Leave Her to Heaven

(John M. Stahl, USA, 1945)


Historically, between the femme fatales of the detective or crime-oriented film noirs of the 1940s and the psychotic 'wronged women' of the Fatal Attraction (1987) era, domestically-set stories about beautiful, calmly murderous women proliferated in low-key melodramas of the '40s and '50s.

Like the heroines of gems like Born To Be Bad (1950) and Angel Face (1953), Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven is like a worm at the heart of the Hollywood code of romantic love – turning it against itself, revealing it as something monstrous.

Not so in 1945. For here is a woman who takes romanticism to heart and "loves too much", as her mother says – becoming possessive of her man (Cornel Wilde) to the point of 'necessary' murder.

The uniqueness of Stahl's film – famous for its vivid exploration of colour – lies in the way it refuses to pass a superior moral judgment on this sublime killer. It seems to share in her passionate excess – and casts its deepest suspicions upon all those who embody so-called normality. Vincent Price's cameo as a lawyer is particularly chilling in this respect.

The once-great critic David Thomson called this "a film seemingly made in a trance and best seen in a state of fever" – and he's right. It is among the frenzied high points of the not-quite-classical Hollywood cinema.

© Adrian Martin May 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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