John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven (1946) is a brilliant film with an amazing capacity to disturb. That's mostly due to Gene Tierney's wonderful performance as Ellen, an obsessive woman who will destroy just about anyone in her path. Ellen meets author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) on a train and is captivated by him. He resembles her recently deceased father in appearance. Her stare is so wildly intense, we get our very first glimpse of her mania. We get numerous hints along the way, but poor Richard is oblivious to them. He falls victim to her snare and she traps him. I'm sure the thought never crossed his mind that this delicate beauty could be... the spawn of SATAN!
There are a few scenes in this film that I believe are just superb in their power to unnerve. They all involve Gene Tierney, because really this is her movie. Even Cornel Wilde just seems like an accessory. Tierney is really the star.
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!
Ellen's Father's Funeral
Ellen and her family have traveled to Jacinto to bring her father's ashes to the family estate. Ellen and her father had made a pact to have their ashes scattered on a nearby mountain. Richard looks on as Ellen scatters the ashes as she rides a horse on the mountain side. This scene has the incredible ability to send shivers down my spine. Tierney's face is so regal, frozen, almost triumphant. Now that she has thoroughly destroyed her victim (her father), she's got a fresh new one to play with (Richard). The shot of her recklessly throwing around the ashes is forever burned into my brain.
Many fans of this movie will agree that this is by far the most disturbing scene in this film. Obsessive types like Ellen are not dangerous when they are in complete control of their situation. If everything is as they desire it to be, they are happy, almost normal. But when change comes and they lose their control, their evil emerges and they will do anything to get back to that happy place. For Ellen, it's to destroy Richard's crippled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) who is threatening to steal away some of Richard's affection and attention. She encounters the perfect situation for Danny to drown, and as he flails in the water, she stays completely still. It's unlikely you'll ever forget the shot of Gene Tierney's frozen face, her eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, as her character Ellen waits for this poor boy to die.
Ellen can't get over Richard's growing attachment to her cousin/sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) and his increasing detachment to her, so she decides having a baby is the solution! Right. The thing is, that unborn baby is already causing inevitable change that Ellen can't handle. So she stands above a staircase, digs one of her shoes underneath a bit of carpet and throws herself forward. I don't think I need to elaborate anymore. We already know the women is pure evil.
Ellen is the 1940's Classic Film equivalent of a suicide-bomber. She's perfectly content to die as long as she can leave complete and utter chaos in her wake. So when Richard finally gives up on Ellen, she goes back to the one person left whom she knows she still has control over. That person is ex-fiancee Quinton, played by Vincent Price, who is a true delight in this film. Ellen orchestrates her death and plots out an elaborate scheme that makes Richard and her cousin Ruth pawns in her game. You think her death would be a resolution, but oh no! Even from the grave she still holds control over people.