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 Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot, Julie Christie in Petulia, or 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!

If it was the intention of the filmmakers to put us off our guard by making this bleakly downbeat psychological thriller look like a picture postcard, then they succeeded. The gorgeous visuals: from art direction to costumes to locations, serve to create an almost David 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... 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, February 14, 2011


Despite the fact that I was a pretty jumpy kid, I nevertheless LOVED to be scared at the movies. More to the point, I liked the idea of being scared. I had fun huddling in a dark movie house with my sisters, three shivering clumps of terror with knees drawn tight to our chins, peering timorously over fortress walls of raised sweaters. Unfortunately, I was also a very pensive and over-analytical kid with a habit of spoiling my own fun by taking what happened on the screen way too seriously.

The first time I recall doing this was back in 1968 when, at age 11, I broke into tears watching Rosemary's Baby. It was during the scene where the deathly pale and thin Rosemary, fearful that her child is dying inside of her, first feels it kick. In the middle of her cluttered apartment (she and her husband have just had a Christmas party), left alone by her guiltily skittish husband on the pretext of cleaning up, she sits rocking back and forth with her arms hugging her pathetically tiny belly. The look on Mia Farrow's face is so heartbreakingly happy that it just tore me up inside. Most people harbor memories of Rosemary's Baby as a fun, thrill ride of a scary movie (which it is), but I always remember how it struck me as being so sad.

Years later, I had a similar experience with another adaptation of an Ira Levin thriller, The Stepford Wives. Well-acted, suspenseful, and atmospherically creepy, I nevertheless left the theater feeling that the film was more poignantly sad than frightening.
"Daddy, I just saw a man carrying a naked lady."
"Well, that's why we're moving to Stepford."
The Stepford Wives is a feminist nightmare about a city family (Katharine Ross, Peter Masterson) moving into a suburban Connecticut town populated by dull, boorish men who all have stunningly beautiful wives who live for nothing more than slavish domesticity and sexual servility. The ingeniousness of the plot lies in its wry awareness that this women's nightmare is the waking fantasy of a great many men and a cornerstone of the American Dream itself. By pitting repressive traditional values against a more liberated definition of women's societal role, Ira Levin fashions a nifty modern horror story out of contemporary sexual politics.
Katharine Ross as Joanna Eberhart
Paula Prentiss as Bobbie Markowe
Tina Louise as Charmaine Wimpiris
Peter Masterson as Walter Eberhart
Patrick O'Neal as Dale "Dis" Coba
Nanette Newman as Carol Van Sant

Films about losing one's identity (like Invasion of the Body Snatchers) only work when the film takes the time to develop the personalities of the protagonists in jeopardy. You can only be invested in the loss of something once the value of that thing is established. What I love about The Stepford Wives is how well it gets us to understand, identify with, and ultimately root for the flawed humanity of Katharine Ross' character.
From the film's first frames, we get a sense of her restless dissatisfaction and longing for something more meaningful beyond home and family. All the more tragic then that the very individuality she seeks to express is the one quality least valued in women in the town of Stepford.
Suburban Bliss: Dream House / Nightmare Life 
In Stepford, the wives don't even exist on mailboxes

The casting of the principal ladies of Stepford is flawless. The women are all such distinct, lively, and interesting characters that you feel the men of Stepford have to be nuts (they are) to want to replace them with bland automatons. Tina Louise is surprisingly vibrant and even a little touching in her brief role.

Paula Prentiss, always a personal favorite, almost walks off with the entire film. But it's Katharine Ross' show, and she has never been shown off in a film to better effect. Hers is a deeply appealing, intelligent performance that is the genesis of the emotional impact of the unsettling dénouement.
Strange Things Afoot in Stepford

I think it was a risky step for the filmmakers to have the women in Stepford speak to one another almost exclusively in TV commercial clichés. It's hilariously appropriate, of course (the women in those commercials seem to operate on another plane of existence — they all derive a little too much joy from getting a floor clean or a stain out of a shirt). But it runs the risk of diluting the effectiveness of both the horror and the suspense. Happily, the film strikes just the right tone and unearths the eerie subnormality that lies behind the pursuit of conventional perfection.
"We Stepford wives are busy, busy, busy!"

As stated earlier, I enjoy being scared by movies, but that's another way of saying I like to be engaged by them. I want a movie to draw me into its reality.
The Stepford Wives achieves this by emphasizing character and relationships over plot machinations. It's wonderful how well the film works, even though we never really learn just how the men accomplish what they do (like the issue with the eyes). It's plenty scary just letting your imagination go where the film takes you. I think most good writers and directors will agree that detailed explanations and ensuring everything is highlighted and accounted for aren't always necessary if you can successfully suspend disbelief just long enough to keep an audience off-balance.
Much of The Stepford Wives wouldn't stand up to the microscopic scrutiny of today's fandom culture, but the film works splendidly because it's so well-constructed.
The Men's Association

Speaking of scary, I confess that once again, although the film has much to recommend in the way of shocks (the fireplace poker scene is so well edited I jump every time). But what always stays with me is the tragedy.
There's a scene late in the film where Ross (who longs for a career as a photographer) shows her work to a New York gallery owner. Her eagerness to please and desperation to be acknowledged are palpable.
Gallery owner - "What do you want from it all, do you know?"
Joanna  -"I want... somewhere, someday, someone to look at something and say, 'Hey, that reminds me of an Ingalls.' Ingalls was my maiden name. I guess I want to be remembered."

Oh, gosh. That scene just breaks my heart...and all of a sudden, I'm 11 years-old again.
"There'll be somebody with my name, and she'll cook and clean like crazy, but she won't take pictures and she won't be me.
She'll be like one of those robots in Disneyland."

A bit of twisted trivia: Katharine Ross' bathroom wallpaper, seen briefly in the opening sequence of The Stepford Wives (a horrid kind of mustard-colored jungle print with leopards and flowers), shows up 38 years later in the film Lovelace (2013).
Top: 1975. With good reason, as it turns out, Katharine Ross isn't looking forward to moving out of New York.
Below; 2013. In Lovelace, the biographical film about 70s porn star Linda Lovelace, Linda's parents (Robert Patrick and Sharon Stone) watch their daughter on The Phil Donahue Show. An event placing the scene in 1980.

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Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2011