Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Tainted Love and Daddy Issues

“What’s wrong with Ellen?” her husband Dick, perhaps with a little buyer’s remorse, asks his mother-in-law.

“There’s nothing wrong with Ellen.  It’s just that she loves too much.”

Too much indeed.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Let’s rewind an hour or so, to the start of Leave Her to Heaven, when the opening scene’s picturesque technicolor setting on a lake is juxtaposed with Alfred Newman’s ominous opening score.

Something very bad has happened to Dick Harland.

The film then takes us to the first meeting between Dick Harland and Ellen Berent.  On a train to New Mexico, Dick finds himself staring at the beautiful woman sitting across from him and reading his new book.

When she notices, she stares right back.  The intensity and length of the stare is uncomfortable to both Dick and the audience.  Eventually, she breaks the stare and transforms into a charming and attractive woman, explaining that she was staring because Dick looks so much like her father.

It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is off with this woman.

By coincidence they are vacationing together in the same home, and he discovers that she is with her mother and adopted sister Ruth to spread her father’s ashes.

The warning signs continue flashing—it’s clear Ellen was unnaturally attached to her father.  She alone spreads the ashes with a possessiveness that should make Dick’s blood run cold.  Ruth mentions that her their mother adopted her because she was so lonely, despite having a husband and daugher.  Ellen stays out all night in the desert after spreading her father’s ashes and her family is unconcerned.  Her presence stifles the air in the room.

And she has her sights set on Dick.

If only he’d taken a second look at Ruth, who is not quite as pretty as Ellen but clearly the better choice.

But he doesn’t look, and he’s married to Ellen before he knows what hit him.

Though outwardly happy, Ellen has a sinister aura we can’t quite put our finger on.  She comes on strong, then backs away.  Though she grew up wealthy, she insists they hire no cook or maid because she wants to be the only one to take care of her new husband.

In another woman, it might be romantic.  With Ellen, it feels like a gathering storm.

She’s not calculating in the traditional sense.  Not at first, anyway. She hasn’t married him for his money (she clearly has more), doesn’t want him to commit a murder for her, or rob a bank, or any of the other dirty deeds that femme fatales of the 1940s lure their patsies into doing.

She isn’t a street-wise, cold-hearted dame.

She’s insane.  Truly, madly, deeply insane.

Why did she marry Dick?

Because he looked like her father.

Why doesn’t she want anyone else around?

Because she wants Dick all to herself.

Whoever said jealousy was a green-eyed monster had obviously met Ellen Berent Harland.

She’s jealous of Dick’s friends, of his work, and most of all, of his sweet-natured, disabled younger brother Danny.

In the film’s signature scene, Ellen is out in a boat on a lake following Danny while he swims.  He’s overtaken by a cramp and Ellen realizes this is her opportunity to eliminate her main rival for Dick’s affection.  Donned in a fabulous white coat, dark sunglasses, and blood-red lipstick (the impact maximized by glorious technicolor), Ellen calmly watches Danny drown, not moving an inch when he cries out again and again for her help.

Eat your heart out, Phyllis Dietrichson.

Gene Tierney sinks her teeth into the role, infusing Ellen with a malevolence that grows ever more malignant.  Murdering Danny unleashes a reign of terror that destroys her marriage, her sister Ruth, husband Dick, and ultimately, herself.

Her revenge against her husband for an imagined affair with her sister is pure madness.

And genius.

Tierney was often underrated as an actress as critics focused on her beauty, but she gave a performance worthy of an Academy Award in Leave Her to Heaven, and indeed, she was nominated.  But it was a year of stiff competition and she ultimately lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, an Academy decision I endorse.

Leave Her to Heaven is not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor is it one of my personal favorites.  There is no doubt, however, that as Robert Osborne said while introducing it on Turner Classic Movies, it is, “One of those movies that, once seen, is almost impossible to forget.”

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Laura (1944): Seduced by a Corpse

Off the top, a three-part disclaimer:  

  1. You should watch Laura.  It’s only the seventeenth (out of sixty-eight) films I’ve given the designation of Timeless.
  2. If you think you might ever watch it, don’t read this review.  It’s impossible to write about Laura without spoiling it, and it’s got a killer twist.  Go watch it, and come back when you’re finished.  I’ll wait.
  3. If you’ve already seen it or you know you’ll never watch it, proceed.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


I don’t consider myself a film critic.  To be a good film critic, you need a dispassionate air.  You examine a film objectively, and situate it in its time and place in the history of film.

I do some of this, of course.  But I don’t write objectively.  I let my personal opinion color everything.  I play favorites and gloss over the faults of my idols.  

The films I truly despise?  The ones that bore me to tears?  I don’t write about them at all.

I’m a fan, first, last, and always, and not much different from the kid I was at ten years old watching these black and white films with my mom on Turner Classic Movies.

Three films in particular hooked me and launched a lifelong love affair with classic cinema.  Watching them as an adult, I wonder exactly what fascinated me, why I wanted to watch Bette Davis in black and white more than Saturday morning cartoons. Three quarters of the story went over my head, I’d never heard of a director, and I didn’t know anything about the lives of the stars.  

The first film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  I danced around the house singing the Baby Jane Hudson song while my mom and dad roared with laughter.  Second was To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  I saw what Bacall saw in Bogie’s craggy lived-in face.

The third?

Laura.

The film is a textbook example of classic film noir.  There are a lot of different definitions of noir, but as we’re fans and not critics here, suffice it to say that film noir refers to both a cinematic style influenced by the Germans and a cynical tone influenced by an American audience disillusioned by World War II.  There’s often a hardboiled detective ripped straight from the pages of a 1940s mystery novel and a femme fatale—a woman who slinks across the screen like a black widow spider, using her sexuality to lure in and destroy the men she sees only as marks.

Laura has both.  Or does it? 

The film opens as a standard whodunnit—Detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, investigating the murder of Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt.  Someone blew the beautiful young woman’s head off with a shotgun.

McPherson has a collection of suspects—fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who needs her money and may have learned she was considering calling off the wedding; Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), the older woman who loves Shelby but cannot compete with Laura for his affection; and Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the powerful older man who took Laura under his wing and scares away any man who desires her.

All speak of Laura in glowing terms, but we get the most from Lydecker.  By his accounting, he took an interest in the young aspiring career woman and opened doors for her.  He taught her how to dress, introduced her to the right people, and cultivated a beautiful swan from—if not an ugly duckling, at least an inexperienced one.

As is typical of many film noirs, the plot is so bonkers that it should ruin the film but doesn’t.  McPherson allows Lydecker and Shelby to tag along as he searches Laura’s apartment and questions witnesses.

McPherson also spends an inordinate amount of time in Laura’s apartment, seemingly without any reason but a desire to paw through her things and stare at the large painting of her hanging over her fireplace.

It’s clear poor McPherson has fallen under the spell of a dead woman, and about halfway through the film he gets drunk and falls asleep beneath Laura’s portrait.

[…dangerous spoilers ahead…this is your final warning…turn back now…]

He awakens to find the dead woman standing in the doorway, obviously mistaking him for an intruder and threatening to call the police.

Laura’s got an unconvincing story about staying in a remote cabin with a broken radio and having no idea that she’d been presumed murdered.  The body wearing her dressing gown with her face blown off is identified as Diane Redfern, a woman having an affair with Laura’s fiancé.

Suddenly, she goes from victim to prime suspect, but that doesn’t stop the sparks flying between Laura and Detective McPherson.

At one point McPherson makes a show of arresting her in front of a roomful of people.  He takes her to the station and interrogates her under bright lights.  Angry, humiliated, and confused by her feelings for him, Laura lashes out.  But it’s an elaborate ruse by McPherson to smoke out the real killer.  Laura convinces him of her innocence, and McPherson rightly begins to worry for her safety.

In the end, there is only one person who could’ve tried to kill Laura.  Shelby doesn’t have the stomach for it, and Ann Treadwell wouldn’t go to the trouble.  It’s Lydecker, the older man who has everything but the thing he wants most.  Realizing Laura would never desire him sexually, he decides that if he can’t have her, no one will.

McPherson saves her before Lydecker can finish the job he started, and detective and mistaken murder victim presumably ride off into the sunset together.

It really shouldn’t work.

But it really, really does.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.