Directed by John M. Stahl; Written by Lo Swerling
Never let you go. Never, never, never.
Lust for money, power, or simple cruel revenge can motivate cutthroats to commit any number of foul deeds. But love? In Leave Her to Heaven, it proves more than enough once jealousy has tortured it into something infernal and beyond recognition, and the green-eyed monster has never been more beautiful and fearsome than Gene Tierney in John M. Stahl’s sparkling pearl of a noir with a pitch-black core.
Writer Richard “Dick” Harland (Cornel Wilde) has gone most of his life without a love to call his own, but on a fateful train ride he’s sat across from Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), a beautiful woman with cool clear eyes she isn’t afraid to impose upon strangers with an devouring stare. Dick’s eyes finally look back and flirting ensues:
Dick: “You look like no one I’ve ever seen before.”
Ellen: “You look just like my father!”
The intensity of Ellen is enough to blind Dick to that line, because they’re soon married after racing through the usual dating rituals of charged looks, hushed rendezvous and breathless admissions overlooking beautiful vistas. Auspicious beginnings for any couple, but that devouring stare of Ellen’s ought to have alerted Dick. Because as he will learn, anyone who looks at you with such possession will never want to share.
Leave Her To Heaven is exhilarating to watch because of Gene Tierney, whose performance has the clear-cut intensity of an icepick with delirious jealousy honed to a fine point. Opposite her, Cornel Wilde is well-cast as the unwitting but kind writer who soon finds himself in the lionesses’ maw. His smooth, youthful look gives his face the blank shine of a ventriloquist’s doll, matching his fate of manipulation.
But the film also has a novel power in how it perversifies every step of an otherwise wholesome experience. Noirs often play out in sordid circumstances of either low-down crime or high-stakes betrayal, but here the setting and arena for foul-doing is that which most people can recognize and optimally hope to go through, that of the coupling experience. In Leave Her To Heaven, our usual romantic stepping stones, be it first encounter or marriage, are either skewed in an unsettling way or is irrevocably marred by tragedy.
A noir is just as much about the pitch-black ethos of its characters as any of the genre’s aesthetic tropes, and with that in mind Leave Her To Heaven is up there with the darkest of them, and so is Ellen as an all-time great femme fatale.