Review: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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Film Noir is usually synonymous with black and white. Of course, as with everything, especially something as notoriously difficult to categorize as film noir, there are notable exceptions. Obvious outliers are Niagara (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), House of Bamboo (1955), and this picture from almost a decade earlier, Joseph M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945).

One of the film’s finest assets, in fact, is its highly saturated Technicolor tones which are unequivocally some of the best that Hollywood had to offer during that period. Leon Shamroy, a Hollywood workhorse who seems to have faded in deference to other names, nevertheless makes the picture that much better with his photography.

It’s gorgeous — as pretty as a postcard even — almost too gorgeous. Something cannot be that beautiful without there being a catch or something buried underneath the surface. The same might be said of the film’s female lead, Ellen Harland (Gene Tierney).

The exquisite young lady meets the author (Cornel Wilde) of the book she is reading quite unwittingly. He can’t help but stare at her because she’s very attractive and she can’t help look at him due to the familiarity of his face. More on that later. Anyway, they both end up getting off at the same stop and find out they share some mutual connections. They’ll be seeing a good deal more of each other shortly.

As much as I often disregard Cornel Wilde as an acting talent; he more often than not seems unexpressive and dull, those perceived qualities nevertheless make the beguiling wiles of Gene Tierney all the more prominent as she steals the picture away in one of her greatest performances.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that she is blessed by the gloriously vibrant colors as one of the preeminent beauties of her generation. However, even in a picture as Laura (1944), where she was at the center of the entire plot — this otherworldly beauty — in Leave Her to Heaven she positively commands the screen from the minute she arrives and doesn’t let go until her untimely demise. Even then, she still enacts her will on the narrative but for once her husband is able to have some peace from her stifling displays of affections.

Screenwriter Jo Swerling drops subtle hints of a dubious nature throughout but this is the beauty of it, only in hindsight will you notice them. By that time it’s far too late. One observer notes matter-of-factly, in an early line of dialogue, as she races two children across the lake, “Helen always wins.” Its a metaphor for her entire life thus far.

She simultaneously harbored some twisted father complex, alluded to early on and suggesting Ellen’s rather unhealthy attachment to the man who passed away recently under curious circumstances. That’s why Ellen, her mother, and sister have all convened. To proceed with her father’s wishes of having his body cremated in his favorite place.

It’s no small coincidence that the man who was taken with her on the train and who she takes a liking to reciprocally, shares a striking resemblance to her dear departed dad. It’s almost uncanny. However, even this, while duly noted, only seems like a side note.

Because the spectacular scenery and how deliriously happy they are together, seem to discount any other distractions. This is the key. Everything is so perfect for them you can hardly expect anything might be wrong. They have a whirlwind romance, Ellen ditches her stuffy fiancee (Vincent Price), and practically takes it upon herself to propose marriage to Harland. Her kisses seal the deal.

They are married and she vows to do everything for him. The cooking, the cleaning, everything; she’s the perfect example of doting wifely domesticity. She is the symbol of the ideal 1940s housewife even. Beautiful and caring — making Harland extremely content and do everything in her power to make his crippled but good-natured younger brother (Daryl Hickman) feel cared for. Again, it’s so perfect. Until it’s not…

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The signs are there again. Ellen begins to sour, bemoaning the fact that ever since they’ve gotten married she’s never been alone with her husband. There are always other people, whether Danny, or the kindly hand (Chill Wills), or even her own family. She doesn’t want any of them around. She just wants Richard and nothing else. The extent of her jealousy surpasses healthy levels by severe margins. And it becomes all too obvious her outward show of demureness goes only so far. Because, in truth, there have been few femme fatales as homicidally deadly as Ellen Harland. Let this go on record.

While her husband wonders what has come over her, trying to knock out his latest novel, Ellen systematically works to remove everyone from his life currently impeding her road to greater attachment and total control of all his time and affections. It comes in three waves. The films most haunting scene is subsequently one of the most unsettling to come out of Classic Hollywood, solidifying the image of an icy Tierney cloaked in shades as one for the ages. Because you see, she sits there emotionless, with no feeling whatsoever as a boy begins to drown and frantically calls out for help. And still, she sits there and does nothing. Thrown in juxtaposition with the glorious imagery makes the composition all the more jarring.

But that’s only her initial move, next comes a baby that she doesn’t want, and she even pulls a first premeditating on her own death so that she will keep anyone else from ever having her man. So in the end, she readily enters into death just so that she can hold onto Richard one last time. In fact, you could make the case it’s not solely out of malice but a perverted sense of hyper-obsessive love.

Though all but pushed aside in the beginning, it is the acidity of Vincent Price as the once-spurned fiancee who makes the courtroom scenes burn with not uncertain malice. He’s not only the prosecutor but very much a tool for Ellen to utilize even in death. She comes to haunt him from the depths of the grave.

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It’s little surprise that there’s almost a conscious effort to make  Jeanne Crain more pure and exquisite by the minute. At first, she’s merely the girl with the hoe, with a green thumb, face smudged with dirt or the model in the playroom. But as she’s more distraught with Ellen and ultimately implicated in her sister’s murder, her saintly qualities, making her the quintessential noir angel, come into sharper relief.

In fact, Leave Her to Heaven is one of the most foremost examples in both the female archetypes. While Tierney chills are bones to their core with that beguiling combination of glamour and obsessive malevolence, Crain gives us nothing but warmth and even in an abrupt ending caps things off in the most satisfying way possible. If anything they both make Cornell Wilde better because this is their picture and not his. As an enduringly contorted psychological drama, the 1940s arguably produced few superior vehicles to Leave Her to Heaven. Gene Tierney burns with bewitching beauty and potent fury.

4/5 Stars

Henry: Cornel Wilde just kissed Gene Tierney.
Hawkeye: On the teeth?
Trapper: Right smack on.
Hawkeye: If he straightens out that overbite, I’ll kill him.
~ M*A*S*H episode House Arrest

Road House (1948)

Road House 1“Doesn’t it ever enter a man’s head that a woman can do without him?” ~ Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens

Jefty’s is quite the joint. Bowling, drinks, floorshows. In a one-horse town, it’s the place to go especially when the establishment’s proprietor (Richard Widmark) brings in the alluring nightclub singer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) to liven up the bar. Although he hired her without much forethought following a trip to Chicago, Jefty’s convinced this girl is really something although his faithful right-hand man Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) has her pegged from the start.  Smoking and playing solitaire. It sums up her life. It’s true.

They don’t exactly hit it off because he thinks he already knows what type of girl she is and she’s not too happy about getting pushed out of this gig. But ultimately she stays, the general public starts coming in droves, Jefty’s happy, and Pete does his best to keep away from her. But she does exactly the opposite. She appreciates Jefty but really has eyes for Pete and she pursues him.

What the film hinges on is really a love diamond with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde at the points. She is the object of desire for Jefty who thinks he could finally tie the knot with a girl. He’s in love no question. But Pete warms to Lily as well and is the one looking to go away with her. There also must be some necessary credit given to Celeste Holm for her performance although she has the most thankless role as Susie, the cashier at the Road House who also has obvious feelings for Pete.

But everything is thrown for a loop when Jefty comes back from a week long hunting trip with big news to spring on Pete. He’s gotten a marriage license. He’s going to ask Lily to marry him. However, over that same week, Pete and Lily have gotten closer than ever. Obviously, when the truth comes out the old friends have it out and the two lovers look to leave town.

The whole film thus far, Jefty has been a bit of a loose cannon but a generally nice guy. Except on a dime, things turn. Soon Pete is being detained for some cash missing from the company’s safe that his old friend claims is missing. It’s Pete’s words (with Lily’s) against Jefty’s with the police in the middle. It seems like a small deal but in a whirlwind sequence of events, Pete is brought to court and convicted of grand larceny. However, in a diabolical turn of events, Jefty becomes Pete’s savior as well as his master following a talk with the judge who agrees to put the convicted man on probation at the Road House. It’s just like old times, the gang all back together again except this time Jefty has Pete in a bind. One false move, one thing that he doesn’t like and Pete goes back to fulfilling his prison sentence. Jefty’s got him on a string and everyone knows it.

It’s in these moments where the remnants of the maniacal cackle of Tommy Udo from Kiss of Death begin to rear their ugly mug. And the next hunting trip Jefty plans with everyone included fills liked forced fun. No one’s having it and Lily and her love look to take one final chance to run away because any life is better than a life under Jefty’s thumb. What follows is a race for the woods and the Canadian border with Susie fleeing after them pursued by the crazed man packing a gun a bit like A Dangerous Game. It’s bound to be a deadly finale. Someone has to lose.

Cornel Wilde always feels too much like cardboard or plastic, whichever you prefer especially when put up against Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark. The latter pair is more at home in the worlds of film noir, Lupino being both alluring and assertive, boasting a gravelly voice perfect for rasping out “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” that is enhanced by her smoking habits.

Meanwhile, Widmark always had a handle on the sleazy and embittered characters who were in one moment grinning and in another seething with a cunning anger. There’s a volatile polarity that he taps into that makes most every character he plays enjoyable as we slowly watch their evil tendencies overwhelm any good that is in them (or vice versa). He also likes hitting the sauce. Cigarettes and booze have always been a hallmark with noir and so it is with this film. So if you’re looking for a good time and a bit of uncompromising filmmaking, look no further than the Road House.

3.5/5 Stars

High Sierra (1941)

high-sierra-1They Drive by Night is a surprisingly engrossing picture and I only mention it for its obvious relation to High Sierra. It came out a year earlier, helmed by Raoul Walsh starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. The important fact is that if Walsh had gotten his way, he would have cast Raft again as Hollywood’s perennial tough-guy leading man.

But Bogart saw what this film, based on the work of W.R. Burnett, could do for him and he talked Raft out of the part while lobbying Walsh for the role. Reluctantly the director agreed and as it turned out it was the perfect vehicle for Bogart’s big break as he had foreseen.

High Sierra functions as a crossroads of sorts between America’s standard genres. There’s no question that Roy Earle is a gangster in the former sense of the word. And even as an actor Bogart was used to playing second fiddle to the likes of the Cagneys, Rafts, and Robinsons. But if there was ever a poster boy for the emerging film-noir movement Bogart is the shining example carrying that tough as nails persona from gangster films but also functioning as a fatalistic antihero in the same sense. We see it with Spade, Marlowe, and all the rest. Also, as an early heist drama, High Sierra ushers in a trend that would be explored further in films like The Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing (notably all gritty cogs in the film-noir canon).

To understand what Bogart saw in this picture and to comprehend what a lynchpin it was, it’s necessary to delve into the story itself penned by Burnett and Bogart’s long time future collaborator John Huston.

Veteran gangster Roy Earle (Bogart) has just earned a government pardon with a little help from a powerful friend. It’s this aged gangster from the old days Big Mac who pays his loyal henchman a favor so he can run point on a new bank job. Big Mac is on his deathbed and the changing of the guards seems all too imminent, still, Earle is beholden to him. He’s a loyal son of a gun and tough as all get out. He’s not about to trust a copper and just about scoffs at the men who are supposed to help in pulling off the job.

high-sierra-3He’s not about to lose his nerves or take his eyes off the objective but the two young bucks he’s thrown in with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy) carry the tough guy bravado well but there hardly as experienced as him. He’s not too happy about the girl (Ida Lupino) they have hanging around either because she’s an obvious liability. In his experience, women squawk too much. The man on the inside (Cornel Wilde) is even worse, a spineless hotel clerk with even less nerve.

Earle’s philosophy is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s what we expect from a gangster picture. However, there are several elements to suggest that we are on the brink of a new movement to reflect the changing American zeitgeist. High Sierra is actually composed of a great deal of on location shooting throughout the Lone Pine area that adds a layer of credence to this entire tale but also a certain visual tranquility. And although it’s difficult to know precisely how much involvement Huston had on the script, there’s no doubt that his impact on noir was crucial with The Maltese Falcon released the same year.

But the bottom line is Bogart’s character has another side. With the gears of the heist in motion, he wryly notes, “Of all the 14 karat saps, I start out this caper with a girl and a dog.” And it’s true he has a certain soft spot for Marie Garson, and the yippy dog Pard (Bogart’s own pet Zero) but that’s not the extent of his character. In the stories most striking B plot, he befriends a trio of poor country folk led by their patriarch the always amiable Henry Travers and important to Roy because of their pretty granddaughter (Joan Leslie) who also happens to be a cripple.

high-sierra-2In an unassuming act of charity, Roy has a doctor friend take a look at Velma and ultimately pays for the surgery that heals her ailment completely. Still, if the story ended there it would be a happy ending but with the heist in the works, Roy is not so lucky. He pulls off the job and makes his getaway but with most any cinematic criminal activity in Hollywood’s Golden Age there must be repercussions. After all, that’s what keeps things interesting and it’s true that Roy and Marie are able to lay low for a time but soon the word is out and the gangster is a wanted man.

Walsh orchestrates the tense finale stirringly in a way that still has the power to excite with editing, score, and camera all flowing seamlessly for the most crackerjack of endings. It’s true that big shots are brought low and the irony was that it was hardly a woman or a dog that caused his downfall. It was himself. In those faltering moments, Bogart won his audience over as a leading man and would never lose them again. Certainly, we have the rather unfair added benefit of hindsight, but High Sierra stands as a monumental picture.

4/5 Stars

 

 

The Big Combo (1955)

b456e-bigcombo1There is so much to the plot of The Big Combo, but the irony is that the story is not altogether extraordinary. Instead, highlights include David Raksin’s (Laura) jazzy score infused with brass which is somewhat unusual for the genre. Cinematographer John Alton also helped in making this film visually and stylistically engaging. There are some crazy, overstated shadows making this undeniably film-noir. There are very few better examples of so-called “dark” cinema with prototypical chiaroscuro and low key lighting.

Honestly, I have never been a huge fan of Cornel Wilde, and I can understand why he is not that popular or well known. He’s relatively beady-eyed, not particularly good looking, and his voice is not altogether memorable. Like Mr. Brown said in the film, “It’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop.” Even Dick Powell has some wit but Wilde’s character is straitlaced and steady. There’s nothing of much repute about him. But enough about Wilde.

The story is your somewhat typical procedural with a righteous cop facing off against a big time mobster. Mr. Brown is practically untouchable with a large pool of money at his disposal and a group of faithful thugs ready to do his bidding. He has a girl, Susan Lowell, who is about fed up with him, but she sticks around.

Lt. Diamond (Wilde) is totally fed up with the corruption but himself is also infatuated with Lowell. His only lead is the name “Alicia” which leads to trouble with Brown and his thugs who rough him up and leave him drunk. However, he learns from a man named Betini that “Alicia” was Brown’s wife who was supposedly murdered and thrown overboard with an anchor.

Next on the beat is a tight-lipped Swedish antique dealer, and ultimately, Diamond comes up with proof that Brown’s wife is still alive. He’s getting too close so Mr. Brown sends out his thugs Fante and Mingo to shut him up for good. They get the wrong person.

Alicia finally turns up, a few more figures get mowed down in Mr. Brown’s wake including Diamond’s trusty colleague Sam (Jay Adler). All that’s left is a showdown at the airport that is like Casablanca‘s atmosphere on steroids. It truly is a stunning achievement in visual storytelling for Alton and director Joseph H. Lewis.

There is not a great deal of sympathy to be had for a lot of the characters who got it, and though she seemed to have little bearing on the plot, Rita’s demise was surprisingly difficult to take. She was the girl with the heart of gold. Brown’s heartlessness finally came back to bite him but honestly, I could have cared less if Diamond was the one to catch him or not. He couldn’t have done it without Susan anyways.

3.5/5 Stars

Leave Her to Heaven (1946) – Film-Noir

Starring Gene Tierney and Cornell Wilde, this film noir is certainly unique. The movie is completely in color, it takes place in quiet locales, and it features a nice family with a new son-in-law. However, Tierney delivers a chilling performance as the jealous and deranged wife who falls for the author Richard Harland (Wilde) and she will not let him go. At first Ellen seems nice enough but all too soon we see the extent she will go to be the only one in Richard’s life. Soon her treatment of others perturbs him and she in turn gets jealous of the attention he gives to her sister. In her final act Ellen commits suicide and tries to pin it on her sister. Even from the grave it seems like she will never give up Richard. However, as we learn from the flashback, this is the first time she did not end up winning. This film is less about action and more about the characters. I must admit Tierney seemed like the greatest villain of all time sitting there callously in the boat and ironically Jeanne Craig became more beautiful the colder Tierney got. Tierney was in a lot of great movies but I think this has to be her best performance because in most of her other movies the audience adores her and here we openly despise her. We cannot wait for her to be left to Heaven so justice can be dealt.

4/5 Stars