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

The Joker is Wild (1957)

Jokerwild.jpgIt required quite the journey to make it to this film, starting out with a different joker entirely. My introduction to comedian Joe E. Lewis happened because of the late, great Jerry Lewis. Revisiting his life and work I made the discovery that the comedian changed his name to avoid confusion with two men. First, Joe Louis the stellar boxer of the 1930s and then Joe E. Lewis the comedian.

I had never heard of the latter and if you’re in the same boat, here is a biopic that gives a little more definition to his life and times. It seems desirable to actually turn back the clock and see footage of the man himself but if anyone has to play him why not have Frank Sinatra and he does a fine job with a performance that finds time to crack the jokes, throw back a few tunes, while still revealing the inner demons that befall even a funny man. Yet again Ol’ Blue Eyes proves he’s an acting talent to be taken seriously.

Lewis’s beginnings were nearly tragic as he found himself under attack by one of Al Capone’s enforcers who slit his vocal chords and left him for dead after he walked out of his current contract to sing at another club. Except he fought back and even with a shaky voice he found his way to burlesque shows and then stand-up comedy followed.

All the while he was supported by his piano accompanist and best friend (Eddie Albert) and even finds time for love or rather it comes to find him in the form of Jeanne Crain. However, with obligations in serving the troops and his own insistence that a marriage would never work, he balks at popping the question only to regret it for years to come.

Soon his alcohol problem is even more of an issue — even affecting his work — and the marriage he got into with one of his precocious chorus girls (Mitzi Gaynor) was doomed to fail from the beginning.  The self-destructive tendencies seem present in this life as they often are for those in entertainment. And far from rewriting the ending to his story, we leave Brown in a very real state. He’s no longer married and he’s still trying to break his habit for the sauce. It’s a very honest place to be and that’s to the film’s credit.

I will forever be a pushover for Jeanne Crain who always plays the most charming romantic roles and here it is little different. Though she’s older, her beauty is still as striking as ever. Furthermore, Mitzi Gaynor slightly subverts her reputation here delivering in a couple of scenes that aren’t simply song and dance showcases.

Meanwhile, Eddie Albert just might be the greatest second banana known to man because he instantly makes his star all the more lovable acting as their faithful foil in all circumstances. He was just so phenomenal in those types of roles building something out of almost nothing.

There’s little left to do but let the lyrics of All the Way carry us away into to the evening with a bit of melancholy:

When somebody needs you
It’s no good unless he needs you all the way
Through the good or lean years
And for all the in-between years come what may

Who knows where the road will lead us
Only a fool would say
But if you’ll let me love you
It’s for sure I’m gonna love you all the way all the way 

3.5/5 Stars

4 “Good Girls” of Film Noir

I do not particularly care for the term “Good Girl,” because it feels rather condescending toward the guardian angels of film-noir. In fact, on closer research, I’m not even sure if it’s a widely accepted term. However, they are the ones in stark juxtaposition to the femme fatales, acting as the beacons of light leading their men away from the path of destruction. As such, their roles should certainly not be discounted and here are four such women from four classic film-noir.

1. Anne Shirley in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Taking her stage name from the plucky heroine out of E.L Montgomery’s perennial classic, Anne Shirley’s Ann Grayle is the one character of high moral standing in a film clogged with all sorts of undesirables. Even our protagonists Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is cynical as all get out and Grayle’s seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor) cares more about her jewelry than her marriage.

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2.Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her to Heaven is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is an obvious example of noir that is atypically shot in color. Furthermore, Gene Tierney gives the most chilling performance of her career as Ellen Harland. However, Tierney’s turn would not be so deathly icy if it were not for Jeanne Crain’s angelic role as her sister Ruth. The polarity of the roles, Ellen’s conniving smile, crossed with her sister’s utter sincerity makes the film work far more evocatively.

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3.Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947)

Of all the “Guardian Angels” the late great Coleen Gray (who passed away last year) was perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most precious example you could ever conjure up. Her role as the faithful Nettie, tugs at our heartstrings. Though she doesn’t have a femme fatale counterpoint, the crazed Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) more than fits the bill.

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4.Marsha Hunt in Raw Deal (1948)

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is a film that revolves around a man (Dennis O’Keefe) incarcerated in prison with a girl (Claire Trevor) on the outside ready to help him get out any way she can. But it’s the social worker Ann, who we first gravitate towards because she is the righteous one trying earnestly to reform Joe. It is his evolving character, after all, that is at the core of this one.

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People Will Talk (1951)

peoplewill1People Will Talk is in this weird gray area between genres. It has humor but it’s not screwy enough to be a screwball. It has drama, but it’s not intense enough to be a full-fledged melodrama. And underlining all this are issues that reflect such areas as the medical industry, the Korean War, and most definitely the witch hunts that were going on in the nation — bleeding into the Hollywood industry.

Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this is a minor classic about a doctor named Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant), who is under investigation from one of his by-the-book colleagues Dr. Elwell (Hume Cronyn), who dislikes the good doctor’s unorthodox and thoroughly effective approach to his trade. Praetorius by now is a preeminent physician who started his own clinic and also teaches classes at a local med school.

One of these individuals happens to be Mrs. Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain). She is not a student but sits in the lecture because her former partner was a medic. A date with a cadaver proves to be too much for her and she faints. Seems normal enough right? Wrong. After examining her, the Dr. tells her she’s pregnant. The truth comes out that she’s not really married and the father is dead. Her own father would be greatly distressed to learn about her condition, since he cannot provide for her.

That’s where Dr. Praetorious comes into the picture, and he takes great concern in Ms. Higgins condition. He attempts to allay her anxiety by saying she’s not really pregnant, and she runs away from his clinic out of embarrassment, since she is falling in love with him. He goes with his stoic friend Mr. Shunderson to the farm owned by Deborah’s uncle.

Deborah turns out to have a strange mix of aloofness and lovesickness, but when she realizes the Doctor’s true motive for being there (before he even does) she is wholly relieved. They share a passionate kiss and leave the farm behind to get married. Of course, the Doctor still hasn’t told her about the pregnancy.

Meanwhile, the whole storyline culminates with a concert conducted by Praetorious himself, but it just so happens that the hearing to analyze his conduct is happening simultaneously. Some mysterious truths about Mr. Shunderson are given in his own words, and stale Mr. Elwell’s case is dumped. Everything wraps up nicely as you expect with a happy marriage and Grant free to direct the symphony in one last glorious crescendo.

So you see if you really look at this film, there are these two main story arcs. One is a response to McCarthy’s witch hunts, the other an equally subversive love story about a doctor marrying a woman who had a pregnancy out of wedlock. When you put it that way this film seems chock full of controversy, and yet it is all veiled in a palatable comedy-romance. Walter Slezak is a welcomed addition to the cast as the nutty colleague and Hume Cronyn has taken on better roles, but nonetheless, he is always an enjoyable character actor. Obviously, this is a lesser Grant performance, but his pairing with Jeanne Crain is still a fun one.

4/5 Stars

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

A_letter_to_three_wives_movie_posterHere is a story about three wives, the three husbands that go with them, and the one woman who got in the middle of them all. The main plot device is simply this: This woman named Addie Grace, who we never see but who is always being referred to, has left town and she also left a letter addressed to the three wives. The women get it as they board a boat for an afternoon out at sea with some underprivileged children. When they read what it says their afternoon takes a major turn. The one and only Addie Ross has run off with one of their husbands and yet she does not say who it is.

The rest of their time is spent thinking back on their marriages and each recollection is framed as a long flashback. First, comes Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), a farm girl who met her husband during the war. Now with his friends back home she wishes to make a good impression, but she feels like she can never measure up with such elite society. To make matters worse, she learns that before the war it was thought that Brad would marry Addie Grace because they grew up together.

Next, comes Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), who puts on an extra special dinner for her bosses from the radio station she writes for. The night includes a forgotten birthday, sappy radio programs, and all the while Rita is constantly trying to please and appease her bosses. They enjoy the evening but her husband George is upset that she constantly caves to them. To make matters worse, as a school teacher, it is difficult for him, as the man of the house, to have her bring in a great deal of their income.

Last but not least is Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) who grew up in a poor household near the train tracks with her mother and younger sister. She focuses her attention on Porter Hollingsway (her future husband), an older divorced man who also happens to own a chain of department stores. After a great deal of back and forth, they get married but underlying their marriage is this assumption that she only went after him for his money. Their relationship hardly seems to involve true love.

All three women return to their lives. Rita is grateful to find George sitting in the living room. Porter, who Lora Mae half expected to be gone, has come into the house exhausted after a long day of work. Deborah is seemingly not so lucky. All of them get ready for the dance that evening with their spirits all at different levels. However, after Porter shares a revelation the evening gets a whole lot better.

This Joseph L. Mankiewicz precursor to All About Eve is a remarkable drama in its own right thanks to its primary narrative device and fine performances from the cast. Thelma Ritter was as entertaining as ever and Celeste Holme was tantalizing as the unseen voice of Addie. It is interesting how all the stories of the film interconnect characters, making us come to understand each and every one of them a little better. The ending was slightly abrupt but still clever. All in all, A Letter to Three Wives was an interesting concept that paid off beautifully.

4.5/5 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