Hollywood Character Arcs ~ Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven
Released December 20, 1945
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
110 minutes

Screenplay: Jo Swerling, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Director: John M. Stahl
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Stars: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde
Adding Character: Darryl Hickman, Jeanne Crain, Ray Collins, Gene Lockhart, Reed Hadley, Chill Wills

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As sociopaths go, Gene Tierney as a wife fatally attracted to her own husband in Leave Her to Heaven is not only one of the big screen’s best, but she’s way ahead of her time. Much of the psychosis we see seep out bit by bit until a river of madness flows by the end of the film is more ‘90s edge than ‘40s noir. It’s not so much what we see Tierney’s Ellen Harland do that reminds us of a grittier, more-modern-with-profanity-permitted, disturbed, felonious female. Women with criminal tendencies were not new to film by 1935, let alone 1945. It’s how she approaches blasé insanity like she’s exercising her right to breathe that makes us feel transported back to the future, to our own time, when Hollywood had learned to let the crazy sneak up on us. Whether Single White Female or L.A. Confidential, many modern film villains make that area below the radar their playground, whereas their early-film counterparts proclaimed their bad behavior from the first reel.

Producer Darryl Zanuck luring us into an ‘80s trap set with ‘40s bait is something that, well, Darryl Zanuck would do. He did, after all, give us The Public Enemy (1931) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) in the same career and turn out such diametrically positioned films as Little Caesar (1931), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Apartment for Peggy (1948), and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). In 1950 alone, he ran the gamut from No Way Out and The Gunfighter to Cheaper by the Dozen. He brokered in out-of-the-ordinary. A character like Ellen Harland, who lives up to none of the promises of Tierney’s sweet-seeming beauty, the colorful eye-candy world in which she maneuvers, or the relaxing scenery that sets the stage for her sociopathy, arrived right on Zanuck’s schedule.

The unstable wife played by Tierney ran in a pack of one. Her big-screen company, while compelling characters, were obvious-from-frame-one villains like Jane Greer’s bad-girl-waiting-to-happen in Out of the Past (1947), Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), Mary Astor’s cagey, crying criminal in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and, to shorten this post, Hundreds of Others in Names of Movies. In examining how Zanuck achieved the singularity that makes Ellen Harland such a well-drawn character, the answer comes down to one thing: character motive. No spoilers, but as it becomes clear that Ellen Harland has an abnormal and chilling approach to matrimony, we also see that she is so well-intentioned, so righteous in her incorrect indignation, that she never sees herself coming, so there’s just no way we can either. Worse—which is better for us—when she arrives, she believes she’s in the right place and that everyone else has lost their senses.

It helps that she’s married to a guy played by Cornel Wilde, who talks in one key, moves only when necessary—and then, within a range of just a few millimeters—and is Patient Zero for cluelessness. That’s not to say that Tierney’s motives are obvious. It’s that Wilde is literally criminally disconnected. It also helps that Tierney’s sister is played by the borderline cherubic Jeanne Crain, who provides the cotton candy in the carnival, but who, like the fluffy treat that dissolves in your mouth, may not be what you think she is. Does she give Tierney’s insanity a leg to stand on, if not a chair to recline in? For a good enough while, we’re not sure. From a plot standpoint, we’re pretty clear, but from an analysis of Tierney’s character, we don’t know, making Tierney more complex than caricature, and Ellen Harland’s actions more reason-based, from her perspective, than reactive.

Add 14-year-old Darryl Hickman in his best role as Cornel Wilde’s disabled younger brother, the perfect foil for a female sociopath—a young teen who plays like a child—and Tierney’s fate unfolds with all the right juxtapositions in place to make it enthralling. The brilliance of Hickman’s performance is that he never telegraphs that he knows where his character is headed, which is crucial to the plot. The Other Darryl (yes, Zanuck) thought Hickman’s turn in Leave Her to Heaven was the finest he had witnessed in 30 years in the business, prompting him to send Darryl the Younger a telegram expressing just that.

John Wayne said about the television series “Gunsmoke” that it was “adult”, meaning it wasn’t a lightweight “cowboy” show with the Saturday matinee pop and crackle of gunfire designed to keep viewers entertained if not engrossed. It dealt in heavy themes and tackled early in its run issues such as rape and child endangerment. A similar sentiment can be expressed about Gene Tierney’s troubled Ellen Harland. She’s no noir femme fatale. She’s you and I come unhinged by an unhealthy attachment to her father that leads to a narcissistic view of her role in her relationships. She’s inexplicable in a compelling way, and you relish it as you realize there’s nothing to do but leave her to heaven. EL

Leave Her to Heaven is available on DVD here. Ben Ames Williams’s novel on which the film was based is available here.

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