Leave Her to Heaven: The Eyes of Ellen Berent

How do you talk about Leave Her to Heaven without talking about Gene Tierney’s face? You can’t. Because its planes and curves, its cunning expressions and its tantalizing opacity, are such a central piece of the movie itself. A series of glorious, almost blinding Technicolor close-ups brings up the high beams so intensely that her mysterious beauty nearly overwhelms the screen. It almost feels like witchcraft. As Anthony Lane has written, “Each frame of her seems to be hand-tinted, as if she had ordered it,” with lips “red as a witch’s apple.” But it is Tierney’s blue-green eyes that moviegoers are most likely to remember. With a Medusa-like power, they dominate the screen, shifting between seafoam cool and oceanic intensity. In the picture’s most famous scene, they are obscured behind dark sunglasses as Tierney’s character commits one of the wickedest acts in movie history. But even when they’re hidden from us, we feel them still.

By the time we reach that fateful scene in Leave Her to Heaven, we are keenly aware of the potency of those eyes, which gain in totemic force as the story unfolds. The doomed romance at the center of the movie is in fact launched by the bare, shameless gaze of Ellen Berent (Tierney), whose eyes land on our hero, the novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), seated across from her in a train’s club car. He has already been watching her for reasons of his own: she is reading his book, so in fact he has been staring not at her face but at his author photograph, in a delicious moment of narcissistic pleasure.

The scene begins with his gaze, but it is immediately superseded by hers. When he retrieves her fallen book, her eyes land on him, leading to a prolonged stare. We experience the moment from Richard’s point of view, and he cues us to read her look as penetrating, captivating. And a little too much. Always, with Ellen, everything is a little too much.

She explains away her stare, saying she was struck by his “remarkable resemblance” to her beloved father. But he’s drawn to her for the near-opposite reason: she doesn’t look like anyone he has ever met before. She calls to mind, in his novelist’s slightly purple prose (in fact, he’s quoting from his own novel), “tales of The Arabian Nights, of myrrh and frankincense.” He is familiar; she is exotic. Other.

In this battle of competing gazes, she wins, as Ellen will win everything for the first half of the movie. Within a few short scenes, she has dramatically scattered her father’s ashes in a symbolic act of farewell, ended an engagement, and announced her impending marriage to Richard, who—completely captivated—submits with breathless wonder, joking at her uncanny powers, “If you’d lived in Salem a hundred years ago, they’d have burned you.” Quickly, however, the very elements that drew them together in their first meeting lead to the relationship’s immolation: Ellen’s will to power, her possessiveness, her too-muchness, which threaten the marriage, their families, and, more largely, prevailing notions of femininity itself.

“Driven not by the material, even relatable motivations of most of film noir’s lethal women—money, security, escape—Ellen’s ‘sickness’ is more cryptic and upsetting.”

Released in 1945 to great success, Leave Her to Heaven was directed by John M. Stahl, renowned for “women’s pictures” such as Back Street (1932), Imitation of Life (1934), and Magnificent Obsession (1935), and for those films’ implicit critique of the confining gender mores ensnaring his heroines. Here, he offers us one of the most perverse and remorseless femmes fatales in film history. Driven not by the material, even relatable motivations of most of film noir’s lethal women—money, security, escape—Ellen’s “sickness” is more cryptic and upsetting. She does what she does not for a pot of gold, or freedom, but for an impulse more subterranean: a desire to replicate her consuming love for her father. At the same time, however, the movie gives us other clues that may explain Ellen’s “problem.” Foremost, we see her surrender her bachelor-style freedom (possible as her father’s ally and confidante) to take on the more traditional role of devoted wife, only to bristle and struggle under what the movie portrays as the claustrophobic demands of family and motherhood. Ultimately, Leave Her to Heaven demonstrates the impossibility of someone like Ellen—a transgressor, an outsider, a figure of “male” agency—ever meeting the era’s strict standards of femininity. And so Ellen becomes not just the most dangerous of cinema’s femmes fatales but also, ironically, one of the most defiantly sympathetic. Thanks to Stahl’s nuanced direction, as well as Jo Swerling’s script (adapted from Ben Ames Williams’s novel) and Tierney’s tense and relentless performance, we find ourselves, in sneaking moments and in subtextual ways, understanding Ellen’s frustrations as she fails, over and over again, in her attempts to conform and, more intimately, to attain love. We may even find ourselves quietly admiring Ellen, or at least retaining some awe of her, as she rejects and overturns the social expectations that have stifled and nearly crushed her.

The first clue to Leave Her to Heaven’s subversive, sympathetic view of Ellen lies in its narrative frame (taken from the novel): the movie begins with Richard returning from prison and into the care of his friend and attorney, Glen Robie (Ray Collins), also the lawyer for the Berent family. The rest of the movie then unfolds in flashback, as Robie narrates the tragic tale of Richard and Ellen’s doomed romance. He claims he is the “only one who knows the whole story,” though Stahl and Swerling ensure that we understand from the start that Robie’s allegiances are with Richard, and any insight into Ellen will have to be gained through the story’s seams. Men rule the narrative, men make the rules. But Ellen will not follow rules.

From the start, Ellen’s “problem” is diagnosed by her loved ones as an overattachment to her father. “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen,” Ellen’s mother (Mary Philips) tells Richard. “It’s just that she loves too much . . . She loved her father too much.” But that excessiveness is echoed in other ways. Both her mother and her adoptive sister, Ruth (Jeanne Crain), can barely conceal their fear and discomfort with Ellen and are eager to cast suspicion on her. Of particular focus is Ellen’s competitiveness and her independence. When she disappears for a long stretch, early in their budding romance, Richard expresses concern, and Mrs. Berent assures him icily, “Nothing ever happens to Ellen.” When she embarks on a swimming competition with Glen’s children, Richard genially roots the young ones on before Glen observes, with a fatalistic air, “Ellen always wins.” These pronouncements from those closest to Ellen are meant to serve as chilly warnings from warm, wholesome people, yet they can also be read as emblematic of the hostile, passive-aggressive environment in which Ellen resides before her marriage to Richard promises rescue, escape.

Ellen’s competitive nature and her agency are explicitly coded as traditionally male: she rides horses (with great fervor and confidence); she hunts and eats her prey; she wins all contests, dominates discussion, and makes all her own decisions. The movie’s opening credits show a dust-jacket illustration of a young woman in pants, chin raised, arms extended above her head. A power pose. It is Ellen who proposes marriage to the passive Richard. It is Ellen who makes the first move, kissing him passionately, voraciously. In ways that make everyone uncomfortable, even troubled, she is the “man of the house.” Ellen makes things happen for herself, and all this in a historical moment, at the end of the Second World War, when the cultural imperative for women to return to traditional roles as passive homemakers, supportive wives and mothers, felt urgent and necessary.

These are precisely the roles Ellen attempts to take on after her marriage to Richard. Immediately, she turns her peerless drive to the task of becoming the perfect homemaker, preparing elaborate meals and abandoning her riding breeches for gingham and soft curls. But it’s not so simple for Ellen as putting on an apron. While she wants to embody these roles to some extent, she also continues to make her own rules. Her aim is not a big family, a buzzing household. She wants a world of two: Richard and her. “I don’t want anybody else but me to do anything for you,” she tells him.

“Ellen’s unspeakable acts may have offered female viewers a cathartic relief from the era’s gender imperatives and an exorcism of their own forbidden feelings and longings.”

Therein lies the thorn. Because, from the moment they elope, Ellen and Richard are never alone. Prior to their marriage, we learn, Richard (still a bachelor at thirty when he meets Ellen) lived an idyllic homosocial life, residing with his brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), and their loyal servant and friend, Thorne (Chill Wills), in a remote Maine lodge named Back of the Moon—aptly, as no woman has ever lived there before. And Ellen learns quickly that Richard intends very little to change with his marriage.

And so Ellen finds herself in much the same position she occupied in her own family: an outsider, suspect. If we feel a twinge of sympathy, it is only enhanced by a bit of sneaky business—Ellen’s supposedly unhealthy attachment to her father finds an uncanny echo in Richard’s attachment to his brother, who suffers from partial paralysis. Yet while Ellen’s attachment to her father is “too much,” is pathologized by her resentful mother and sister, Richard’s to his brother is praised, a sign of his kindness and loyalty. What we see, however, as Richard and Danny swim and play like perpetual preadolescents on a camping trip, is that Richard’s attachment enables him to remain a boy forever. If Ellen cannot be the dream wife, perhaps the blame resides partly with Richard.

Ellen thus faces a classic double bind: she is expected to embody the wife-homemaker ideal, yet the movie’s insular, clannish families make that impossible. Stahl and Tierney amplify the sense of familial claustrophobia as Ellen attempts to forge a place for herself in her crowded marriage. In a particularly vivid scene, she climbs into bed to wake her new husband with a lingering kiss. The moment is charged, erotic—until we hear Danny’s chirpy voice and insistent knock through the headboard behind them. Stahl cuts to Danny in bed directly on the other side of the bedroom wall, jauntily wishing Ellen a good morning too. Richard immediately abandons the prospect of sex and knocks back at Danny, suggesting a “dip in the lake before breakfast.”

It is in this stretch of the narrative that we see most clearly the movie’s sympathetic tug toward Ellen. As James Agee wrote in his (negative) review of the film for Time, “Audiences will probably side with the murderess, who spends all of the early reels trying to manage five minutes alone with her husband.” Ellen tells Richard, “Do you know, ever since we’ve been married, we’ve never been alone, not for a single day?” It’s only moments later that we learn Richard has surprised Ellen by inviting her mother and sister for a visit. Cut to Mrs. Berent and Ruth charging across the lake on a motorboat, in a moment staged like the Norman invasion, or the first assault in Jaws. The solution to too much family appears to be more family, and Ellen aptly suggests changing the name from Back of the Moon to Goldfish Manor.

Feeling trapped, Ellen resorts to drastic measures, in the famous scene mentioned at the beginning of this essay: taking a rowboat onto the lake to coach Danny’s swimming, pushing him beyond his limits, and, slowly, her face a smooth mask, watching him drown. Few remember the scene without remembering Ellen’s sunglasses. They suggest an ultimate cool to her that is bloodcurdling and unforgettable. Then, after Danny disappears under the water, something curious happens. As if she has eyes in the back of her head, Ellen turns around and sees Richard in the distance. Swiftly, she removes the glasses and shows us those eyes, and it is chilling. Not because the look is cold—the coldness of her sunglass-sheathed stare—but because it is hot.

Danny’s killing is, by all standards, an unforgivable act, but one that is so baldly monstrous that it inspires a kind of horrified wonder, and Ellen’s gaze lingers with us like an awful dream for the rest of Leave Her to Heaven. In a bit of narrative cunning, however, we now share a secret with Ellen, and therefore experience the same smack of irony that she does upon realizing that even homicide has not solved her problem. Her attempt to force a family of two by eliminating Danny has resulted only in Richard’s despair and alienation, and his move toward Ruth. The solution, suggested by Ruth (with at least a whiff of passive aggression, given her dark view of Ellen), is that Ellen provide Richard with a familial replacement for Danny. And so Ellen attempts to try on the one socially prescribed role left for her: motherhood.

Swiftly, we see Ellen fail at this role-playing too. Even if we conceive of Ellen as the villain, her open declarations of discomfort and entrapment within her pregnant body feel wildly subversive. Much attention has been paid to the lake scene, but perhaps even more radical is Ellen’s response to her pregnancy, which she sees as deforming her body, slowing her down, and promising her nothing in terms of her husband’s devotions. She tells Ruth that she hates the “little beast” inside her, a shocking declaration that underlines her pathological narcissism. At the same time, however, the declaration—offered as the camera emphasizes Tierney’s costumed bulk and her character’s unhappiness—also serves as a sly acknowledgment of something that all mothers may have felt at one moment or another. Ellen says the things women think but cannot say. Her unspeakable acts may have offered female viewers a cathartic relief from the era’s gender imperatives and an exorcism of their own forbidden feelings and longings.

As if to once again be reminded of what Ellen is up against, we learn that Richard, along with Mrs. Berent and Ruth (at this point plainly a rival for Richard’s attentions), has planned yet another surprise: the destruction of her father’s laboratory to create a nursery for the baby. Knowing as they do of Ellen’s love for her father—not to mention her aversion to surprises—the act feels patently hostile, and Ellen’s pain intensely real. If classic film noir involves men finding themselves hopelessly caught in a web from which there is no escape, it is Ellen here who seems trapped. As the movie charges toward its inevitable ending, we come to understand that Ellen, doomed to fail in a series of impossible roles, would rather, like Jane Eyre’s madwoman Bertha Mason, burn the place down.

The last lines of Leave Her to Heaven return us to the frame narrative, reminding us that it is purportedly attorney and friend Glen Robie who is telling the story. Echoing those early scenes of Ellen’s loved ones making damning pronouncements about her competitive drive, Glen concludes that, given the ultimate outcome, “I guess it’s the only time she didn’t come out first.” But the movie itself seems far from sure. Even as Glen has the last word, it’s Ellen’s parting pledge to Richard that reverberates over the movie’s final scenes: “I’ll never let you go . . .” We feel her hovering over Richard and Ruth as they are entangled in her revenge plans. We feel her in the cruel irony of the closing moments, when we see Richard and Ruth ready to build a life together—just the two of them, as Ellen dreamed of for herself. Such happiness is forbidden to Ellen, who wanted too much, her arms stretched, as in that opening dust-jacket image, up into the heavens.