In repertory at Film Forum through March 12.
As femmes fatales go, Ellen Berent is rather pitiful. She’s charming and seductive and ultimately murderous, yes, but she has the foresight and impulse control of a six-year-old. Her extreme immaturity gives a different spin to a familiar archetype (aren’t such femmes usually coolly calculating and shrewd?), but it also dooms Leave Her to Heaven to giggle-inducing melodrama (with the notable exception of one genuinely chilling scene). Ellen is simply too childish and incompetent to take seriously as a villain, and by extension, those taken in by her transparent scheming and infantile tantrums are also impossible to take seriously. The histrionics are fun in a campy sort of way—particularly the bizarre climactic court scene, in which Vincent Price chews the scenery to a fine pulp—but the movie still feels rather slight. Over-the-top Electra complexes are less interesting than you might think.
The Electra in question is, of course, the deadly Ellen (Gene Tierney), whose beloved father has already died at the movie’s outset. On the way to scatter his ashes, she meets Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) and immediately fixates upon his superficial resemblance to Daddy. Never mind the fact that she’s already engaged to someone else: Ellen throws over her fiancé, seduces Richard, and marries him in a matter of days. At first, Richard is happy with his devoted, insatiable wife, but when Ellen becomes hostile toward his sickly younger brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), he begins to understand why her mother (Mary Phillips) and cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain) are so wary of her.
Tierney gives a vivid, charismatic performance, amped up by the showy music cues that swoop in whenever Ellen is preparing to do something ridiculously monstrous. Subtle, it’s not, but Leave Her isn’t boring, either. The story crisscrosses the country—Arizona deserts, Georgia springs, Maine woods, and Massachusetts seasides—and the lush cinematography makes everything look like a travelogue. The camera lingers, too, on Tierney’s hair and skin and wide, cat-like eyes. Everything is beautiful, including Ellen, giving an amusing irony to some of her exploits. It’s as if director John Stahl is asking how anyone so beautiful could do something so terrible in such a gorgeous place.
If I’m not content with the glossy melodrama as it is, my dissatisfaction stemmed mainly from the occasional hints that it could have been something more. The failure to fully develop Ellen and her twisted family life bothered me above all. Everyone in the movie attributes Ellen’s narcissictic need to be the center of Richard’s universe—more than that, to be Richard’s universe, with all other people and pursuits cast aside—to her relationship with her father, with whom she did, apparently, share such an intense, exclusive bond. Her father is cast as a victim—some even claim that Ellen’s suffocating affection actually killed him—but I found that explanation outrageously incomplete. Any parent who permits that level of attachment with his child is at best negligent and at worst far more sinister. I can’t fathom how Ellen’s father could have been guiltless, and the movie’s blithe refusal to delve into his relationship to his daughter, instead painting her as a harpy who sprang to life fully formed, annoyed me deeply. If a movie insists on getting Freudian in its characterizations, I want it to follow up.
But Leave Her is too silly to be the subject of much anger. If it weren’t for that one genuinely unsettling, frightening sequence at the lake—the one moment that made me flash to Double Indemnity instead of TV soaps—Tierney would be a camp goddess. The odd thing, however, is that though I left the theater snorting with laughter, that one truly noirish scene is what really sticks with me. Already my complaints and taunts and detached delight have begun to melt away in my memory, becoming secondary to the indelible image of Ellen wearing sunglasses, deaf to all shouts for help, rowing across the lake with grim determination. A year from now, I won’t remember the soapy nonsense with any clarity, but I’ll remember that look: the implacable, icy air that, for a moment, makes Ellen Berent a femme fatale worthy of the name.