The term “film noir” conjures up black and white imagery. The use of shadows, rain, and narration are also common tropes. The detective and femme fatale are typical characters in a film noir. Cynicism, weariness, disillusionment and paranoia are often present. Director John M. Stahl’s 1945 masterpiece, Leave Her to Heaven, features a femme fatale, but otherwise doesn’t share many of the aforementioned motifs. It also features gorgeous locales, a beautiful leading lady, amazing costumes and fantastic immaculately decorated homes, all shot in glorious Technicolor. Technicolor film noir are not common, but Leave Her to Heaven is one of the all-time best. It also features one of the deadliest and most psychotic femme fatales of all time.
Gene Tierney plays Ellen Berent, a socialite traveling from Boston to New Mexico. She is enroute to New Mexico to spread her father’s ashes. She’s accompanied by her cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain) and her mother (Mary Phillips aka Ex-Mrs. Humphrey Bogart #2). While on the train, Ellen spots Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde). They are immediately smitten with one another and spend the remainder of their journey chatting. Ellen and Richard then discover that they’re all staying at the same New Mexico resort and Richard is invited to dinner. It is at the dinner when Richard learns that his resemblance to Ellen’s beloved, deceased father is one of the reasons why she was interested in him. Ellen’s beau, District Attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) shows up and Ellen announces (to Russell) that she and Richard are engaged–much to Richard’s surprise.
This all should be a red flag. But Richard goes along with it. Richard announces that he’s planning on visiting his polio-stricken brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman) at a hospital in Warm Springs, Georgia. Richard and Ellen marry. While in Georgia, Danny announces his intention to travel with Richard and Ellen to Richard’s “Back of the Moon” lakeside cabin in Deer Lake, Maine. We (the audience) see Ellen beg Danny’s doctor to step in and prevent the trip. She also refers to Danny as “the cripple.” Ellen’s true colors are showing.
Deer Lake, Maine is where all the most infamous action of Leave Her to Heaven takes place. This is a gorgeous lake locale–lush with trees and emerald green water. The lake is vast and serene. Deer Lake is just one of the gorgeous locations in Leave Her to Heaven. The beautiful, tranquil settings are juxtaposed with the beautiful, yet psychotic Ellen. Multiple references are made to Ellen “loving too much.” It seems that Ellen loved her father so much that she actually drove a wedge between her father and her mother. Cousin Ruth is Ellen’s adopted sister as she was taken in by the Berent family at a very young age. Ruth makes a comment referring to “being adopted by Mrs. Berent” instead of by both Mr. and Mrs. Berent. One could assume that Mrs. Berent adopted Ruth after being basically left by the wayside by both her husband and daughter. Ellen then promises Richard to “Never let [him go]. Never Never Never.”
And she means it.
Throughout the film, Ellen showcases extreme jealousy toward anyone who divides Richard’s attention away from her. She will not let ANYONE get between herself and Richard. When Danny expresses his interest in following Richard and Ellen to Deer Lake, Ellen is livid. Deer Lake (actually Bass Lake in California) provides the backdrop for one of the most sinister, diabolical scenes in film history. Ellen and Danny go out in a rowboat in the middle of Deer Lake. Danny, who is just starting to regain his strength and ability to walk, tells Ellen that he’s going to swim across the lake. Danny is way over-confident, but Ellen lets him go ahead while she follows in the rowboat. Danny starts out well, but begins to slow down. Ellen, seeing an opportunity to rid herself and Richard of Danny’s presence, urges him to continue:
“You’re not making very much progress, Danny. Are you alright?”
(Later, after Danny starts complaining of being cold and having a cramp, Ellen keeps encouraging him)
“You don’t want to give up when you’ve come so far!”
Danny starts getting very tired and distressed. As he flails around helplessly, Ellen sits there, coldly. As if she were in a trance, Ellen stares at Danny as he frantically waves his arms, trying to keep afloat and signal Ellen for help. The camera is fixated on Ellen’s face, her eyes hidden behind her dark glasses. We hear Danny yelling for help. We see Ellen watching and watching, almost as if she’s waiting for confirmation that Danny has drowned and will no longer be in her way of loving Richard. As Danny goes underwater, Ellen rips off her glasses and reveals her cold, icy stare. Combined with her pursed lips, Ellen is satisfied that she’s just murdered young Danny. She feigns concern when she spots Richard on the lakeside trail, and makes a show of “saving” Danny by diving into the lake. Richard follows suit. However, both Ellen and Richard’s rescue attempts are futile. Danny is dead. Ellen is overjoyed. Richard is understandably upset and it’s obvious that he has an inkling that Danny’s drowning wasn’t entirely an accident.
Just when we didn’t think that Ellen couldn’t be any more insane, she tops herself (perhaps, it might be on par) at the family’s oceanfront home in Bar Harbor, Maine. I am here for all of the crazy things she does in this film. It’s just so much fun to watch.
Ellen Berent is one of the most evil and insane femme fatales in noir history. I think she might be crazier than Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. The drowning scene in Deer Lake is simply one of the all-time most evil scenes in film. She could have just poisoned Danny or shot him or anything and that would have been bad enough. She sets poor Danny up to drown. His desire to impress Ellen and prove to himself that he’s on the mend from polio causes his overconfidence. Ellen, established to be an excellent swimmer earlier in the film, had all the opportunity to save him and didn’t. Devoid of emotion, she watches Danny struggle. She cooly stares at him, mentally counting down the minutes until he’s drowned. Only then does she “worry” and try to save him. Ellen is cold and calculating. She knows what she wants and how to get it.
Ellen always wins.