There's only one man who possibly knows the whole story, and he is about to tell all - confidentially, of course. It is a tale of how rampant jealousy can destroy lives, but it started with a seemingly innocuous meeting on a train where writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) was travelling to a countryside retreat to work on his latest novel. He became captivated by the beauty of the woman sitting opposite him, and when she dropped her book, one of his, he picked it up for her. She started staring at him, and they got to talking where she admitted she was struck by how much he resembled her late father. She was Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), and she was trouble...
Judging by her other films where she played the slightly, and sometimes more than slightly, aloof heroine, Gene Tierney might have seemed an odd choice to play the passionate lead in this adaptation of Ben Ames Williams' bestseller, but something told her she was right for the part and she successfully asked to be given the role. The result was the film, more than even Laura, that she would be most celebrated for, and amateur psychologists the world over have pondered over the connection between her real life mental instabilities and how well she portrayed them onscreen here, but perhaps the truth was she had more talent than she is given credit for.
Or perhaps it takes just the right role for any movie star to truly shine, and Tierney found her's in Leave Her To Heaven. As Ellen, she skirts around camp with the type of character who informed a thousand soap opera villainesses, and there are times when to modern eyes the melodrama appears absurdly overwrought, yet you can tell that all involved believed in the steely qualities of the material enough to be taken very seriously indeed. You might suppress a chuckle or two at Ellen's frustrations and how they are brought out, but Tierney is never playing for laughs: this woman is dangerous, and will even resort to murder to get her way, that way being having the hapless Richard all to herself.
Wilde is well cast as a weak man steamrollered into marrying this lady who is always intent on succeeding, whether it be a swimming race across the bay, or securing a man who reminds her so strongly of daddy that she is determined never to let him escape. At first Ellen seems a somewhat remote object of desire, with the Technicolor drawing out the star's good looks, but also as the film progresses showing how that attractiveness could easily turn to cruelty, as we see when her lawyer fiancé Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) shows up to have his love for her thrown back in his face after she introduces Richard as her latest beau. So he has her focused exclusively on him, not cottoning on to the fact that the only way Ellen's father could wriggle out of her clutches was in death.
And now she has the ideal replacement for her obsession. Trouble is, she doesn't have Richard's complete and undivided attention because her family insist on visiting them at their lakeside retreat, including cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain) who harbours a secret crush on Richard, and then there's the matter of his disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) who clings to Richard in a manner that Ellen finds alienating. This leads to the film's most famous sequence where Ellen comes up with an idea to get rid of the boy permanently: take him out on the water, persuade him to swim for shore to impress his sibling, and oops, well, you can guess what happens. Ellen is a fascinating character, and the film loses its power when Tierney is offscreen - the courtroom drama it resolves itself into is a bit of an anticlimax - but when she is scheming she makes for that rarest of characters, a Technicolor femme fatale. There's quite a bit of Gothic to go with the film noir too, but if not wholly either, Leave Her To Heaven is its own creature, dark-hearted and compelling, like its anti-heroine. Music by Alfred Newman.