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LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Darryl Hickman
Director: John Stahl
Audio: English stereo and mono, Spanish mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: Commentary, news footage, restoration comparison, still gallery, trailer
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: February 22, 2005

"I love you so.  I can't bear to share you with anybody."

Film *** ˝

One of the classic beauties of the 1940's Hollywood studio era was Gene Tierney.  A protégé of the Fox studio, she is best-remembered today for her alluring roles in Laura and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  Even so, Tierney in her day was considered something of an acting light-weight, not on the level, say, of a Katherine Hepburn or a Bette Davis.  So, Tierney's surprising Oscar-nominated dramatic performance in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) must have turned many heads and remains today a memorable highlight in Tierney's Hollywood career.

Leave Her to Heaven, based on a best-selling novel by Ben Ames Williams, is a haunting tale of the consequences of a love grown too intense.  Gene Tierney plays Ellen, a young socialite who initially attracts the attention of writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde).  The film is told in flashback, chronicling Richard's courtship of the mysterious but beautiful Ellen starting from their first encounter as strangers on a train.  The courtship continues at a New Mexico ranch, the Rancho Jacinto, where Richard and Ellen are both conveniently lodged.  They are guests of the ranch owner, Richard having come for some leisurely time off from his writing and Ellen having arrived with her family to fulfill her father's dying wish - to have his cremated ashes scattered into the canyon winds.

This final rite is one of the film's many haunting and beautifully photographed images.  It also suggests Ellen's strong devotion to her deceased father, a familial love that will resonate not only in Richard's courtship of her but later in their relationship, too.  In fact, Richard's uncanny resemblance to Ellen's father in his youth initially hypnotizes her on their train voyage, and her eventual transference of her strong feelings to Richard foreshadow the possessiveness and jealousy that will arise later in the film.

The film's flashback structure alludes to these problems, too.  Richard is seen at the beginning of the film returning to his lake cottage, Back of the Moon, in Deer Lake, Maine.  He has just completed a two year stint in jail and has now returned to meet his lady love at the cottage.  The circumstances surrounding Richard's incarceration are not immediately evident but will become elucidated as the film progresses in its flashback.  However, we the audience are from the very start provided with the knowledge that Richard's dream marriage to Ellen will somehow go awry.

In actuality, Ellen is engaged to another man when she first encounters Richard.  Vincent Price, who formerly portrayed Tierney's hapless lover in Laura, has another luckless role as Ellen's now-jilted fiancé, Russell.  Price is reliably solid in his supporting role, and his limited screen time provides some of the most emotionally tense scenes in the film.  Russell first shows up just in time to be bluntly dismissed by Ellen before her marriage to Richard.  However, Russell will return much later in the film for a particularly powerful and pivotal courtroom scene that, even by today's standards, is unrelentingly vicious and raw.

Until then, the marriage between Ellen and Richard is initially happy and ideal.  They are a young couple in love, although the disappointment of never having enough time alone with Richard slowly begins to tell upon Ellen.  When Richard is not busy writing, he is spending time with his debilitated younger brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman).  Ellen tries to maintain a pleasant home at Back of the Moon but begins to resent Danny's continual presence, which she considers an intrusion upon the married couple's happiness.  A surprise visit from Ellen's own mother and pretty cousin, Ruth (Jeanne Crain), is likewise viewed as further undesired company rather than as a happy family reunion.

Ellen's possessiveness is her central character flaw.  Her own mother and cousin, in their conversations with an increasingly-worried Richard, suggest that Ellen loves too intensely and that such love, insufficiently reciprocated, suffocates those people to whom Ellen is most deeply attached, even close friends and family.  The seeming disintegration of Ellen's supposedly perfect marriage is merely one consequence of her progressively compulsive behavior.  Leave Her to Heaven may start out as a typical Hollywood romance, but its gradual descent into more disturbing and sinister themes marks this film as an atypically dark production for the studio era of the 1940's.

Coincidentally or not, Gene Tierney's most memorable films have always featured psychological (and occasionally supernatural) elements.  Leave Her to Heaven is no exception and furthermore presents a rare opportunity to watch this classic Hollywood actress in a Technicolor film from the prime of her career.  While the film's thespian tendencies veer towards the pre-Method acting style, its evocative cinematography, pensive storyline, and thriller aspects make Leave Her to Heaven as dramatically effective today as sixty years ago.

Video ***

See Gene Tierney in glorious Technicolor!  Leave Her to Heaven is presented in its original full-frame, color format.  The film's image has been restored and looks quite breath-taking, a fine tribute to the Academy Award-winning cinematography.  However, the picture quality is not entirely perfect and does contain some mild emulsion fluctuation and bare traces of film stock damage with an occasional softness of the picture quality.  Still, overall Leave Her to Heaven looks mostly sharp with all the gorgeous hues and vibrant colors common to Technicolor films.

Audio ***

Leave Her to Heaven was originally recorded in monophonic sound.  An optional English stereo audio track as well as a Spanish mono track are also available.  The musical score by Alfred Newman, one of Hollywood's greatest film composers, is quite wonderful, too.  It truly evokes an ominous ambiance to the film and contributes significantly to many of the film's more tense or suspenseful moments.

Features **

The DVD's most prominent bonus feature is a commentary track by actor Darryl Hickman and film critic Richard Schickel.  Hickman speaks mostly about his personal memories of being a child actor and of working on the Leave Her to Heaven production.  Hickman also reminisces fondly over personal experiences with other child stars of his day (Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall, and Shirley Temple, for instance).  Schickel mainly discusses the film's production and offers brief biographies about the film's main stars as well as director John Stahl.

Admirers of Gene Tierney can check out the still gallery containing twenty-two production stills of the photogenic actress as well as her co-stars and film's crew.

A restoration comparison (2 min.) is included as an effective way of comparing the 1994 film transfer to the current restoration done for this DVD's transfer.

Movietone news clips (2 min.) offer footage covering the film's premiere and the Oscar presentations, including the awarding of the Best Cinematography (Color).  Lastly, trailers for Leave Her to Heaven, In Old Chicago, The Prime of Jean Brodie, The Snake Pit, and The Three Faces of Eve round out the bonus features on this disc.  These films are all selections from Fox's on-going "Studio Classics" DVD series.  The Snake Pit and The Three Faces of Eve in particular touch upon similarly dark themes as in Leave Her to Heaven.

Summary:

Leave Her to Heaven is an evocative drama done in the classic 1940's mode.  Haunting and daring, this film mixes elements of film noir with psychological tension.  Fans of the old Hollywood style of filmmaking or of Gene Tierney and Vincent Price will be particularly pleased with this vintage film!

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