Leave Her To Heaven (1945) is not unlike The Strange Woman (1946) and Desert Fury (1947); a “weepie” or woman’s picture told with traditionally film noir conventions. The enduring popularity and notoriety of Leave Her To Heaven is derived from the fusion of the melodrama with the film noir genre, a combination that feels more modern. Combining these two seemingly opposite genres became the convention of the neo-noir film of the seventies and eighties. A direct line of aesthetic development can easily be drawn from Leave Her To Heaven to Brian De Palma, Paul Schrader, and beyond to the works of David Lynch and Todd Haynes.
The director of Leave Her To Heaven, John M. Stahl, had established himself as the reigning master of the melodrama during the thirties. Stahl originated two pictures that his better known successor Douglas Sirk would re-make in the fifties; Magnificent Obsession (1935) and Imitation Of Life (1934). Leave Her To Heaven, with its color cinematography by Leon Shamroy, looks and feels like one of Sirk’s classics from the fifties. Stahl was a kind of quiet iconoclast who established some of the fundamental aesthetics that have defined the soapy melodrama and the neo-noir.
However, beyond genre and aesthetics Leave Her To Heaven feels modern and relevant because of its themes. Besides the obvious allusions to Hamlet, Leave Her To Heaven has Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney). Ellen Berent is a character far ahead of her time. She is driven, she doesn’t want children, and her general attitude is one of grit and cunning. Ellen is a femme fatale who, though constricted by the patriarchal authors of the novel and film, subtly calls for liberation. The sequence in which Ellen terminates her pregnancy was and is cutting edge political and social commentary. Ellen Berent, like so many femme fatales, is a victim of systemic sexism and the villain of the film. It’s a paradox that, though ever present, never creates any discord within the complex of suspended disbelief.
One of the most unique aspects of Leave Her To Heaven is that director John M. Stahl keeps his viewer far more invested in Ellen Berent’s emotions than anyone else’s. He implores the audience to sympathize with Ellen’s disdain for her pregnancy, he invites the viewer to share in her frustrations when she can’t get a moment alone with her new husband, and then Stahl shocks the viewer with the murderous lengths to which Ellen will go to realize her desires. It’s a bold and subversive move that is always as disturbing as it is engaging.
Looking at Leave Her To Heaven it is so easy to spot the many ways that the film has echoed through film history. Tierney’s look with her sunglasses on the boat is re-created for Lara Flynn Boyle on Twin Peaks while the film as a whole is an essential blueprint to the more recent Gone Girl (2014). Leave Her To Heaven is more than a cult classic or curio from a bygone era, it’s a masterpiece.