWMAN (MUSIC); LEON SHAMROY (CINEMATOGRAPHY).

FUN FACTS:

  • THE FILM WAS NOMINATED FOR FOUR ACADEMY AWARDS.
  • GENE TIERNEY RECEIVED A BEST ACTRESS NOMINATION, BUT DIDN’T WIN.
  • LEON SHAMROY WON FOR BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY, COLOR.
  • LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN WAS FILMED IN GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR, WHICH WAS UNUSUAL IN THE 1940S FOR A DRAMA.
  • THE STAIRCASE SCENE WAS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND TO BE ALLOWED IN A POST-CODE FILM.
  • RAY COLLINS (GLEN ROBIE) DIDN’T APPEAR IN HIS MOST FAMOUS ROLE UNTIL HE WAS NEARLY SEVENTY: LT. TRAGG ON THE LONG-RUNNING PERRY MASON TELEVISION SERIES.
  • TWO EX-STARS OF SILENT MOVIES APPEAR IN UNCREDITED BIT PARTS: RUTH CLIFFORD AND MAE MARSH.
Leave Her to Heaven Movie Poster

Leave Her to Heaven Movie Poster

THANKS TO THE HOSTS OF THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON:

SHADOWS & SATIN

SILVER SCREENINGS

SPEAKEASY

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52 thoughts on “[Great Villain Blogathon] Sometimes the Truth is Wicked: Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven

    • She is so stunning, and really quite talented. My best friend’s husband has an incredible tattoo of her on one of his arms. It’s amazing.

      Vincent Price is the best. The. best.

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    • It’s a classic! You should watch it if you get the chance. Vincent’s role in this movie is decidedly supporting. He only appears twice, but both scenes are stellar-and so is he. As always.

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    • Thanks! I was sick, indeed. I am finally feeling (mostly) better!

      My head felt really muddled when I was writing most of the post, so in the moment it was hard for me to tell how coherent it was.

      Like

  1. Great write-up! One of my all-time favorite movies and characters.

    I also read the book, and the thing that struck me was the attitude towards women. At the trial, the fact that Ellen enjoyed sex was used as “proof” she was really the bad person. No wonder she wanted to kill people. 🙂

    Feel better soon!

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    • Attitudes towards women haven’t changed all that much. Rape victims are still regularly blamed for the clothes they were wearing when the assault occurred, for instance. A bit of sexism in a 70-year-old novel bothers me a lot less in comparison. 😦 Ruth is actually the one given a hard time, by Quinton, for “sleeping” (literally sleeping) in Richard’s arms after spending hours in the lake during the fire. That aggravated me.

      Thanks, I am finally on the mend. I enjoyed your post about Laura, by the way. It’s such a great movie.

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  2. Wonderfully written blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis.I read the book a long time ago and actually have a first edition copy. I wrote about Joseph Cotton in “Shadow of a Doubt” and always thought it would be fun to have it and “Leave Her To Heaven” as a double feature. Two of the most villainous characters i film. And both are similar: upper class, well dressed, educated, and oh, so smooth…and dangerous. Again, great job.

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    • Thank you so much!

      I own a second edition of the novel. I picked it up years ago for a song at a library sale.

      I just read your Shadow of a Doubt post. It’s wonderful! It’s one of my favourite movies, and certainly my favourite Hitchcock. Someone, somewhere, needs to bring to life your dream of a Leave Her to Heaven/Shadow of a Doubt double-header. That would be incredible. I think there is something more sinister about domestic evil. Uncle Charlie and Ellen are extra potent because of that angle.

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      • I agree. I think that fascinated Hitchcock and why, I think, “Shadow of a Doubt” remains as creepy today as it did in 1942. I saw it years ago at a film festival in Philly and when Teresa Wright’s character said “We don’t need to play with the paper tonight,” the audience gasped because they knew she was in trouble. It was pretty amazing to see that reaction in the 21rst century. In “Leave Her To Heaven,” I’d like to think Stahl made everything look perfect as a contrast to the evil that is Ellen. I always like to point out the scene where Ellen first goes to Warm Springs and sees a handicapped person; she can’t seem to bear to be in the same space; she’s noticeably bothered and upset.

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      • There is something disconcertingly menacing about Shadow of a Doubt. It gets under your skin, and stays there.

        I’m glad that the studio splurged and allowed Leave Her to Heaven to be filmed in color, which was unusual for a drama of that decade. I think the airy, crisp perfection of the film is a great way to capture the outdoorsy feel of the book without having to show all of those big, broad scenes. It’s a shorthand of sorts.

        Ellen is definitely one of those people who cannot bear being around anyone who is not hardy and healthy.

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  3. I loved this review! “Leave Her to Heaven” such a compelling movie and Gene Tierney is perfect as Ellen.

    Like you pointed out, the film does not waste time on psychological analysis, and is all the better for it. (I hate it when films fall into that trap!) You also made a good point about Cornel Wilde and how criminally underrated he is.

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon. I’m so glad you chose “Leave Her to Heaven” to review.

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    • Thanks, Ruth! I cannot imagine better casting for the role…for any of the roles, really.

      The film definitely follows the books’ lead when it comes to minimal psychological analysis. She has something of an Electra complex and obsessively loves her husband. It’s pretty much all we need to know, and it works.

      I really like Cornel Wilde. I wish pop culture would re-discover him.

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  4. Pingback: Day 6: The Great Villain Blogathon | Silver Screenings

  5. Ellen is as bad as they come, that’s for sure. This was the first film I saw of Gene’s when I was young, and it took years for me to be able to see her in anything else, and not be afraid. I don’t know that I have ever seen the face of the devil look so calm and natural as with Tierney is this movie. It is an amazing performance. A brilliant and inspired choice for this great blogathon.

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    • If a performance scares children, that is usually a pretty fine indication that it is an excellent one. Gene is absolutely stellar in this role. No one else could play Ellen like she does.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Like

  6. excellent writeup, loved it, and Gene just did a turn here (with already great material, but still) that has to make her one of the worst of the villainesses. The “normal” ones you’d be likely to encounter in everyday life are the worst and scariest by far. Always love to discover what was changed or left out of adaptations as well, thanks for including that and thanks for being a part of this event!

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    • Thank you, and thank you so much for allowing me to participate. It was such fun.

      Ellen is even worse in the book, simply because you get to see more of her everyday machinations in trying to get/keep Richard. They didn’t leave out anything terribly important, though, and what they added keeps to the spirit of the original. The biggest omission is the role of Leick Thorne, who barely figures in the film but is incredibly important to the action of the novel.

      I cannot imagine anyone but Gene Tierney in this role.

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  8. Wonderful character for the villain blogathon. I’ve always loved Gene Tierney, yet I remember how cold and calculating she was in this film. You’ve done a marvelous job of summing up her beautiful evil… I adore Vincent Price as well.. Well done! Cheers Joey

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    • Thanks so much! Ellen is so richly villainous that she made it rather easy for me! Vincent Price is amazing, always, and as Quinton he is antagonistic but not evil. A slight change of pace compared to much of his career.

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  9. Probably my favourite Gene Tierney role, I haven’t seen this for a while so thanks for reminding me of how great it is. I didn’t realise this was based on a book so was really interested to read about how the screen version differs – either way, Ellen sounds like quite a villainess; I guess it’s always the characters that you could imagine meeting day-to-day that are the scariest!

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    • You are quite welcome! The book is quite entertaining. It was a big hit, too. It has a much broader scope than the film. In addition to the two omitted large-scale natural disasters, a good portion of the action leading up to Ellen’s suicide takes place in Boston. In the film, they transfer and combine those scenes with the ones at Bar Harbor. Richard’s friend from the ranch, Glen Robie, and Ruth’s lawyer are two separate characters. The biggest character omission is Leick Thorne, who plays a pivotal role in the book. He’s barely seen in the movie version.

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  10. Such a fantastic film–and it does move the femme fatale into the healthy outdoors (for all the good it does), which is really interesting. Of course Gene Tierney is amazing. And of course Vincent Price is, you are so right, The. Best. Tea and crumpets indeed!

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    • Vincent was always the best. Always. The book version of Ellen is even more outdoorsy than the one we see in the film, and a fair amount of the book-action takes place during natural disasters. Gene is just perfect in the role, though, and I definitely cannot imagine anyone else playing Ellen. Ever.

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  11. Great write up for a great film. I watched this a couple months ago and blogged about it for our local newspaper. Trying to get younger folks to realize there are great classic movies out there. Anyhow, when Tierney tells Wilde on that train trip that he reminds her of her tather in every way, the red flags should have gone up immediately! But then, there’d have bee no book, no movie.

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    • Thank you so much! I’ve spent the last ten years trying to get people of all ages interested in silent and early sound movies. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. 🙂

      Indeed that should have been a red flag, but it’s not like he was gunning for anything but a vacation flirtation or dalliance! Up until the actual wedding, he wasn’t interested in marrying her. The father angle is covered a bit more in the novel than in the film, but in both cases it’s really just emotional shorthand to let the readers/viewers know that Ellen has issues without having to waste too much time/space on analysis.

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    • Gene is just sheer perfection here. She couldn’t have been better. Ellen is so elegantly, coolly, cunningly evil that it is extra disconcerting.

      I am still making my way through all of the other blogathon contributions (there are so many!), and I will definitely read yours today. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. 🙂

      Like

  12. I know I’ve read and enjoyed this post before but it must have been one of those occasions when the like button was playing fast and loose so now I’ve been able to like it! I’m so tickled you’re now following Rogues & Vagabonds as well – thank you!

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  13. I greatly enjoyed your post — your writing is first-rate and I love the way you introduced the pictures of the characters with the quotes. I’m also glad you covered the book — you’ve made me want to get a copy. Good stuff, all around!

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    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I really appreciate them.

      I’ve read the book several times, and cannot totally separate the film from its source. I thought Leave Her to Heaven a great example to illustrate how books and movies can, under rare but right circumstances, work in concert together to create something fabulous.

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