Visually, John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945) might be one of the most colourful films noir you’ll ever see in your life, but its narrative line is probably among the darkest ones of the movement. This film taking place with beautiful natural landscapes, instead of notorious neighborhoods of big cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, reunites two significant figures of film noir: Gene Tierney (Laura, Secret from The Shanghai Gesture, Night and the City) and Cornel Wilde (High Sierra, The Big Combo). They were, however, joined by a rather “newcomer” at the time, the young Jeanne Crain. She was only 20 when that film was release (Gene was five years older). Her career began in 1943 but she only started to have more important roles the following year. However, Leave Her to Heaven might be the most memorable film of her early career. I’m guessing. You see, I’m not that familiar with the life and career of Mrs. Crain, having seen only this film with her and Apartment for Peggy (George Seaton, 1948), in which she co-stars alongside William Holden.
But Jeanne Crain is my initial motivation for writing this article as she is the subject of a blogathon hosted by Christine from Overture Books and Film. I subscribed rather at the last minute. Being not too familiar with Jeanne Crain, I initially thought of skipping it but then I remembered that I had seen her in Leave Her to Heaven and that I actually loved the film. AND to my biggest surprise, the subject hadn’t already been claimed. So, I immediately jumped to the occasion (to tell you the truth, as I write these words, I’m still waiting for Christine to approve my subject. Hopefully she will…! Update: she has!).
I first watched Leave Her to Heaven last November on the occasion of #noirvember. I really made myself the resolution to watch many films noir that I hadn’t seen before. This one, along with noir classics like The Asphalt Jungle and The Big Sleep were among my choices. I discovered some memorable stuff last November and this film was no exception to the rule.
Like many films noir (yes it IS in colour but it follows quite perfectly the codes of noir), Leave Her to Heaven is a long flashback. The film begins when author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) arrives at Back of the Moon, is place in the forest. Two men are waiting for him, including his attorney (Ray Collins). It is revealed to us that he has spent two years in prison. But why? Well, actually I won’t really tell you why because I don’t want to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it.
Anyway, the flashback gives us some contextualization. Richard meets the beautiful Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) on the train to New Mexico. After a brief (but rather electrifying chat with her) they get off the train where Richard is awaited by his attorney who also happens to know the Berent. Ellen and Richard are now introduced to each other in more formal ways and this one also makes the acquaintance of Ellens mother (Mary Phillips) and her cousin Ruth (that’s when Jeanne Crain makes her entrance). Ellen is back here to scatter the ashes of her deceased father in the mountains that he loved so much, not far from where they lived. Joined by Richard who’s mainly here to work on his new book, he and Ellen have the occasion to spend more time together. And, you would have guessed, they fall in love with each other (surprise!). Ellen is, however, engaged to Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), an attorney from Boston. It doesn’t take her long to remove the ring from her finger and break their engagement through a letter. She loves Richard and he’s all that matter for her now. They get married a few days after.
Richard has a brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman) who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair. Not long after their wedding, Richard and Helen go visit him. Ellen immediately appreciates Danny and Richard is more than glad to see his younger brother again. After spending a few days with him, the doctor agrees that it is safe for Danny to go with them at Back of the Moon, much to Ellen’s resilience. You see, as much as Ellen is pretty and kind (seems to be), her true nature begins to be revealed toward that part of the film. She simply can’t bear to share Richard with anyone else. Her possessive nature and jealousy will push her to commit serious actions. People she pretends to love, such as Danny and her cousin Ruth, are now seen as obstacles.
If Ellen (Gene Tierney) and Ruth (Jeanne Crain) could share a certain physical resemblance (brown and wavy hair, luminous faces, impeccable sense of fashion) their personality couldn’t be more different. Ellen is the obsessive and impassionate woman who is ready to do everything in connection with her unhealthy love for people of her entourage. She’s a woman full of charisma who emanates a unique aura around her. She knows what she wants, she’s ambitious and she’s her best judge. On her side, Ruth is the quiet one. She’s lovely and humble and doesn’t dare disturbing. She’s one who thinks before acting and always does it considering her impact on other people instead of mainly thinking about herself (unlike Ellen). That’s why the clash between both characters is so interesting.
Jeanne Crain plays only a secondary character but her presence is immediately noticed thanks to subtle acting which is sparkled with genuine and brilliant moments. It can be a glance, a smile or a dialogue with another character. For example, when Ellen and Richard are introduced to each other, she is the first one to sense that there’s undeniable chemistry between the two. The camera focuses on her face which has this expression full of reflexion as if she was able to predict how the events will turn. And she’s right. Having seen their conversation in the train, us, spectator, have to share this feeling with her. The other characters seem to be in retreat regarding the situation (well, at this point) but we are able to feel certain complicity with Ruth.
Gene Tierney, however, was the one who received the most praises from the film, receiving her only Oscar nomination. She’s indeed quite unforgettable as the infamous Ellen Berent and plays the villain in a delightfully evil but elegant way. Rita Hayworth was initially approached for the role but she turned it down (IMDB). Ellen Berent is no angel and perhaps Rita Hayworth was afraid the role would tarnish her reputation (even if it’s just a film) but, to be honest, I don’t know much about the matter. Gene Tierney delivers a performance that makes us live various and unique sensations just like a roller coaster. Her character is perhaps one of the most complex, but most fascinating ones of film noir history. If female characters in film noir often served as support, she IS the center of the story. Without her, we would be watching the story of Richard Harland writing a book…
As it was explained before, Jeanne Crain embodies the softer contrast of the film. Her character is needed as it creates a certain balance in the story. She’s also the one who understands Ellen the best and is able to see through her even before her husband does (we remember this delightful scene where she, sweet Ruth, tells Ellen her four truths and what she really thinks of her). Ruth might seem vulnerable but she’s less than we would think. As a matter of fact, she handles the situation quite methodically. I also have to underline her team-work with Cornel Wilde. They both share an immensely appreciated chemistry and embody the more sane relationship of the film. Of course, Ellen doesn’t like it. The scenes they share together are like a breath of freshness and make us forget, for a short time, how dark of a story Leave Her to Heaven is.
We certainly cannot discuss Leave Her to Heaven without mentionning its breathtaking Technicolor Cinematography. If I made a list of films that I would love to see on the big screen, this one would certainly be among them. I mean, it looks rather impressive on my computer screen, so imagine in a theatre! This was the first film Stahl was shooting in colour. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy was awarded a well-deserved Oscar for his work on this film. We can also mention his work on The Robe, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, South Pacific (ok, those filters were rather dull), and The King and I. In his book on film noir, Patrick Brion actually makes very interesting observations about this cinematography and the role it has to play in the film. Why would a film noir be shot in colour? Well, we learn through our reading that it gives much more impact to the narrative lines than we would think. As he writes it in his book, the bright and vivid colours are a symbol of Ellen’s passion that burns and consumes her. That iconic red lipstick that never leaves her could be a symbol of that inflamed personality. If the film would have been shot in black in white, yes, it still would have been good, but the impact wouldn’t have been the same.
Another element that adds a lot of impact on the peripeties is the score composed by Alfred Newman. This one is very dramatic and surely doesn’t leave you indifferent. Personally, I think it’s one of the best that I’ve heard in film noir. It perfectly accentuates the style of the film.
Visually, Leave Her to Heaven is not only an inspiration for its cinematography, but also for the costumes worn by both Gene Tierney and Jeanne Crain. These were designed by Kay Nelson. We love them, not only for their elegance but also for their rather “modern” touch. Some of these ensembles could easily be worn and admired today. These are chic but not too extravagant clothes either. They are among the most refined you’ll see on screen. Yes, refined and timeless. There’s this scene where Gene wears red pants and a beige sweater which is a real fashion inspiration to me. I had the red pants and I managed to find a similar sweater in a thrift shop (mine has long sleeves tho). And those sunglasses! Jeanne Crain’s costumes are even more “everyday clothes” and they fit pretty well the personality of her character.
I’d finally like to say a few words about the screenplay. Leave Her to Heaven was based on the novel by Ben Harmes Williams and Jo Swerling wrote the screenplay. This is a film where the evolution of the characters is what matters the most. The succession of events only depends on that. Yes, there’s always a good character evolution in good screenplays, but this one is particularly strong. We are left with many surprises and situations that are provoked by clashes of personality her personal decisions. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the people that build the story: Ellen, Richard, Ruth, Danny, Russell, Mrs. Berent, etc.
Among the lines, the one that reminds the most memorable and who actually pretty much embodies the essence of Ellen is when she says: ” I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never.” This is actually said in a rather crucial scene and it’s by watching it that you’ll understand better its impact.
Mrs. Berent also says at some point “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. It’s just that she loves too much.” Yes, the mother understands her daughter quite well.
On its released, Leave Her to Heaven wasn’t only awarded with the Best Cinematography Oscar but was nominated for three more: Best Actress (Gene Tierney), Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color (Lyle R. Wheeler, Maurice Ransford, Thomas Little) and Best Sound, Recording (Thomas T. Moulton). Financially, the film was among the most successful ones of 1945, being at the third place at the box-office behind Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
If you love Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, and/or Vincent Price, if film noir is one of your cute sins, and if you haven’t seen this film, don’t wait too long before doing so because you are in for an unforgettable experience!
As a matter of fact, you can watch it here on YouTube with a top-notch quality!
On my side, I’m impatient to discover more of Jeanne Crain’s career by reading the entries that were written for this blogathon. I invite you to join me by clicking here.
Many thanks to Christine for hosting a blogathon highlighting the lovely and intriguing actress that Jeanne Crain was!
- Brion, Patrcik. Le Film Noir. Éditions de La Martinière, 2004.
- “Leave Her to Heaven (Awards).” IMDB. nd. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037865/awards. Accessed 21 May, 2019.
- Leave Her to Heaven (Trivia). “IMDB. nd. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037865/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Accessed 21 May, 2019.
- “1945 in Film.” Wikipedia. 12 May 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1945_in_film. Accessed 21 May, 2019.