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.

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FALLEN ANGEL, 1945

ImageA wise old sage (Tom Waits) once said, “You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops.” Which is certainly true in Otto Preminger’s other film noir, 1945’s Fallen Angel. Hoping to capitalize on the surprise success of Laura – which also starred one-time SAG president and all around decent dude Dana Andrews, Fallen Angel was released to lukewarm reviews. While a little saggy around the middle, the film is well acted, well shot by the dependably great Joseph LaShelle (the man responsible for the first of many Twilight Zone dutch angles), and solidly directed by Preminger.

Eric Stanton gets kicked off the bus for insufficient fare in the sleepy town of Walton near San Francisco. (Just kicked off, not fined exorbitantly – What up, Vancouver?) He wanders into the nearest greasy spoon, Pops, and therein finds a whole pack of trouble in the form of waitress Stella (Linda Darnell). Stella thinks showing up for work is optional, seeing as how Pop (Percy Kilbride) has a sweaty-palmed, yet sweet, old-man crush on her.

And, oh yeah, she wanders in wearing this hat, kicks off her shoes, and takes Eric’s hamburger. Like a boss.

ImageEric, like every other fellow in the diner, is smitten. Shortly thereafter he leaves and spots a poster for a psychic act. Sensing a con (him being a conman and all), he inserts himself into marketing for the act by convincing the ex-mayor’s spinster daughter to allow them to perform their heathen spirit show. She agrees, and Eric introduces himself to her nicer, younger, and blonder sister, June – Alice Faye in her first non-musical. As an aside, legend has it that cuts to Faye’s performance caused her break-up from Fox and subsequent 17-year sabbatical from Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Eric courts Stella while at the same time watching her steal from the cash register and date various other men. He vows to give her what she wants, which isn’t so outlandish  – a home and marriage, even though he doesn’t have any money. She stands firm – he must marry her and provide a home if the relationship is to go any further. So, that’s a healthy start to a lifelong reunion, but anyway, Eric comes up with the classy plan to marry June, take her money, and have the marriage annulled.

ImageIt takes approximately one date for Eric to seduce June, as he tries to show her things he likes (alcohol, clubs, and kissing), and she confesses her secret – despite her love of piano, heavy books, and hanging out with her laugh-riot sister, she secretly wants to be just like girls in magazine ads. If you start the below clip at around 2:10, you’ll see this magic beach date for yourself.

It’s after they get their marriage certificate things start to go off the rails. After a shocking murder, Eric is – at the very least – a person of interest. He’d probably be advised not to leave town, but he does, ever loyal June in tow (at this point, she’s already been rejected on her wedding night and is amenable to giving Eric the money he wanted.) Imagine that xoJane article:

“I married this boy and then I found out he only wants to steal all of my money and have the marriage annulled so he can run off with his other girlfriend. Then he became a murder suspect. What should I wear on the train while we hide out?”

ImageAfter a police beating and an arrest, a confrontation at Pops, and a conviction, Eric is eventually won over by June’s kindness and good nature. Order is restored.

Except it isn’t. And Fallen Angel is unsetlling for just that very reason.

Stella’s end is particularly harsh and almost not in line with typical noir rules, after all, she isn’t a scheming, black-hearted, stone cold sociopath. But hey, that’s a noir rule in and of itself – bad shit happens to everyone, no matter where they’re tipping the moral scale. One could interpret Fallen Angel as merely a bad girl cautionary tale; if you go flashing your shit all over town you may – I hesitate to say – get what’s coming to you. But that’s too easy, and I think, an un-earned criticism. Stella isn’t your standard femme fatale, her wants are pretty typical – security and a home. She’s brusque, sullen, and hard-edged, but who wouldn’t be, when you’ve been lied to and yanked around as much as she has?

Her small, one room apartment is particularly affecting. It’s miles away from the home she dreams about, and there is the curious addition of a large stuffed bear, featured prominently in a few shots. We aren’t in a sin-laden boudoir of a girl with easy virtue – we’re in the rooming house of a lonely girl with a dead end job, trying to use what she has to get ahead. Stellas aren’t born, they’re made, and as she’s tossed aside by the men who took her out – most notably, Eric, by the end of the film, there is a profound sense of injustice and loss.

June’s prize for being kind, good, and loyal? Eric, who’s just barely made good on the substantial amount of faith she’s shown in him. Eric’s prize for being a charming yet conniving con man who certainly used Stella as much as she used him? June. Pop’s prize for loving Stella and putting up with her being kind of a shitty employee? Nothing. No one got what they deserved.

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ImageBeyond the gorgeous composition of shots like the two above, LaShelle’s cinematography also features a unique focus on faces in the crowd. At the cafe, in the audience, and walking around San Francisco, Fallen Angel wants you to keep your eye on the other lives surrounding yours. It’s an eerie tactic which helps to pay off the ending, and compensates for some of the film’s more arduous scenes.

Anyway, I’m probably due in some coffee shop somewhere, but, hey, in the meantime, play Stella’s song on the jukebox and be thankful you don’t get what you deserve.