Despite some fervent proselytizing from no less than Martin Scorsese, 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven still lacks the cult following the film so richly deserves. Impossible to describe without using the word lurid, John Stahl’s film features more perverse activity than any number of more celebrated cult faves—including Nicholas Ray’s infamous Johnny Guitar.
To watch Leave Her to Heaven, even today, is to be left astounded that such a subversive movie could have been made in the ‘40s. Gene Tierney may be better known as the girl in the portrait in Laura, but she was never as good before or after as she is here, playing the literally insane-with-jealousy Ellen, a woman so possessive that her love for her father derails her parents’ marriage, who would rather watch her crippled young brother-in-law drown than share her new husband.
That scene has been widely acclaimed, with Tierney sitting absolutely motionless in a boat, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, watching as Danny sinks again and again into the water. But the whole film is filled with similar jaw-dropping scenes.
Ellen scattering her father’s ashes on horseback, most of them powdering her breasts in the breeze. The feverish way she talks about her new husband’s resemblance to her father. Her interview with Danny’s doctor, in which she begs him to say that Danny isn’t well enough to leave the sanitarium to live with her. “But after all,” she snaps, exasperated that she’s being thwarted, “he’s a cripple!”
In fact, the only time the film lags is when Tierney isn’t onscreen. Cornel Wilde stumbles through the film exhibiting only three expressions (one of which is blank), but Tierney makes the film what it is. Her particular feline beauty, all crimson lips, slanted eyes and slight overbite, are a perfect match for the scorching, Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography and the thudding, evocative score by Alfred Newman, both of which would have left a less physically distinctive actress in the dust. If you’ve ever conflated the Golden Age of Hollywood with cookie cutter movies, treat yourself to Leave Her to Heaven. It will never let you go.