Blu-ray Essentials: Leave Her to Heaven

The lead in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is one of the most fascinating female characters of the 1940s. As played by Gene Tierney, Ellen is obsessive, neurotic woman who will stop at nothing to be with her man. She may at first appear single minded but she is also fascinatingly complex.

There are definite signs that Ellen is wrestling with some intense ‘daddy issues’, for instance. She first falls for her future husband Dick, played by Cornel Wilde, because he reminds her of her recently deceased father. But there is a lot more to Ellen’s neurosis than this one Freudian hang-up.

Later in the film, Ellen’s mother comments to Dick that, “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen, it’s just that she loves too much”. In Leave Her to Heaven we see Ellen at a point in her life when her new love is Dick and, as she sees it, anyone who draws his attention away is an enemy. She is willing to kill to get Dick’s focus back onto her, even when the distraction in question is her own pregnancy.

Ellen should be monstrous – she drowns a young “crippled” boy at one point – and she often does come across as such, but she’s also an oddly sympathetic character. Becoming pregnant simply as a means to keep her man, Ellen soon finds that Dick in fact has less interest in her and so she feels trapped by her pregnancy. She exclaims at one point, “This baby is making a prisoner out of me!”

It was a powerful statement from a female character in a film of 1945, and Ellen’s subsequent deliberate miscarriage is shocking even today. The scene was subject to a number of rewrites and intense consultation to ensure that the film did not get banned, but it still remains a powerful sequence.

Ellen’s sentiments in this sequence and the complexities of her character have been re-examined in recent years and Ellen is now even seen by many as something of a prototype for today’s woman, just one trapped by the expectations of her time.

This is perhaps one of the reasons that the character endures so well and has helped the film gain so many new fans. Whilst Ellen may be a dastardly human being in many ways, she is clearly a woman in crisis and one who could be seen not so much a villain, but as a troubled woman on the verge, pushed to full blown psychopathology by circumstance.

The exquisite art direction and costuming effectively convey so much about Ellen’s inner feelings. Her sunglasses and lipstick, for instance, provide emotional disguises, while the film’s interiors – all shot on sound stages – are so perfect as to be horribly claustrophobic and off-putting.

Every rich detail is also beautifully photographed by cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who was awarded for his work on this film with the 1946 Oscar for best ‘Color Photography.’ It’s extraordinary stuff, and well showcased by the Twilight Time Blu-ray.

Sadly, some of the true vibrancy of Shamroy’s work has been lost. Fox unfortunately decided to have a clear out in the seventies and discarded a number of this film’s original Technicolor elements.

What remains is still remarkable though, and Twilight Time have done an exceptional job with this release and with what they had to work with. The dual-layer Blu-ray boasts an excellent transfer, with defined contrast throughout the entire film and a consistent fine layer of grain. The true colours that the film would have shown on initial release may, sadly, be lost forever but the colours on display here are still deep and rich, and presented with an often stunning clarity.

The audio tracks on the Blu-ray include a mono DTS-HD track, which has a slight hissing/buzzing in the background at times but nothing that distracts, an isolated score and a commentary from film critic Richard Schickel alongside Darryl Hickman, who played the Danny in the film. The two were recorded separately and then edited together, which makes the commentary a little odd to listen to but it’s not too off-putting. The commentary is filled with trivia and a lot of personal info, especially some rather barbed comments from Hickman about Tierney. It’s an entertaining listen.

The commentary was ported from the previous DVD of the film, which this Blu-ray far surpasses in terms of picture quality. This disc also includes a Movietone news segment that appeared on that previous release. That segment covers the premiere of the film and the Oscar win for Shamroy, even including some incredibly stilted comedic asides from Bob Hope. In addition, the Blu-ray also features the original trailer for the film, which gives an interesting glimpse into how this story of a murderous femme fatale was sold at the time.

Leave Her to Heaven is a deliciously wicked and sumptuously constructed film which has a great deal of re-watch value, thanks to its juicy story, stunning visuals and weighty themes, and this excellent disc from Twilight Time is therefore an essential purchase.

And just in case you don’t trust me, regarding the merits of Leave Her to Heaven, here’s what Guy Maddin had to say about the film,

Veteran proto-Sirkian melodramatist extraordinaire Stahl (he had already made solid first versions of both Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life by 1935) creates this most propulsive tale of daddy-complex jealousy with the help of flawless snow queen pulchra Gene Tierney and Academy Award–winning Technicolor cinematography by lens god Leon Shamroy (available for gawking in a newly minted print). Has any woman ever looked more awfully gorgeous than when Tierney casts her father’s ashes across her chest in that luridly empurpled and incestuous consecration? A young Vincent Price is fantastic, as always, as the troubled girl’s jilted fiancé.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Leave Her to Heaven is available to buy now and is a region free disc.