LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, 1945

ImageI know I’m not alone in the opinion that Fox’s top grossing film of the 40’s, John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is one of the all time great Technicolor movies. Naturally, the supremely filmic, highly saturated Technicolor was avoided for the majority of Golden Age noir – it’s a little “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” for your average tale of morally questionable urban woe (though Paramount did attempt a Technicolor noir in the kind-of-nuts Desert Fury, which also features a homme fatale and the screen debut of Wendall Corey) , but Leave Her to Heaven manages to be chilling not in spite of the Technicolor, but because of it. Indeed, Leave Her to Heaven’s eerie signature scene takes place not in a shadowy alleyway or a police interrogation room, but on a sunny afternoon in a clear lake near a scenic cabin. Worst. Vacation. Ever.

Here’s the rundown. A writer, Richard Harlan (Cornel Wilde), accepts an invitation to his attorney’s New Mexico ranch. On the train, he meets Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), and they’re mutually attracted to each other – Richard, because Ellen is gorgeous, and Ellen, because Richard is a dead ringer for her late Father. So there’s that.

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As fate would have it, they’re heading to the same ranch, and Richard becomes acquainted with the rest of the Berent family, including Ellen’s charming cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain – she of wholesome beauty who makes plants grow) and Ellen’s Mother. Ellen and her Mother are clearly still sorting through Ellen’s extreme Electra complex, so there’s some pretty tangible weirdness there.

Not even Ellen’s existing fiancee, D.A. hopeful Russell Quintin (Vincent Price, y’all), can keep Richard and Ellen from each other, and they marry soon after, in spite of Richard’s misgivings. Ellen then accompanies Richard to Georgia to be reunited with his polio-stricken younger brother Danny. Ellen and Danny get on like a house on fire, and pretty soon Danny’s walking with crutches and accompanying them to their cabin in Maine, a tactical error on Ellen’s part. You see, Ellen has a pathological desire to do everything for Richard and have all of Richard’s love and attention, and Danny’s now a direct obstacle in the way of her single-minded goal. Bring the rowboat by – it’s time to take Danny swimming.

Incidentally, exactly what I would wear to a drowning.

Incidentally, exactly what I would wear to a drowning.

In a scene that has aged extremely well, Ellen, in a fabulous white overcoat and oversized sunglasses, coolly encourages Danny to swim out farther to impress Richard. So long, third wheel. The lack of score and cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s gorgeous and isolating wide shots clinch the scene and make it the bruiser it is – this is the one that’ll stay in your head, even years later.

Anyway, Ellen’s grand gesture has the opposite effect – consumed by grief, Richard is now more remote than ever. Ever resourceful, Ellen becomes pregnant, but finds this isn’t the perfect solution she’d hoped for. All the frothy blue peignoir sets and high heeled slippers in the world won’t change the fact that a baby would pull focus from Ellen, and besides, being pregnant allows Richard to pal around with Ruth. In one of noir’s more cold-blooded killings (and the screen’s first Production Code approved abortion!), Ellen is then no longer in a family way.

bannerleavehertoPredictably, this doesn’t help, so Ellen is driven to the ultimate sacrifice, but not before taking everyone else down with her. For the record, I felt very dramatic writing THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE. For the film’s third act, we’re treated to a somewhat expressionistic courtroom drama, led by Vincent Price’s particularly theatrical D.A. character. It’s a worthy denouement, and as ever, I’d watch Vincent Price eat cereal, but the real meat of Leave Her to Heaven is anytime Gene Tierney is onscreen.

Leave Her to Heaven may sound like a grand melodrama on paper, it certainly could be one of those trashy movies that W plays in the late afternoon, but it ends up being one of the most subversive studio films of the 40s. The deceptively slow start only solidifies the psychological horror to follow – in another life, a chance meeting on the train, a love affair in sun splashed New Mexico – we’re talking about a typical technicolor romantic comedy. Not the case – the promise of domesticity becomes a nightmare of manipulation and murder, in Richard and Ellen’s very own brightly-light and exquisitely photographed backyard.

Gene Tierney is at her best as Ellen with her icy, otherworldly beauty never used to greater effect. As the ideal wife, she’s charming, with disarming moments of genuine warmth, then instantly childish and withholding when the veneer slips and she fails to get what she wants. Her most shocking decisions are clinical and logic-based – if this obstacle was removed, I will get what I want. It’s a surprisingly modern and balanced portrayal of mental illness, even in her coldest moments, we never entirely dislike her; such is the pull of her sociopathic allure. Also, she wears immaculately tailored trousers and cute one-piece bathing suits and commands the screen like boss bitch. Gene was nominated for a what would have been a well-deserved academy award, but ultimately lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

In a major coup for art over censorship, the MPAA ‘strongly cautioned’ Ellen’s ‘miscarriage’, which is certainly a touching euphemism for throwing yourself from a flight of stairs on the pretense that you slipped on a throw rug while wearing fabulous satin bedroom mules. You know how it is. The MPAA warned that it was necessary to establish that the fetus would have to go because it would be a competitor for Richard’s affection, and not because Ellen believed the child would be born imperfect or misshapen. (Yes, ‘misshapen.’) They believed that this way, it would not be considered an abortion. Oh, bless.

Heaven2_zps94aaf8baLeave Her to Heaven is a prime example 3-strip Technicolor used to the height of its dramatic promise. Photographed by the great Leon Shamroy, Leave Her to Heaven was one of his Oscar winners, and it’s not hard to see why – the hyper-real colours and intense saturation, the gorgeous sets and locations – they just don’t shoot ’em like this anymore, friends. So much of the film occupies a familiar dream world –  the gorgeous homes, the beautiful cabin in the country, the attentive, perfect wife, and the loyal, loving husband – and never before have the noir shadows been quite so close.

Up next, I’ll be participating in the Great Villain Blogathon:

banner_villain2Who’s my villain? Well, let’s just say it’s the film noir bad guy you’re least likely to allow to care for your elderly, invalid grandmother.

‘Til then, no high heels on the area rug. xo.

DETOUR, 1945

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In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that no one has as much fun in the movie as they’re clearly having on this poster.

In the spirit of the day of love, I thought I’d share one of my personal favorites – DETOUR. And, guess what? It’s in the public domain, so if you have an hour and seven minutes and would like to feel worse, why don’t you pour yourself a drink (best make it a double) and spend some quality time:

Yep, Detour was certainly the premiere feel-bad movie of 1945 (unless you were a drinker on a downward spiral into melodrama and disappointment– in that case, The Lost Weekend probably hit you where you live… incidentally, beyond my girl Doris Dowling as Ray Miland’s doormat and noir veteran Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-laden score, I could take or leave it. I prefer my Billy Wilder a little more subtle or at least with a sense of humour.) (Or unless you’re a social-climbing, working woman bent on protecting the reputation of your murderous daughter who was unsuccessfully (the movie) or successfully (the book) knowing your husband in a biblical sense… then Mildred Pierce probably floated your sadness boat.) But, I digress (sorry – ’45 was a good year), and you’d be hard pressed to find a more sordid, grim, or utterly doom-laden story than Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. Rife with technical errors and made for a song ($100,000 – cheap like borscht) Detour was nevertheless the first noir, and the first b-picture to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Oh yeah – it’s that good.

There were the big five and the little three, and then there were the Poverty Row studios. Poverty Row films were quick and dirty – made on shoestring budgets with minor stars, or possibly folks famous for other reasons (the 40’s equivalent of when you suddenly see one of the lesser known girls from The Hills pop up in a low-budget horror movie). Poverty Row films were typically the b-picture to the major releases, or sometimes the lead pictures in the second run theatres. Which basically means there was a lot of – but not exclusively – garbage. PRC, or Producers Releasing Corp. certainly lucked out with Austrian director Edgar G. Ulmer, who made three solid noirs for them, the most well-known being Detour.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal, before fighting with Franchot Tone and also pre – manslaughtering his wife) is having a bad night. He’s drinking coffee in a diner and being kind of a dick to everyone. See, they’re playing his song, the one that reminds him of his old life.

Al was a nightclub piano player with the love of a decent woman; Sue, the singer in his nightclub band. Sue heads to Hollywood to make it big, and Al thinks about their bright and happy Bon Jovi song future in this kind of terrifying daydream:

detour02But she ends up working as a waitress. Penniless Al decides to hitch to Hollywood to meet her. Between a life spent watching horror films and Detour, I know what’s up with hitch-hiking. It’s either backwoods cannibal families or a slow descent into your own personal hell, and in this case, it ends up being the latter.

Al catches a ride with a Mr. Charles Haskell, a fairly well-to-do fellow with a nice car and scratches on his hands. The scratches are from a girl he picked up. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws.” Well said, Chuck. Only Haskell’s time for one liners is almost up, and as soon as you know it, he’s dead. Accidentally. In his sleep. Or so Al says.

Al does the sensible thing, and I mean sensible if morals weren’t really a big deal for you. He reasons that no one would believe he didn’t kill Haskell, therefore, he should hide the body and take the car. Naturally, he should take his money too, as Haskell certainly can’t take it with him. And then Al decides to take Haskell’s clothes, too; after all, no one would believe someone dressed as he is would have such a nice car. Turns out once you’ve entered the moral sludge pit, it’s hard to climb out of.

detour2After successfully crossing the state line as Haskell, Al picks up fellow hitchhiker Vera – the incredible Ann Savage, who eats the role for breakfast with a performance that’s an easy 30 years ahead of her time. Vera will get her own post, but suffice to say, Ann Savage is the femme fatale of your worst nightmares. At 24, she’s a total powerhouse – Vera is a snarling, vitriolic hellcat, but Savage’s performance is nuanced enough that Vera’s few moments of vulnerability are enormously affecting.

Detour_Jaime_June11Turns out, Vera recognizes the car and the clothes, but not Al. She’s the dame with claws, and now she’s got them in Al, as she orders him to fence the car and give the proceeds to her for her silence. They spend hours in a motel room, tolerating each other, while Vera gets drunk. She even propositions him in a rather (1940s) overt manner, which he rejects. Vera’s a bit of a wistful drunk, and she’s equally revolting and alluring. Shame boner.

They’re about to sell the car, when Vera realizes she has more to gain by forcing Al to impersonate Haskell long enough to collect an impending inheritance. For a moment, this looks like it might be the main plot of the film, a rather familiar identity theft ruse that genre fans can cozy up to. But, not so fast – an absurd twist of fate sees to it that spineless Al is freed from his situation, but only until he’s carted off to the big house. No mercy for wrong-doers.

Detour doesn’t work despite its technical limitations – it works because of them. With a narrative that’s clumsy more often than sharp, reversed driving shots and amateurish rear projection, we can’t even retreat into the glamour and technical accuracy of the big studio noirs. Detour is story about irredeemable bottom feeders, and the movie is a distilled version of that. It’s seedy and unsafe in a way that few other, if any, studio films can equal.

vlcsnap-2010-07-26-15h21m58s3Typically noir is about the real locations, the real grit of the city in stark contrast to the theatrical sets of the studio backlot lovingly evoked in wonderous Technicolor in musicals or comedies. Detour’s ratty sets are used to great effect. The rear projection is strictly second-rate, which lends a bizarre, otherworldly quality. Al didn’t just take a detour to on the way to Hollywood, he set on another road entirely which leads to the great cosmic joke that his life becomes. The makeshift sets – the walk he takes with Sue on a ‘street’ which is only fog and a street sign, the police car which emerges from the darkness only adds a sense of impenetrable isolation to the already impossibly dire circumstances.

Otherworldly low budget-ness aside, also of note is Al as a narrator. He’s a slimy, simp of a man, and his version of events is questionable. He isn’t narrating the story we’re watching, only offering up pitiful excuse after pitiful excuse for his own behavior before lamenting what a victim of fate he is. And Vera? Well, Vera will get her own post, but until then, she’s a marvel – an absolutely vicious, castrating harpie. There hasn’t been another hard-boiled girl quite like her.

Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.

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Yessir, the abyss stares back. So have a Happy Valentine’s day, kid, and stick to the main road.