Led by their collective nose for revisionism, modern audiences are so quick to enumerate all of Leave Her to Heaven’s film-noir bona fides that they fail to recognize the crucial ways in which it fails the litmus test, a characteristic that arguably keeps the movie’s tricky place within the film canon fresh and vital. It earned Gene Tierney her only Oscar nomination playing Ellen Berent, the femme fatale at the center of author Ben Ames Williams’s bestselling novel of the same name. As told in fatalistic flashback, Ellen meets author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) on a train. He notes that she’s reading one of his books, and though she doesn’t make the connection, she fixates her radiant azul eyes on him with enough hypnotic fervor to suggest she’s second cousin to Simone Simon’s Irena Dubrovna. The claws instantly planted, Richard follows Ellen out to her family’s estate, witnesses her performing a herculean funeral ceremony, throwing her dead father’s ashes from horseback, shares with her a plate of the most delicious white-bread turkey sandwiches he’s ever tasted, and stands to her flank as she jilts her fiancé, an aspiring district attorney (Vincent Price), and almost improvisationally declares she intends to tie the knot with Richard. All within the space of two, maybe three days.
The velocity by which Ellen imposes her life on Richard’s, and his acquiescent pre-approval of the arrangement, wouldn’t make a lick of sense if director John M. Stahl directed his film in monochrome through venetian blinds except as a reductio ad absurdum of film-noir fatalism. But working under the close personal supervision of 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, Stahl was happily obliged to present the material with the florid accent marks of classic Hollywood melodrama, couching Ellen’s domestic storm front within composer Alfred Newman’s swooping score and cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s densely saturated Technicolor vistas, removing all the warning signals that would be foregrounded for our poor doomed hero in any self-respecting B movie, the first of which ought to have been her laying those meat-hook eyes on him on that train. Undisturbed by her blithe dismissal of her previous beau, he accepts his situation as though it were emerging from one of his (apparently quite rococo) novels. At their first meeting, he uses a line from his book to pick her up, comparing her to the hedonistic miasma of patchouli. Later on, he nicknames her after the fragrance. Hardly Walter Neff fixating on Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet, but then again, did Phyllis or any other noir diva ever commit an act of calculated evil as shocking as Ellen allowing Richard’s polio-stricken kid brother to drown in a lake so that her husband would have more time for her?
Is Leave Her to Heaven one of those, as per Bob Ross, happy little accidents? A movie that lucked onto the trappings of film noir without forcing its audience to savor the taste of metal on the back of their tongues? (It was monster hit, second only to The Bells of St. Mary’s that year, the two somehow seeming to balance out each other.) Certainly the further Tierney’s freakishly possessive Ellen goes down her own private wormhole of jealousy, and the more Richard ineffectually allows himself to be steamrolled by her matrimonial battle plan, the more the film seems to align itself with the distaff-distressed worldview of classic noir. But despite Ellen’s impressive and variety-filled catalogue of spicy atrocities committed against Richard and his kin, there’s one crucial difference between her and the archetypal femme fatale: Everything she does, she does out of pathological love for him. Ellen isn’t interested in worming her way into her weak-willed intended’s heart in order to destroy him. Domestic to a psychotic fault, she sets her sights on destroying everything that would keep him away from her, positioning Leave Her to Heaven as a noir outlier, a sick-joke inversion that riffs off the creeping disengagement men invariably feel when forced into monogamy. Good luck with that happy ending behind the moon, Mr. Author.
Leon Shamroy deservedly won an Oscar for his lens work on Leave Her to Heaven, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray honors his efforts as best as they can. As reported by Blu-ray.com, this transfer couldn’t be sourced to an original Technicolor print of the film because, as was sadly typical of the era, Fox "discarded all of their original Technicolor elements in the 1970s." That said, the digitally restored print they reportedly did use looks remarkable enough to suggest the glory of Shamroy’s accomplishments, free from artifacts and rich as seven-grain bread. The colors are certainly not quite as lurid they could’ve been, but there appears to have been at least some nominal color correction on Ellen’s all-important red lips. Fidelity aside, there’s no denying the grandeur of that dawn near Monument Valley or that dusk at the remote cabin in Maine. The Master Audio monaural soundtrack as well as the optional isolated score track are stymied by the recording standards of the time, with a notable but not overwhelming amount of shrill distortion from the string section.
Twilight Time frequently offers zilch in the way of extras, so it’s always a relief when they include bonus features from previous video releases. Here, they opted to include the somewhat legendarily snide commentary track from actor Darryl Hickman, who played Ellen’s doomed "after all, he is a cripple" brother-in-law and has, frankly, few positive things to say about the acting abilities of the person whose performance was nominated for an Oscar. Hickman bitches that Gene Tierney treated him coldly on the set, and that he didn’t find much support from director John M. Stahl either. Hickman’s sour grapes are balanced out by the (separately recorded) observations from critic Richard Schickel, who pushes the movie’s genre-hopping credentials. There isn’t much beyond the yack track, other than a trailer and a pair of Movietone newsreel clips, one of which showcases Oscar host Bob Hope’s inability to come up with decent ad libs even during staged reenactments for the news media.
A woman’s heart is a deep lake of secrets. And dead bodies.