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…
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.
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.
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