At the beginning of the movie Leave Her to Heaven, Richard “Dick” Harland (Cornel Wilde) has just been released from prison after serving a two-year sentence, and is returning home to his lodge in Maine, a place called Back of the Moon. He arrives at a dock by motorboat, where he is greeted by his lawyer Glen Robie (Ray Collins), who also happens to be an old friend of his. Glen says everything has been arranged. Richard gets in a canoe by himself and proceeds to his lodge across the lake, where Glen says “she” is waiting for him.
We learn the story behind Richard’s trial and conviction in a flashback, as Glen tells it to a man he happens to be with as they have coffee. It seems that Richard had just finished writing his latest novel, Time without End, and needed a rest, so Glen invited him to come to his ranch in Jacinto, New Mexico for a vacation. Richard takes a train to get to Glen’s ranch, and on the way finds himself sitting across from a woman, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), who is reading the very novel he just finished writing. She is also traveling to Jacinto along with her mother, Mrs. Berent, and adoptive sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), who are in another part of the train at that moment. As it turns out, Glen and his wife are also friends of the Berent family, who live in Beacon Hill, Boston, and who are also on their way to Glen’s ranch.
Apparently, Richard’s novel is not that interesting because Ellen puts it in her lap and falls asleep. When the book falls to the floor, Richard picks it up and hands it to her. She thanks him and then begins staring at him intently, almost as if she were in a trance.
At first, we think she recognizes Richard from his picture on the back of the book jacket. But soon we find out that he has a remarkable resemblance to her late father, to whom she was very much attached.
Just how attached, we wonder? Later in the movie, Ruth comments that Mrs. Berent adopted her. Richard asks her why she said only Mrs. Berent adopted her and not Mr. Berent as well. At first Ruth says she doesn’t know why she said that, but then says perhaps it was because Mrs. Berent suggested it, because she was alone so much. Ruth seems a little uncomfortable and changes the subject. By that time, we have pieced together that Mrs. Berent was alone much of the time because her husband spent so much time with their daughter Ellen. Ellen and her father used to come to the ranch every spring, but her mother never came along. Ellen says it is because her mother doesn’t like New Mexico, but her mother denies that, so we have to suspect another reason, which is that she felt excluded, believing that her husband and daughter wanted to be alone with each other, and that she was not wanted.
Mrs. Berent is played by Mary Philips, who was forty-four years old when this movie was made, and thus Mrs. Berent may be assumed to be in her forties as well. If we assume that Mr. Berent was about the same age, then he must have died in his forties. It might have been of natural causes, but toward the end of the movie, Ruth says to Ellen, “With your love, you wrecked Mother’s life and pressed Father to death.” Because she speaks with an authoritative voice, we know that must be true. But delving more deeply, what does she mean by “pressed Father to death”? There are three possibilities.
One is that Ellen demanded that her father spend so much time with her that she wore him out. But that just doesn’t seem to be sufficient to bring about an early death: first, because he could easily have put limits on her demands; second, because her demands would not have been a problem if he had enjoyed his time with her.
A second possibility is that she was sexually aggressive, always tempting her father, cuddling with him, kissing him. He resisted the temptation, but he wanted her, and it stressed him out so much that it killed him.
The third possibility is that he gave in to temptation and had a sexual relationship with her, causing him so much guilt that he died from that.
Given the powers of censorship on the part of the Production Code, the second and third possibilities could not have been made explicit in 1945. However, the novel on which this movie is based is just as indefinite as to their relationship.
The purpose of the visit to the ranch has to do with the father’s death. It seems he died back East some time ago, in Beacon Hill, and was cremated. The reason for the visit is so that Ellen can scatter the ashes of her father in the mountains where she used to spend a lot of her time with him. She and her father had made a pact: when they died, their ashes would be brought out there and mixed together, and that whoever died first would see to it.
Because Richard reminds her so much of her father, Ellen falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with her fiancé Russell Quinton (Vincent Price). When Russell gets her telegram, he is so angry that he flies up to Jacinto, saying he wanted to congratulate her on her forthcoming marriage; but this is bitter sarcasm, since he refuses to shake hands with Richard, who is only then learning about Ellen’s plans to marry him, but is too polite to say anything. Russell is perplexed, saying, “I always knew you’d never marry me while your father was alive. But after he died, I thought…. Well, I thought there might be a chance.”
Just as a side observation: Russell is a politician running for district attorney. He is afraid that having Ellen break off their engagement will hurt his chances in the upcoming election, and so he asks her if she would postpone the wedding until after the election is over in the fall. I guess it didn’t take much to make for a political sex scandal when this movie was made in 1945.
Anyway, she refuses to postpone the wedding, saying she and Richard will get married immediately. Before he leaves, Russell tells Ellen that he loves her and always will. “Remember that,” he says with seething anger in his voice. “Russ,” Ellen replies calmly, “is that a threat?” Ominous words, as it turns out.
When Richard tries to confront her after Russell leaves, she subdues him, asking, “Darling, will you marry me?” Unable to resist, he kisses her. She says, “And I’ll never let you go. Never. Never. Never.” And these too are ominous words.
As noted above, even though Ellen is only in her twenties, her father is already dead. Ruth is also in her twenties, and both her parents died when she was a child, which is why she was adopted. And even though Richard is only thirty years old, both of his parents have been dead for some time. I guess people didn’t live long back then.
Anyway, Richard takes care of a younger brother Danny, played by Darryl Hickman, who is about fourteen years old. When we see him at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, an institution that provides rehabilitation therapy for people with polio, he is in a wheel chair.
Ellen knew about Danny before she married Richard, but she didn’t think he would be living with them. She believed that he would continue staying at the Foundation, and when he got better, he would go back to boarding school, which means living away from home. She even spends a lot of time with Danny, helping him learn to walk with crutches toward that end.
She tells Richard, in a house they have rented near the Foundation, that she doesn’t want them to have a maid or a cook, that she will do everything for them, because she doesn’t want anyone else living with them. Richard brings up the possibility of their having a child, and she says, “That’s different.” When he asks about Danny, she says, “That’s different too.” As it turns out, however, they are not different at all.
Let’s step back just a minute, forget about the details of this movie, and think about the situation with marriage in general. I knew a guy once who said that when he got married, he thought he and his wife would live together in their own little love nest, just the two of them. Six months later, he said, she started talking about having her mother move in with them: not out of any economic necessity, but for emotional reasons only, because she just liked the idea of having her mother around.
In To Catch a Thief (1955), Cary Grant has a beautiful house on the French Riviera. At the end of the movie, Grace Kelly follows him to his house. They start kissing, and it is clear they are going to get married, at which point she says, “Mother will love it up here.” Cary Grant gets a look of horror on his face.
As for children, another guy I knew said that when he and his wife got married, they had an understanding that they would not have any children. When she got pregnant, he thought that, per their agreement, she would have an abortion, but she decided she wanted the baby. “That’s when I found out I couldn’t trust my wife,” he told me. Nine months later, she had the baby, and he had a vasectomy.
In other words, there are two kinds of people: there are the love-nest types, whose idea of marriage is a man and a woman living together, just the two of them; and then there are the inclusive-family types, who want others, be they children, relatives, or friends, to be a part of the household too. It’s not that these two types are completely unaware of each other’s preferences when they marry each other, as so often they do. It’s that they fail to comprehend just how strong those preferences are, never imagining how much stress this will put on their marriage.
Ellen is definitely the love-nest type. She is the last person in the world who should marry into a package deal. As noted above, she figured she could navigate the situation, but things don’t work out the way Ellen planned. When Richard first sees Danny walking on crutches, he is thrilled. Then Danny says, “Now we can, all three of us, go to Back of the Moon. Can’t we, Dick? Can’t we?” Richard says, “You bet we can.” Ellen, who had been smiling, pleased with Danny’s progress, narrows her eyebrows and frowns, and then sadness covers her face as she looks down.
In the next scene, Ellen tries to get Dr. Mason (Reed Hadley) to advise Richard that it would be better for Danny to stay at the Foundation for more therapy, or to go to a boarding school, but Mason thwarts her every argument. She says there is no telephone out in Richard’s lodge in case of a medical emergency; Dr. Mason is sure there won’t be a such an emergency. She says there won’t be a school for Danny to go to; Dr. Mason says school can wait. Finally, she even admits that it is partly for selfish reasons that she doesn’t want Danny to live with them. She says she gave up her honeymoon so that Richard could be with his brother, but Richard has been working, and the burden has fallen completely on her, to the point that she is worn out taking care of Danny. She insists she loves Danny just as much as Richard does, “But after all,” she says, “he’s a cripple.”
Ellen realizes her mistake and apologizes, saying, “I’m afraid I haven’t been too well myself lately.” And yet, most people would know not to say something like that, even if they were thinking it, and even if they weren’t feeling well. That she said that anyway is an indication of just how intense is her desire to be alone with Richard, making her oblivious to all other considerations. Having recovered herself, she continues to plead with Dr. Mason to help her make her case to Richard, with Dr. Mason refusing to do so. When Richard shows up, Ellen says, “Oh, Richard, I’ve got such wonderful news. Dr. Mason just consented to let Danny come with us to Back of the Moon.”
So, it’s off they go to Back of the Moon. The walls are paper thin in that lodge, so there isn’t much privacy, certainly not enough for Ellen, especially since there is also Richard’s friend, Leick Thorne (Chill Wills), a handyman who lives in the house too. In other words, Richard is an inclusive-family type. And just when Ellen thinks it cannot get any more crowded than it already is, it turns out that Richard has invited Mrs. Berent and Ruth up there under the misguided notion that Ellen would be pleased. She is not pleased. His excuse for not discussing it with her first is that “We wanted to surprise you, honey.”
You see, Richard lacks empathy. It sounds strange to say that of someone who otherwise seems to be a nice guy. We tend to associate a lack of empathy with people that are selfish and mean. But that is not always the case in real life, and it is not true in Richard’s case either. Richard is so convinced he knows what will make Ellen happy that, notwithstanding what she earlier said about wanting to live alone with him, he never considers that he might be wrong in this matter. Being the inclusive-family type, Richard likes having lots of people living with him, and lacking empathy, he projects that same attitude onto to others, Ellen in particular.
Mrs. Berent and Ruth invite Danny to stay with them at their summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, mentioning that there is a school he could attend there. When Ellen suggests it to Danny, however, he says he is not interested in going there unless all three of them can go together. In other words, Danny is as attached to Richard as Ellen is, and she realizes there is no way to get rid of him.
Well, there is one way. Ellen mentioned to Leick that she had a strange dream in which Richard was drowning and she was unable to save him, saying she had no voice to call for help, that her arms were paralyzed, and she couldn’t row to him because the lake was like glue. Freud was a dominant intellectual force in those days, and with that in mind, we can see that this dream is the fulfillment of a wish, the wish that Danny would drown. But her conscience would not let her dream that about Danny, so she substituted Richard. Since there was no way she wanted Richard to drown, the dream caused no feelings of guilt.
But there may be more to this dream than that. As noted above, when Ellen first saw Richard, she went into a dream-like trance staring at him. There are times in Ellen’s life when, though awake, it is as if she is in a dream, under a compulsion, and unable to do anything about it.
In any event, the dream turns out to be prophetic. She encourages Danny to try swimming across the lake, as therapy, while following him in a rowboat. As he eases into the water, she puts on a pair of sunglasses. Ostensibly, this is to protect her eyes from the glare of the sun. But when someone conceals his eyes, it makes it difficult for others to engage him emotionally. Sunglasses confer on the wearer a degree of moral detachment. That the sunglasses are heart-shaped, suggesting a warmth that isn’t there, is all the more disturbing. When Danny starts cramping and going under, she seems to be in that dream she had, paralyzed, even though we know she is an excellent swimmer and could easily have saved him. It is only when she hears Richard whistling as he walks along the lake that she is roused from her dream, screaming, “Danny!” and then jumping in the water, as if she is trying to save him.
Another side observation: During her stay at the lodge, Ruth is suddenly frightened by the sound of a loon across the lake, and it is shortly afterwards that Ellen lets Danny drown. In A Place in the Sun (1951), a man plans to drown his pregnant girlfriend in Loon Lake, and after she does drown, he is bothered when he hears a loon, reminding him of what he did. I guess this association between loons and someone drowning in a lake is just a coincidence, but I can’t help thinking it has a significance that escapes me. Otherwise, why have a scene where Ruth is bothered by the sound of a loon?
After Danny’s death, Richard can’t stand living at Back of the Moon, so he and Ellen go to Bar Harbor to stay with Mrs. Berent and Ruth. Ellen is getting nowhere in her hopes of living alone with Richard. Now she has to live with her mother and sister as well. This would be bad enough if things were pleasant, but Mrs. Berent shuns her, leaving the room when walks in. Presumably, she suspects something.
Ruth suggests that Richard might better be able to deal with his loss if he had a child of his own. Normally, Ellen would be averse to the idea, as any love-nest person would be. But she is desperate and appears to be considering it. She does get pregnant, and as she get further along in her pregnancy, the doctor tells her not to walk up the stairs. One day she does just that, only to discover that Richard is changing her father’s laboratory into a playroom. For Ellen, the room was a shrine, and she did not want it changed. She asks Richard why he didn’t consult her first. Once again, given his lack of empathy, he was so convinced that he knew exactly what would make her happy, which just happened to be what would make him happy, that he saw no need to talk to her about it first. And when Ellen appears to be upset, he once again falls back on the old excuse: “We wanted to surprise you,” which is supposed to make everything all right. He even admits he knows she doesn’t like being surprised, but he won’t be denied, saying, “but we were trying to please you.” And that is supposed to put her in the wrong, making her appear ungrateful. Of course, Mrs. Berent and Ruth are not much better, for they knew more than anyone how Ellen felt about her father, and yet they said nothing to Richard, but merely helped him with his plan.
As time goes by, Ellen finds herself even more limited in what she can do, the doctor telling her she needs lots of rest. Meanwhile, Richard has been spending time with Ruth, of whom Ellen has long been suspiciously jealous, especially now that she does not like the way she looks in the late stages of her pregnancy.
Her pregnancy is obvious only to her and the people in the movie, however, not to us in the audience. We are supposed to imagine that the robe she is wearing signifies a distended belly. Apparently, Joseph Breen, head of the Hays Office, was afraid that if a woman in a movie looked pregnant, that might cause us to think about the sex that was involved in getting her pregnant, thereby precipitating the collapse of Western civilization.
Anyway, thinking she is losing out to Ruth, with her nice trim figure, and realizing that having a baby would just be like having Danny around again, she says to Ruth, “I hate the little beast. I wish it would die.” After Ruth leaves, Ellen decides to induce an abortion by flinging herself down the stairs, making it look as though she tripped. I’d be afraid that if I tried that, I would break my back and be paralyzed for the rest of my life. But I guess she figured that the doctor would be able to tell if she used a coat hanger. In any event, she loses (kills) the baby. The suspicious Mrs. Berent says, referring to Richard, “First his brother, and now his son.”
The doctor says of Ellen, “When she came to, she remembered nothing about leaving her room. She thought she must have been walking in her sleep.” Ruth says she couldn’t have been asleep, since she was with her just twenty minutes before it happened. But that is because Ruth is thinking of sleeping and dreaming in the ordinary sense, and not in the sense that is sometimes true of Ellen.
Free of that baby, Ellen is happy again. But that is short lived. Mrs. Berent warned Richard that he should dedicate all his future books to his wife, but like an idiot, he dedicates his next book to Ruth, using his nickname for her, “To the Gal with the Hoe,” because she likes planting things. Being the inclusive-family type, Richard thinks members of a family are all full of love for one another. He has a blind spot when it comes to understanding just how jealous a love-nest person can be.
The dedication precipitates an argument between Ellen and Ruth, in which Ruth tells Ellen how much she despises her, a lot of which Richard overhears. Then Ellen and Richard start arguing, and he finally coerces a confession out of her that she let Danny drown. In one sense, this is a movie confession, one that meets the needs of melodrama; for we might legitimately imagine that a real-life Ellen would continue to deny all, saying she loved Danny, and that it broke her heart when he drowned. But in another sense, this recalls her attempt to elicit sympathy from Dr. Mason by saying that Danny was a cripple. She becomes so single-minded in her desire to be alone with Richard that she finds it difficult to lie, which does take more effort and deliberation than simply blurting out the truth.
Richard tells her he is going to leave her. Figuring he is going to run off with Ruth, Ellen decides to fake evidence, making it look as though Ruth poisoned her. On her death bed, she tells Richard she wants to be cremated, with her ashes scattered where her father’s ashes were. He does as she asks, little knowing that she changed her will to say she wanted to be buried in a cemetery, making it look as though an attempt was made to prevent an autopsy. And then we learn the significance of Russell’s vehement assertion that he will always love Ellen, which she referred to as a threat. She writes Russell a letter, telling him that Richard and Ruth are in love, and that Richard wants a divorce. She says she tried to get Ruth to give him up, but Ruth threatened to kill her. Ellen undoubtedly realized that with Russell as the district attorney, he will be relentless in trying to convict Ruth of murder.
It almost works, but Richard finally tells all on the witness stand about what a monster Ellen was, killing his brother and then their baby, making it plausible that she wanted to make her suicide appear to be murder. Ruth is acquitted, but since Richard withheld evidence of Ellen’s crimes, he is charged as an accomplice, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison.
And so, it is Ruth who is waiting for Richard at Back of the Moon. Jeanne Crain is pretty in much the same way that Gene Tierney is, but with less character in her face. We can easily believe that she will make for an innocent version of Ellen. The irony is that Ruth will have Richard all to herself.
I suppose a word must be said about the title. It comes from Hamlet, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells of how he was murdered by his brother, demanding that he be avenged. But then he says, “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her.” This is quoted just below the title of the book. But to whom is that admonition addressed, and does it make any sense?
It sounds as though the ghost is saying that Hamlet’s mother will suffer enough just knowing what she has done. Well, I don’t see how that applies to Ellen. First of all, Hamlet’s mother is not guilty of murder, only incest, if you can call it that, by marrying her brother-in-law, whereas Ellen is guilty of murder and other wickedness. Second, whereas Hamlet’s mother is still alive when the ghost tells Hamlet not seek vengeance against her, it’s too late for anyone to get revenge against Ellen, because she’s dead. We can’t say she has already suffered from remorse, because when she told Richard that she did let Danny drown, she said she had no regrets and would do it all over again. Finally, Ellen’s death is not punishment. It’s a weapon. Her final act on this Earth was to use her own death to destroy Ruth. That hardly sounds like someone who had been bothered by thorns in her bosom.
Perhaps the author of the novel figured people might not like the fact that Ellen goes unpunished, and he is trying to justify his letting her get away with it, as if an allusion is a substitute for logic.