Saturday, February 26, 2011


"Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her
 bosom lodge to prick and sting her."

William Shakespeare "Hamlet"
One area in which old movies effortlessly surpass contemporary motion pictures is in their ability to render the grotesque glamorous. The value of such facility is debatable, but sometimes I want my movies realistic and other times I want my movies to be big capital letters. Due to censorship and social mores of the time, older movies had to be very artful in how they dealt with unpleasant subjects. And whether it was murder, jealousy, obsession, or infanticide, when buffed to a high gloss by the Hollywood Dream Machine, bad never looked so good.
Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent
Cornel Wilde as Richard Harland

Jeanne Crain as Ruth Berent

Vincent Price as Russell Quinton

No film better exemplifies this than that Technicolor noir classic, "Leave Her to Heaven." A film of such alluring visual overripeness that one can easily forget that it is probably one of the darkest and most twisted visions of familial dysfunction ever to come out of post-war era Hollywood.
"Leave Her to Heaven" is a rarity in the world of 40s film noir: the darkness occurs in the bright (and colorful) daylight. And at the center of this bright-hued nightmare is perhaps one of cinema's most relentlessly evil monsters. The monster in question? None other than the austerely exquisite Gene Tierney (saved from bland perfection by a charming overbite), fulfilling, in her role as socialite Ellen Berent, the long-standing film noir edict that any female that desirable has got to spell nothing but trouble.
Femme Fatale Red Flag #23: Really big monogram 
And trouble she is, for Ellen is nothing short of a walking “attractive nuisance” violation waiting to happen. Smart, lovely and affectionate on the surface, underneath all that window dressing lies a woman with a doozy of a father fixation and a psychopathically obsessive idea of love. The object of Ellen’s affection is author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde, a worthy competitor to Tierney in the beauty department), whom she meets briefly on a train and who soon thereafter becomes the one she MUST have.
Babe Alert! We feel your pain, Ellen.
Never mind a pesky little detail like her already having a fiancé (a wounded-looking Vincent Price).
Russell- "I'm not a man who loves often, Ellen. I love once."
Ellen- "Thank you, Russ. That's quite a concession."
Russell- "I loved you and I'm still in love with you."
Ellen- "That's a tribute!"
Russ- "And I always will be...remember that."
Ellen- "Russ, is that a threat?"
To say that Ellen’s love for Richard grows after they get married is not to state the half of it. Ellen will be satisfied with nothing less than having Richard to herself 24/7, and woe betide the woebegone (be it family members, caretakers, or wheelchair–bound little brothers) foolish enough to think she’ll allow it to be otherwise.
Wedded Bliss...or else!

The 30s and 40s may have been boom years for the “women’s film” (movies with female protagonists, told from a woman’s point of view, marketed to a female audience) but film noir always seemed to be lurking in the shadows, contrasting all those sunny “Mrs. Miniver” & “I Remember Mama” images of femininity with vitriolic visions of women intent on the destruction of the male.
Indeed, the fear of women is what sex in film noir is all about. The twist in “Leave Her to Heaven” is that the almost ethereally beautiful Tierney lacks the obvious sexual threat of, say, a Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, or Barbara Stanwyck— all of whom looked as if they’d just as soon plunge a pair of scissors into your back as look at you. Tierney's Ellen Berent is the ultra- scary female writ large because she looks like so many of the pin-ups and girls-next-door of the era. Made up to resemble every brunette Gene Kelly ever pursued in a wholesome musical, it’s quite startling when Tierney reveals herself to be a sick ticket of the order rarely seen in Production Code era movies.
Sweet as pie
The "crazy eyes" first make their appearance
Gene Tierney gives the performance of her career and is the absolute embodiment of star power in this, her Academy Award nominated role. Though her character has all the trappings of overheated melodrama (overblown emotions, ostentatious glamour), she brings a level of assuredness to her portrayal that dares you to turn it into camp. Scene after scene dances right on the edge of being a real howler on par with Lana Turner during her Ross Hunter period- or any period Douglas Sirk -but there's something about the truth of her characterization (we don't like Ellen, but we "get" her) that keeps the film on track. She's terrific.
 The famous "Swim in the Lake" sequence

Who else? Gene Tierney. Outside of Faye Dunaway in that big party scene in “The Towering Inferno,” I can’t think of another film in which a mere mortal was made to look like a fairy-tale goddess. (And if you haven’t seen Ms. Dunaway in that movie, do yourself a favor and rent it for that sequence alone. She and her cheekbones manage to upstage both Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, and she should have won a special Oscar just for keeping that jaw-dropping gown up.)
 Now THIS is what a movie star looks like!

Lynchian look at the dark underside of a certain kind of privileged life. A certain kind of only-in-the-movies life. The effect of seeing such horrible things perpetrated by pretty people in glorious surroundings is both confounding and unsettling.
 The cinematography in "Leave Her to Heaven"-
David Lean meets Alfred Hitchcock

I came across this film relatively recently, and as a big fan of movies featuring overdressed bad girls, I was stunned that I had somehow missed "Leave Her to Heaven" in my youth (I mean, did Carol Burnett ever do a parody of this movie?). Anyway, fully expecting to be treated to a howling camp-fest of lacquered cheese, I was surprised, if not shocked, at what a powerful film it is. I mean, the various conflicts and tragedies are the stuff of melodrama, but they somehow have real emotional bite...a palpable feeling of despair. I was overwhelmed by how artfully the film was constructed and how daring its themes were. Who would ever think a major motion picture from the 1940s would include this exchange:
 Ellen- (Referring to her unborn child) "I hate the little beast, I wish it would die!"
Ruth- "How can you say such wicked things?"
Ellen- "Sometimes the truth is wicked."

YIKES! Even after watching it several times over the years, the film never seems dated (the clothes, yes, the emotions, no) and it remains one of my favorite melodramas to this day. Near perfect, its only misstep is a courtroom scene in which Vincent Price seems to be (over)acting in a different film entirely.

Undeniably dark, "Leave Her to Heaven" is the best example of what I call classic moviemaking: solid cast, top-notch technicians, sure-footed director, and a great script. The basics. All the CGI and 3-D in the world isn't gonna help a movie if it doesn't have these.
And I'll never let you go. Never, never, never... 


  1. Gene Tierney's character is so crazy and obsessed in this movie. I saw it about a year ago, a little after my dad was going through Tierney movies: Laura, Dragonwyck (also with Vincent Price), Heaven Can Wait (where her hair's ridiculous when she's "old"), and his favorite, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This last is affected, I think, by the presence of a score by Bernard Hermann, who of course worked with Hitchcock and did music for Citizen Kane.
    The contrast between the emotion and plot and the color/settings is unsettling, but it's great.

    1. @Anonymous: This is my favorite Gene Tierney movie (though I've never seen Dragonwyck… have to hunt that one down). Love the observation about Tierney's old lady hair in "Heaven Can Wait" IS ridiculous, and I'm glad someone else noticed! "Leave Her to Heaven" really challenges the old Hollywood axiom about color being "too pretty" for dark-themed melodrama. Appreciate your visiting the site!

  2. Don't ever watch the audio commentary on "leave her to heaven". It's by a Time magazine critic (who clearly doesn't like the movie or most 1940's movies)and by the actor who plays the little brother Danny. This schmuck actor begins his commentary by name dropping celebrities he knew, bashing Gene and her acting, the director, and comes off like such an arrogant know-it-all that by the time his drowning scene comes up, I am rooting for Gene to let him drown lol.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous!
      Kinda have to agree with you there. I like objective commentaries and no one has to like everything about a film, but why they got such sourballs to comment on this film is beyond me. I was left with the impression that the child actor fellow was very hurt by his experience on the movie and used this as a chance to strike back. Also, he sounds a little like a parody of an acting coach from some movie like "For Your Consideration" pretentious.

    2. Very true Ken, it probably was the actor's way of getting back at everyone...60 years later, haha. That's quite a grudge. On a different note, what do you think of "The Razor's Edge"? She plays a bad, selfish girl in that movie too. Also, loved your comment about Gene's lovely overbite "saving her from bland perfection" lol.

    3. I'm a good deal behind on my Gene Tierney films. I only saw "The Shanghai Gesture" for the first time this year (Loved it!) and I've never seen "The Razors's Edge." OK, have to add that title with "Dragonwyck" on my list of must-see Tierney films. She's so good when she's bad!

  3. I just saw this again after many years on TCM this spring.
    Always loved the homes in this noir in color...especially the desert ranch home, which looked real, but who knows?

    This is one of those movies where the villain (Tierney's Ellen)is who you're rooting for because everyone around her are dolts!

    Gene Tierney never looked better on film than here...catlike and the cat's meow ; )

    Loved her in "Laura" of course, but "Whirlpool" which reunited her with Preminger, as hypnotized shoplifter, is supposed to be intriguing, too...

    1. Hi Rico
      Yes, the homes ARE pretty stunning. And if they are sets, they are as alluring as all get out. I've always wanted to see this film in a's so gorgeous!

      And speaking of gorgeous, Tierney is movie goddess perfection in this. And yes, Ellen is one of those villains you oddly want to succeed! Mentally she's certainly the quickest!

      I have never seen "Whirlpool" but you're the second person to recommend it. I think I have to search it out. I think Tierney is great in "Laura" as well. And if you've never seen her in "The Shanghai Gesture" you're in for a treat. I love that film!

  4. wardrobe snafu or spoiler alert? Ellen is wearing a monogram that includes an H before her wedding to Mr. Harland.

    1. Never noticed that before! Wonder if there are any movie costume experts out there who can clear it up....