Filmsite Movie Review
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
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The Story (continued)


Ellen's final jealous, malignant, elaborate and desperate scheme - after Richard threatened to leave her, was to write a letter to her jilted ex-fiancee/lover, newly-elected District Attorney Russell Quinton of Sussex County. The contents of the letter (revealed in more detail later) was a listing of accusatory claims intended to frame and implicate her kindly sister Ruth and two-timing husband Richard. She felt that they were conspiring (allegedly) against her, with over-exaggerated fears that she was the victim of their affair and conspiratorial threats:

  • they were plotting to run away together (to Mexico?)
  • Ruth was threatening to kill her, when Ellen refused to divorce her cheating husband Richard

In the basement, she located a bottle of a white powdered substance (arsenic) - deadly rat poison. She brought it to Ruth's upstairs bathroom (towels were monogrammed with Ruth's name), where she emptied Ruth's bottle of bath salts down the sink, and then replaced its contents with the powder. The scene quickly faded from view.

While standing at the Continent Airways reservation counter and about to board an airplane, Richard's name was announced on the PA system. He contacted the Information Desk by phone, and received shocking news (undisclosed). He promised to take the "first train back." Once he arrived at Bar Harbor, Richard rushed to Ellen's upstairs bedroom where she was seriously ill (following a beach picnic lunch), suffering labored breathing, and possibly dying. Ruth was already keeping a vigil next to the bed. On her deathbed, with her last words, Ellen breathlessly requested that Richard scatter her cremated ashes in New Mexico where she had earlier scattered her father's ashes:

I'm going to die...And you mustn't feeI sorry for me. I'm not afraid. Only, only, promise me one thing. I-I want to be cremated. Like my father, and my ashes scattered in the same place. Remember?....Richard! I'll never let you go, Richard. Never. Never. Never. (He loosened her tight grip on his hand.)

In the subsequent scene after Ellen's demise, a hearing was held regarding Ellen's "cold, brutal pre-meditated murder." DA Russell Quinton served as the state's prosecutor in a case brought against the defendant Ruth Berent, while Glen Robie served as her defense attorney. Quinton opened the case, presided over by a Judge (Paul Everton):

The State will prove that on the afternoon of September 5th at a picnic attended by Ellen Harland, her mother and her adopted sister, that Ellen met death as a result of poisoning. The State will prove that the sugar with which Ellen that day sweetened her coffee was mixed with poison and that she met death by reason of that poison. The State will prove that the defendant had both motive and opportunity to commit this dreadfuI crime. And the State will prove that the defendant, Ruth Berent deliberately and maliciously plotted and carried through the murder.

During the case, Quinton called a number of witnesses - all implicating Ruth's involvement in Ellen's death:

  • a male witness testified that the white powder ("apparent sugar") found in an envelope in the pocket of Ruth's leather jacket (possibly planted there) was 60% arsenic. And another half-emptied bottle of arsenic (the original one in the basement) was found to be pure 100% arsenic
  • Mr. Medcraft (Milton Parsons), the manager of the Bay State Mortuary, testified that the arrangements to have Ellen's remains cremated were made by Ruth
  • Mr. Carlson (Grant Mitchell), VP of the Seaboard Trust Company whose bank was the trustee for the estate of the late Ellen Berent Harland, testified that Ellen (after being released from the hospital) made no provision in her will for being cremated after her death; instead, Ellen had requested that she be buried in the family vault at Mount Auburn Cemetery

On the second day of trial testimony in a dramatic scene, Richard was called to the stand, to read (outloud) the handwritten letter that Ellen had sent to Russell Quinton, that clearly stated her fears that Ruth was threatening to kill her after Richard had threatened to leave and divorce her:

Dear Russ, I am writing this letter to you because we once meant a great deaI to each other and there is no one else to whom I can go for help. Richard is leaving....It was after I left the hospitaI I first began to sense a change in my husband. At first I thought it might be due to the loss of our child and then the truth, the awfuI truth, began to dawn on me. The reason for the change was Ruth. Russ, they love each other, and want to get rid of me. When Richard suggested a divorce, I went to Ruth and begged her to give him up. She said she intended to have him and would stop at nothing. I told Ruth I would never give Richard a divorce, and it was then she threatened to kill me....Russ, I know she means it, and is capable of it. She will kill me the first chance she gets (read twice)...I'm afraid to stay in the house, but I can't leave without Richard. I'd rather die than give him up. I don't know what to do or where to turn, except to you, Russ. Please help me. Ellen.

With his "brass knuckles on," Quinton grilled Richard about his courtship with Ellen even though he knew she was already engaged. Richard was forced to describe the circumstances of their impulsive decision to marry:

  • I didn't exactly court her.
  • I knew she'd marry me if I asked her.
  • I found one day that she had removed her engagement ring. She gave me to understand - I realized then that I was in love with her.
  • She said she would never let me go.
  • (We were married) a couple of days later. She wanted it that way.
  • I was doubtfuI.

Quinton summarized the unusual and rapid progression of their marital plans: "You suggest that a beautifuI young woman, engaged to another man, falls in love with you, wins you, and persuades you into a quick marriage against your better judgment. Is that a fair statement of the facts?" Then, the DA persisted in questions about the subsequent disintegration of their marriage - as described by Richard:

  • The newlywed couple was happy during the first four months of their marriage, after meeting in New Mexico
  • At Warm Springs, Georgia while visiting Danny, Ellen preferred to do all the housework, without servants
  • In June of that year, the two moved with Danny to the Maine fishing lodge, Back of the Moon
  • In August, the Berents came to visit, and Danny's drowning death caused intense sadness for Richard
  • In September, their love changed when they moved in with the Berents in Bar Harbor, and Ellen became pregnant
  • At Bar Harbor with Ellen confined to her room, Richard saw much more of Ruth
  • Before Ellen's death, she quarreled with Richard, but he wouldn't divulge the cause
  • According to Richard, it was Ellen (not Ruth) who was jealous of not only Ruth, but everybody
  • Richard claimed that he and Ruth were "very good friends" and he was "fond of her"
  • Quinton repeated the question three times: "Are you in love with Ruth?" while slamming his fist down

Next, Ruth was questioned - Quinton noted that on the dedication page of Richard's new book, she was the 'gal with the hoe' to whom the book had been dedicated. Ruth said that Ellen wasn't much interested in the book about Mexico, so she had helped Richard with the final draft. At that time, Ellen was recuperating in the hospital after her miscarriage, providing Ruth and Richard with much more time together. Ruth testified that her upcoming trip to Taxco, Mexico was to "get away" - not to rendezvous with Richard. She was also asked about her bottle of bath salts containing poison, and her leather jacket where an envelope of the white powder (60% arsenic, 40% sugar) was discovered in the pocket. She claimed that the day of the picnic, Ellen requested to wear the jacket because it was chilly, and that the picnic food (and the sugar packet) was prepared with Ellen:

Question: Who prepared the sugar?
Answer: I don't know. It must've been Ellen....She was the only one who took sugar with her coffee.

However, Ruth was implicated because she served the coffee and gave Ellen the sugar. Also, Quinton tried to get at inconsistences in Ellen's burial plans. Previous testimony had stated that Ellen wanted a burial, but Ruth contradicted that claim: "Ellen always wanted to be cremated and to have her ashes scattered with those of her father." Quinton accused Ellen and Richard (who scattered the ashes in New Mexico) of a conspiracy to immediately cremate Ellen's body to prevent an autopsy. The DA summarized the four things that Ruth couldn't satisfactorially explain:

  • the poison in the bath salt bottle
  • the poison in the sugar envelope
  • Ellen's immediate cremation to avoid an autopsy
  • Ruth's plans to flee the country shortly before Ellen was poisoned

The final dogged questions of the attorney were about Ruth's alleged love for Richard, asked in rapid succession:

  • When did you fall in love with Richard Harland?
  • Did you love him after his brother Danny was drowned?
  • Did you love him after the death of his stillborn child?
  • After his wife died?
  • Did you love him last week?
  • A month before?
  • A year before?
  • Are you in love with him today?

Ruth ultimately confessed to being in love with Richard in complete innocence (without evil intentions toward Ellen, nor involved in a conspiracy with Richard): "Yes, yes, I am in love with him. I think I've always loved him." As she left the stand, Ruth fainted onto the floor. Richard was recalled to the stand to be bombarded by more of Quinton's accusatory questions ("Are you in love with her? Are you in love with the woman who murdered your wife?") - in dramatic fashion, Richard revealed Ellen's insane, monstrous and jealously-depraved conditon that led to two murders and her own suicide:

My wife was not murdered. She killed herself...Ellen was capable of anything....Yes, she was that sort of monster. A woman who sought to possess everything she loved - who loved only for what it could bring her. Whose love estranged her own father and mother. Whose love possessed her father untiI he couldn't call his souI his own. Who, by her own confession to me, killed my brother, killed her own unborn child - and who is now reaching from the grave to destroy her innocent sister. Yes, she was that sort of monster.

End of Flashback

The scene faded back to Deer Lake, where defense attorney Glen Robie was finishing his sordid tale about the reasons for his hapless client Richard's fate - two years in prison. At the end of the trial, it took only 10 minutes for the jury to acquit Ruth, but the self-sacrificing Richard was sentenced to two years in prison as an after-the-fact accessory to his own brother's death. The charges were for withholding evidence and for his negligence. He had not reported the extent of Ellen's depraved crimes to authorities:

He got two years. But Ellen had lost. I guess it's the only time she didn't come out first.

Robie glanced at his watch and noted: "I guess Dick's about home now" - the film's final line of dialogue. Indeed, Richard was paddling toward the Back of the Moon cabin, where he climbed out of the canoe at the dock, and Ruth (who had run down to greet him) welcomed him back home with a loving embrace - silhouetted in Maine's setting sun.


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