Love You to Death

By Rosy Rockets

leave-her-to-heaven-john-m-stahl.jpgLeave her to Heaven, 1945

Leave her to Heaven (1945) is a Sirkian treatment on psychotic jealousy, the eye of the storm being a pin-up whose tragic life story showed that in retrospect she had been psychically well-equipped to portray the central character. In the thirties, glamorous melodrama was giving way to gumshoe menace, and somehow John M. Stahl bridged the gap. Leave her to Heaven could be described as a prequel to Hitchcock’s Rebecca filmed somewhere over the rainbow. This flagrant Freudian fable is a brutal depiction of both bipolar disorder and Elektra complex. Socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) has lost her adoring father and alienated the rest of her family through their exclusive relationship. Naturally she puts herself in the market for a love interest that resembles her father as closely as possible, and fate throws just such a doppelganger at her feet. Richard Harland (Cornell Wilde) is a writer, with a hunger for romance. He has huge, dark eyes like Rorschach inkblots, inviting Ellen to read into them what she will. He should have fled from her the moment she recited his flyleaf biography from memory – but resistance is useless. Vain and kittenish when they first meet, Ellen first shows her dark side at her father’s funeral in New Mexico, galloping on a horse, shaking his ashes back and forth so that they blow across her statuesque bosom and beyond, in a grim, grey wake. When Ellen suddenly announces to her family that she and Richard are engaged, it comes as a surprise to all concerned – but Richard is swept off his feet by her spontaneity and daring, which remind him of his own impulsive youth. Wilde’s muted vanilla performance shows that he is mellowing out from his swashbuckling background. In contrast, Tierney’s Ellen is a force to be reckoned with – when her mother and sister sail across the water to visit their lakeside retreat, she runs to the back porch, grabs a pair of binoculars and angrily monitors her well-meaning family’s approach, as though she were on the deck of a ship watching pirates on the horizon.

Vincent Price plays it straight as young lawyer Russell Quinton, Ellen’s jilted fiancée, but he is inevitably mesmerising even without his moustache. Ellen has met her match in Russell – they are like two flirtatious sharks. “I will always be in love with you,” he snipes, his eyes flashing, and she responds in kind: “Is that a threat”? Ellen doesn’t need him any more – she needs to replace her adoring, indulgent father. She ensnares the mild-mannered author with determination, and ruthlessly alienates or eliminates any threat to their privacy. It would seem that her love of riding and hunting is not restricted to the animal kingdom. As her relationship with Richard progresses, Ellen’s character evolution from spoilt child to Disney villainess is fascinating and at times uncomfortable viewing. Her efforts to prevent Richard’s beloved brother Danny’s discharge from hospital are understandable – no honeymooning newlywed wants a febrile younger brother-in-law calling through the wall of her bedroom. She treats him with kindness and puts much effort into assisting his physiotherapy so that he can move on with his own life, and allow her a fairytale ending. But her patience can only run so far, and when Danny outstays his welcome, Ellen’s illness drives her to drastic measures. Tierney’s complex, moving portrayal of psychomania was Oscar nominated, and ranks alongside Gloria Swanson’s “Norma Desmond” and Kathy Bates’ “Annie Wilkes”. The title of the film is a direct quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet, referring to Queen Gertrude’s *SPOILER* betrayal of the Prince of Denmark. In Act I, Scene V, the ghost of Polonius advises Hamlet not to seek retribution but to "leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her". And in the case of Ellen, why indeed punish a woman who spends every waking hour creating fresh hell for herself, a woman whose cruelty to others is in itself masochistic?

leave-her-to-heaven-john-m-stahl-2.jpgLeave her to Heaven, 1945

Years later, Tierney’s Leave her to Heaven co-star Hickman would express disdain at her theatrical performance. The hammy young freckle-face Hickman matured into an earnest follower (and tutor) of Lee Strasberg’s principles of acting – he saw Tierney as the artistic antithesis to his practices. In fact Tierney’s performance must have drawn on intensely personal emotions. She was at the time developing bipolar disorder, and ten years later would directly experience the depression, mania, suicide attempts and miscarriage that she had represented with awful prescience onscreen as Ellen. Tierney had a dark side that Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly never showed. In the same shot she drifts from kitten to corpse to shark and back again with as much authenticity as a stage actress could be expected to convey. She preens and poses, she whines and cajoles, and yet in moments of composure you can watch her actually listening to the other characters, and detect the actress’ wholehearted immersion in the story.

leave-her-to-heaven-john-m-stahl-3.jpgLeave her to Heaven, 1945

Alfred Newman’s soundtrack underscores the tangled web of deceit and despair with the timpani and studied leitmotifs characteristic to melodrama of that era. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s saturated, magazine-perfect setting won a 1946 Oscar for “Best Cinematography – Color” and a further nomination for its art direction. Here nature battles with artifice, both in the dressing of the sets and in the leading lady’s performance. The ghastly actions of the desperate socialite have a garish backdrop that hits just as hard as the shadowy expressionism of a classic film noir. Perhaps Richard’s gentle acquiescence is due in part to the fact that he is colour blind, and thus can’t make out the deadly hues of the Venus flytrap that gapes toward him?

Two lawyers provide an ominous introduction to the tale, as though it were a Tale of the Unexpected, and the film is shown as a flashback which lasts nearly two hours. Precious little of this running time is devoted to the thrilling (and technically tenuous) courtroom scene at the end; a Vincent Price showcase which ties up the story effectively if abruptly. But the vague contextualisation of Ellen’s story serves to emphasise the sense of isolation suffered by the hypomanic heroine, and her consuming obsession with her lost father figure. It is the filling of the film which will linger – over sixty years later, everyone likes to boast a mental illness of some kind. The theatrical, technicolour treatment of Leave her to Heaven illustrates perfectly the inner melodrama and divorce from reality that manic depression can bring – sobering to think that the fine young actress at its centre was doomed to live the foul fairytale for herself.

Rosy Rockets is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge.