Film Noir Furies: Leave Her to Heaven and Gone Girl

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Gene Tierney used her beauty to ensare a reluctant husband in Leave Her To Heaven. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The novel Gone Girl was one of the biggest sensations of the 2010s, with more than 20 million copies sold. Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, who would be played by Rosamund Pike in the film version, was a fully realised, intelligent and dangerous villain – who systematically worked out a way to crush her philandering husband. When interviewed by wordsandfilm.com, the author Gillian Flynn was asked to name three films that she thought were great thrillers. One of the films she mentioned was Leave Her to Heaven (1945), which she described as ‘femme noir.’[1] Flynn had given a respectful nod to a film that covered similar terrain to her bestseller.

Leave Her to Heaven was based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams – and it was a bestseller for the prolific novelist in 1945. The studio 20th Century Fox snapped up the film rights for Leave Her to Heaven, and it was given a prestige release in 1945. Leave Her to Heaven features one of the most beautiful and deadly femme fatales in cinema history. Ellen Berent, played by Gene Teirney, is a socialite from Boston who marries novelist Richard Harland and then proceeds to destroy everyone around him in her desire to possess him.

Leave Her to Heaven appears to borrow freely from many different genres. The director John M. Stahl was mainly known for his melodramas, and this film can rightly be called one.[2] It is shot in brilliant colour, but the plot comes straight out of film noir, normally associated with high contrast black and white scenes.[3] It certainly has some visual components of westerns, with riders set against tremendous vistas of the New Mexico desert, complete with horses, which would do John Ford proud.

The film can also be called a psychological thriller with Berent as a serial killer, bent on destroying anyone who gets close to her husband, Richard Harland. The film also references Greek mythology ranging from Medea, who killed her children. Berent has an Electra complex as she marries Harlan because he resembles her father. One critic has even noted that she resembles Hippolyta – the Queen of Amazons – with her magic girdle. The girdle, which is the secret of her power, was given to her by her father. [4] 

Even the jaded audiences of the 21st Century find the murder of Danny, afflicted with polio, a discomforting scene. Image coutesy of eMoviePoster.

Even in the twenty-first century, Leave Her to Heaven still has the potential to shock audiences with just how far Berent will go to control access to her husband. The scene in Leave Her to Heaven that shocked contemporary audiences was the drowning of Richard’s brother Danny. The young boy is partially recovering some use of his legs after contracting polio. From the safety of a small boat, Berent watches him drown in the lake by making him swim too far, and it is still a scene that grabs an audience by the throat. The impassive face of Berent magnifies the impact as she watches the young boy go down repeatedly. There is not a flicker of emotion or regret. She is an ice-cold killer.

Such a range of genres would seem to create a chaotic film, but it is beautifully directed, although the courtroom scenes verge on the surreal. While it is a beautiful film to watch, it is also full of horror. But it is the horror of everyday events, and the scenes that worried the 1940s censors most were when Berent openly talked about despising being pregnant. [5] Here was a woman who revolted against the thought of being pregnant and arranged a fall down the stairs to cause a miscarriage. In the 1940s, any woman who did not want to be pregnant and enjoy motherhood was beyond the pale. Moreover, Berent’s domesticity was almost suffocating, and there is an undercurrent that this perfect marriage, with all its material comforts, is a façade.

The film’s influence stretches to the film version of Gone Girl (2014), with one critic arguing: “Leave Her to Heaven… fully wrestles with the ways obsession can warp us. Every time you think Ellen has done the worst thing possible, she goes another step farther, so much so that in many ways Leave Her to Heaven is a proto–Gone Girl. Rosamund Pike may not realize it, but her performance owes a lot to Tierney’s. Her face is like a lake where the smallest ripples feel profound, and she understands that beauty can be both weapon and wound. Her radiance blinds Richard to her true nature as a jealous and dangerous woman who will do anything to have him all to herself.”[6]

Dunne appears to be one of the mythological Furies. She is a goddess of vengeance and retribution, and she has meted out her version of justice to men for sins against the natural order. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While both films are original creations, they explore similar territory. The houses in the film versions of Leave Her to Heaven and Gone Girl contain perfect interiors, and everything is neat and precise. Yet both domestic spaces are full of misery despite their material success. In sharp contrast to Berent, Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne seems to resent domestic life, and she even manages to make her pregnancy an act of malice. She impregnates herself to ensnare her hapless husband further. Her calculating mind worked out it was the best way to keep her husband and condemn him to a heartless marriage – of which he has little or no chance of escape.

In technical terms, the exceptional use of color is the first thing that strikes any viewer when watching Leave Her to Heaven. Every scene is beautifully composed with the liberal use of a brilliant palette – and it deservedly won an Academy Award for cinematography. Given the demonstrated mastery of Technicolor, it was surprisingly director John M. Stahl’s only colour film. When Berent stages a fall down the staircase to terminate her pregnancy, she wears a light blue nightgown, almost making her dissolve into the wallpaper. Colour is applied in a different way in Gone Girl. In Gone Girl, Dunne appears mostly in soft and dark colours throughout much of the film – almost in dark shadows. The clear exception is when she returns from her ‘kidnapping’ covered in bright red blood in full sunshine. Dunne appears to be one of the mythological Furies. She is a goddess of vengeance and retribution, and she has meted out her version of justice to men for sins against the natural order.

The most obvious similarity is the attitude of the central woman to men in each film. Men are simply playthings or toys for their power games. Both women will kill to keep their men or destroy them in the process. At least, Dunne is provoked by her husband’s infidelity. Berent attacks anyone who has any close relationship with her husband – but both will destroy innocent people as they share a lack of remorse. The quote ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ comes from the Shakespearean play Hamlet when the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells his son not to seek revenge against his duplicitous mother. “Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, to prick and sting her.”[7] It is a nice quote, but it is doubtful that at any stage, Amy or Ellen were troubled by their conscience for any of their actions. They are unrepentant sociopaths.

Both women plan to use their death – real or staged – to destroy someone. Berent wants to be rid of her sister, who her husband secretly adores. She poisons herself and leaves a trail of evidence that implicates her. Dunne wants revenge for an infidelity and arranges for clues linking him to a murder that did not occur. Through false diary entries and other deceptions, Dunne creates a narrative that directly points to her murder by her husband. After she reconsiders her position, she manipulates another man to build a case of kidnapping. In both cases, the legal authorities are fooled – at least for a while. The detectives investigating Dunne’s disappearance believe that her husband committed murder. In Leave Her to Heaven, we move straight to the trial of Berent’s sister as the evidence is so strong. These women make fools of the forces of law and order.

The difference is that Dunne gets away with it all – including a vicious murder. After all, Berent dies, and her plan to shatter her sister’s relationship with her husband is defeated. The ending is an indication of how community attitudes have shifted over the past 70 years. The Production Code of the 1940s could not allow Berent to triumph, but today it seems the villain can and does win.[8]


[1] “‘Gone Girl’ Author Gillian Flynn On ‘Dark Places’ Film Adaptation, Next Book,” Huffington Post, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gone-girl-author-gillian-_n_1637888.  Originally posting on wordandfilm.com. The other films she mentioned were Fatal Attraction (1987) and  Silence of the Lambs (1991)

[2] Charles Barr,  The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama. United Kingdom: John Libbey Publishing, 2018.

[3] It is one of the few colour films listed in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (eds), Film Noir: London: Secker & Warburg, 1980.

[4] “Leave Her to Heaven (1945),” Filmsite Movie Review, https://www.filmsite.org/leaveher.html.

[5] “Leave Her to Heaven (1945),” Filmsite Movie Review, https://www.filmsite.org/leaveher.html.

[6] Angelica Jade Bastien, “On Femininity as a Prison in ‘Laura’ and ‘Leave Her to Heaven,’ a Great Noir Double Feature,” Village Voice, 9 September 2016.

[7] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act One, Scene Five.

[8] For another view on the relationship between Gone Girl and other films  see Imogen Sara Smith, “A modern noir marriage, Gone Girl,  filmnoirfoundation.org, Winter 2015, http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/noircitymag/Gone-Girl.pdf.

The Criterion DVD of the film Leave Her to Heaven, also has an excellent interview with Smith, which covers similar areas.

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