Writer Richard Harland unhesitatingly marries lovely Ellen Berent. He soon finds his life blighted when tragedies take first his brother then his unborn son from him. He comes to suspect these events are not unconnected with his wife's unreasoning jealousy. This also turns her family from her, and yet another shock awaits them all as Ellen's emotions become uncontrollable.
Gene Tierney ... Ellen Berent Harland
Cornel Wilde ... Richard Harland
Jeanne Crain ... Ruth Berent
Vincent Price ... Russell Quinton
Mary Philips ... Mrs. Berent
Ray Collins ... Glen Robie
Gene Lockhart ... Dr. Saunders
Reed Hadley ... Dr. Mason
Darryl Hickman ... Danny Harland
Chill Wills ... Leick Thome
This is the kind of film you have to watch understanding the time in which it was made. Talking pictures were only just under twenty years old and people did not realize that film required techniques different from the stage. Two of the leads (Tierney and Price) were both stage actors and were taught to play in the large style that was part of the time and was what audiences expected, as were the grand emotional gestures in the plot of this picture and others, and the ever-present music.
Stage productions at that time mostly all had incidental music, specially written for them (one example is Paul Bowles' score for the Broadway stage production of "The Glass Menagerie"), performed live, in the theater.
This film has a particularly effective score by Alfred Newman, though loud and melodramatic by today's standards, using an ostinato timpani figure, a kind of throbbing heartbeat, and the musical intervallic motive of the descending augmented fourth, the "tritone", which in the middle ages was called the "Devil in Music", to express the darker side of the lead character's motives and persona.
So we should be careful in watching films like this, to understand the context and try to put ourselves in the place of the audiences of that time. If one does, this is a grand experience, with top-notch performances, cinematography, writing and music. Stretch your mind and heart to fit the big emotions and seemingly impossible plot turns, imagine yourself watching this in a huge theater, with hundreds if not thousands of others, on a huge screen, with a very powerful sound system, and suddenly it works.
Of course, this is a vehicle for a "star" actress, and Tierney rises to the occasion admirably, holding your attention in every scene she's in, by her beauty and her sheer magnetism on the screen. On the DVD commentary for it, the actor who appeared opposite Tierney as the young boy Danny belittles her "technical" acting approach (that is, working from the outside in, rather than using the inner-directed "Method" developed around that time in America by Lee Strasberg, taking and often misunderstanding and misinterpreting techniques developed in Russia by Constantin Stanislavsky) and he says that, in scenes, she gave nothing to the actor (himself) playing opposite her.
Well, first, that's the character she's playing, icy cold, with a "flat affect", as written. As a relatively inexperienced film actress, she was possibly one of those actors who cannot get out of character between shots or while resting on a shoot. In retrospect we know of her serious mental problems which manifested later, and perhaps this role was just too close for comfort!
Considering that, watching her playing from this distance, I think she does very well, always present in the scene and listening, with only a very few moments of self-conscious posing. I think Mr Hickman has an ax to grind here; in fact, he does, and he goes as far as to advertise his own teaching practice and book about acting!
Let's face it, when we think of this picture and others like it, after all, we remember Tierney, her beauty, her strong screen presence and her vulnerability as the character, not his performance, good as it is.
I am giving this movie a ten for several reasons. Is it a great movie? Well, actually no. But here is an example where the parts are greater than the whole.
It's time for a re-evaluation of Gene Tierney. Yes, she was one of the most beautiful women in film history. No, she wasn't one of the greatest actresses--however, she was a much better one than she is given credit for, especially when she had a good director, as she does here with John Stahl. "Leave Her to Heaven" is her only Oscar-nominated performance; and she is very, very good. The scene of her wearing dark glasses and rowing a boat is indelibly memorable if you've seen the movie. Ellen, Tierney's character, IS preposterous--but Tierney makes the whole thing work. Ellen reminds me of Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate"; I know I'm in the minority, but Mrs. R. is the only likable character in "The Graduate." The rest of the characters are annoying--especially Benjamin; Bancroft makes Robinson the one bright bulb in the chandelier: extremely witty, bored by life and those around her, always in control (until the end). Likewise, Ellen in "Leave Her to Heaven." Although I like Jeanne Crain, she does get a bit cloying here--or at least her character Ruth does. Cornel Wilde is far too vapid to imagine Ellen going to such extremes to get him and keep him.
The color photography--which won an Oscar--is luridly beautiful as only Technicolor could be at its best. The entire movie is beautifully and lovingly filmed, especially Tierney, who is also stunning in black and white, especially in "Laura" and, in her best performance, "The Razor's Edge," another movie that works far better than it should and holds up remarkably well today.
How one views this movie probably depends on how they feel about genres. Billed as a "film noir," fans of that genre, expecting the typical hard-edged crime film with tough characters, most likely will be disappointed. Fans of melodramas, however, will be delighted as the movie leans far more in that direction.
For my tastes, the film was way too slow and has too much melodrama, but that may have been because I expected something else. Many classic movie fans love this movie. The film did pick up in the second hour once the drowning scene occurred but in my case, it was too-little, too-late. But, don't misinterpret my remarks: it's still a fine film, a true classic.
One thing everyone should agree on: the cinematography. One would be hard- pressed to find a prettier 1940s film than this one, especially on DVD with a flat screen or plasma set. It's just gorgeous with an astounding color palette. The the two leading ladies are eye-pleasing, too: Gene Tierney and Jeanne Crain, so there is plenty to ogle.