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!
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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?
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).
- 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.
THANKS TO THE HOSTS OF THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON: