I 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.
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.
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.
Predictably, 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.
Leave 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:
‘Til then, no high heels on the area rug. xo.