I seem to be the only person who doesn’t much care for John Stahl’s 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven. Often seen as a classic of melodrama and obsession, I can respect while seeing a lot of problems with the film as well. Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde meet on a train. She’s engaged to Vincent Price but that seems to be going under. She’s going out to New Mexico with her adopted sister (Jeanne Crain) and mother to scatter the ashes of her recently deceased father. He’s going out to write. They stay on the same ranch and sort of fall in live. Gene Tierney is very intense and beautiful after all. She breaks off her engagement and they immediately marry. But her mental illness and insane jealousy kills everything around her, including Wilde’s love. Wilde’s brother is in Warm Springs going through rehabilitation after contracting polio. When they all go back to his cabin in Maine, Tierney kills him by letting him drown. She gets pregnant and throws herself down stairs to kill the baby. Anything that keeps her away from a man she doesn’t know how to love must be destroyed. When Wilde dedicates his next book to Crain, Tierney kills herself but sets up Crain for the murder. Wilde only tells the truth on the stand–that Tierney confessed before dying to killing his brother and baby–after Crain admits her love.
So this is a pretty entertaining character study of someone who is really diabolical. It’s film noir thrown into the Technicolor daylight of America’s great outdoors. But there are some problems I can’t get past. First, the acting by Wilde’s polio-stricken brother (Darryl Hickman) is horrible. I know that child acting was pretty commonly terrible during these years, but Hickman was a teenager and a big production like this could have found someone capable. Second, Tierney’s mental illness isn’t really explained at all. There are references to her love eating her father alive before it was turned on Wilde, but we know nothing about what that looked like or why. Not saying I need a deep psychological study here, but I feel the film undersold the importance of making this reasonably clear. Third, the courtroom scene that makes up the last 20 minutes of the movie is terrible. Vincent Price, who is the local DA, tries the case. Wait, so the ex-finance of the dead woman is going to try the case. I don’t need precise legal verisimilitude but c’mon man. That’s way over the top. Plus it seems that in this case, Price can just badger people with ridiculous questions for minute upon minute with no objections. In fact, the defense lawyer, who is the ranch owner where they met, does absolutely nothing except maybe some crossword puzzles. And the verdict, where Wilde himself is sentenced to prison for not telling the police that Tierney killed his brother and baby, isn’t believable either.
So as a whole, we have a film that lots of people love but that has bruises I can’t see beyond.