Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Gene Tierney has been a constant favorite of mine as I’ve watched more and more films from the Old Hollywood era. She starred in a couple of all-time favorite films: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Heaven Can Wait. She also has the distinction of being TCM host Robert Osborne’s favorite actress! Today, on what would have been her 95th birthday, I’ll be looking at the movie which earned Tierney her only Oscar nomination, the definitive Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven.

Gene Tierney acted in both comedies and dramas throughout her career, but the genre she’s arguably most known for is film noir. She starred in several of the most well-regarded noir films, including Laura, the film she is most recognized for. In any genre, she often played good characters, the ones we want to root for. But in Leave Her to Heaven, she played against type as one of the most ruthless female characters in film history.

Richard (Cornel Wilde) and Ellen (Gene Tierney) have a meet-cute on the train.

The film begins on a train, where novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) sees a fellow passenger reading his latest book. That passenger is socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), and upon first glance, it’s not hard to see why Richard is instantly attracted to her. Ellen is immediately drawn to Richard as well, but for a different reason: he has a strong resemblance to her late father, with whom she had a very close relationship.

Ellen comes to the surface, with no engagement ring in sight.

Though Ellen is engaged to ambitious Boston attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), she pursues Richard and soon marries him. Their marriage is blissful, but only for a very brief time. Ellen becomes more jealous of anybody or activity that takes Richard’s attention away from her. She’s especially wary of the time Richard spends with his young disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) and resents the budding friendship forming between her husband and her cousin/adoptive sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Ellen confronts Ruth (Jeanne Crain) on her relationship with Richard.

Later on, Ellen becomes pregnant in the hopes that Richard will tend to her more, but instead, he spends even less time with her, focusing more on his next novel. It’s at this point in the film that she oddly becomes a sympathetic character, as she becomes trapped by her expectations to be a doting wife and mother, while her husband is off doing what he pleases. Only an actress such as Tierney, who often provided a warm presence in her films, could garner some sympathy from the audience for a character that’s ultimately contemptible.

Richard would rather work on his novel than spend some alone time with Ellen.

Ellen is one of the most complex characters Tierney ever played; though her actions are cruel and unforgivable, she performs these acts because of her obsessive love for Richard, not out of pure malice. There’s a moment in the film where Ellen’s mother says to Richard that “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. It’s just that she loves too much.”

Ellen will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Tierney didn’t play a lot of antagonists in her career, but her role here reminds me a little of the one she played the following year in The Razor’s Edge; her character there doesn’t go to quite the same lengths to keep her man away from anyone else as she does in Leave Her to Heaven, but she does come close. Though I love her best in her good-natured roles, she has proven that she really excels at playing wicked characters as well.

Ellen shows an interest in Richard’s brother Danny… but looks can be deceiving.

In discussing the great films of the noir genre, Leave Her to Heaven is often the only Technicolor film that is brought up in conversation among all the black-and-white ones. And I firmly believe it’s because of Tierney’s outstanding performance as Ellen. She truly elevates what could have easily been just an average film, and soon after her character’s departure, you’re wishing she would come back, despite her neurotic behavior.

Ellen hears some displeasing news concerning her vacation with Richard.

Gene Tierney lost the Oscar in 1946 to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, another great female role (and in a noir film no less). Regardless, she still comes out as a winner, and her timeless performance continues to live on long after the film’s release.

Gene Tierney in the film’s iconic scene… if looks could kill.

I wrote this as a part of the Gene Tierney 95th Birthday Blogathon, hosted by my friend Simoa at The Ellie Badge. Click the banner below to read more posts celebrating the great actress!

11 thoughts on “Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

  1. I love Tierney, too, and at times I feel she was poorly used as an actress, playing too many drippy roles. But then I saw her in The Shanghai Gesture and wondered if I saw her limits. It’s a bizarre and rather dreadful film, and her character is a mess. Take a look and let me know what you think.

    • Ah that is one film of hers I’ve been meaning to check out, and is actually on my shortlist to watch for Noirvember. I guess today’s an appropriate time to watch it! I’ll check back later and let you know my thoughts.

      And I agree, she was pretty under-utilized as an actress. I guess many people just saw her as a pretty face and didn’t offer her more complex roles.

    • So I watched The Shanghai Gesture last night, and yeah it’s a pretty strange film… This is the earliest film of Tierney’s that I’ve seen now, her acting’s not perfect here obviously, but you could see the potential that she provided in later roles like Leave Her to Heaven. It was weird seeing her play a rather immature character since she later played more refined people.

      • It is unique in her repertoire, definitely. She plays “half-caste” (mixed race), too, as does Victor Mature. Bizarre film and dreadful race representations.

  2. This is so good! I’d never really thought about that before, that Ellen isn’t as contemptible because Gene plays her and also, good point about sympathizing with her when Richard doesn’t pay any attention. Oddly enough, that’s how I felt watching Cagney in White Heat; monstrous, but still likable??

    (PS: Shanghai Gesture is pretty weird, but you see glimmers of the venomous woman she played so well later). Thanks so much for contributing Keisha!

    • Thank you Simoa, it was my pleasure! 🙂 I think having such charismatic actors play monstrous characters really does help get the audience behind their evil acts. I’m always rooting for Cagney, and I find that especially true when he’s playing the bad guy for some reason… he’s just amazing at playing terrible people, I can’t explain it.

      That’s good to know, re: The Shanghai Gesture! Were there any other roles where she played more wicked characters? I do wish she got a chance to play more of them in her career.

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  4. Nice review, Keisha! Sorry I’m a little behind with my blog reading, but I’ll get caught up soon I hope. I haven’t seen this one in a while, but I did watch ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’ recently, and was reminded of how much I liked Tierney.

    And a question: did you screen capture those photos above yourself? If so, what program did you use? They look really nice and sharp.

    • It’s been awhile since I’ve seen The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, I should watch it again soon.

      I actually got these photos from a couple of Blu-ray websites, but in some of my other posts I’ll usually just take screenshots off of VLC media player.

      • Thanks for the info! I use VLC as well, but I switched from XP to Windows 7 recently, and can’t get it to work right. I’ll keep at it. And I’ll be getting to your Criterion noir post soon, I promise!

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