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


  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!

    4. That kid actor is Darryl Hickman, who had a long career in Hollywood and was a friend and frequent guest of Robert Osborne on TCM. He had a lot of funny, insightful things to say about his career and I never found him to be insufferable. (His brother Dwayne was Dobie Gillis.). Among his many roles were the neighbor kid in MEET ME IN ST LOUIS who wears a dress on Halloween and encourages Margaret O'Brien to be "the most horrible!" and the production executive in NETWORK who has trouble keeping up with Faye Dunaway as she storms down the halls. I actually consider his drowning in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN to be one of the most disturbing murders in movie history.

    5. I sort of grew up seeing Hickman in old movies when I was a kid. Always remembered him as one of the few who had no showbiz child-to-adult transition horror stories.
      I recall him in those other roles but I didn't know that was him in NETWORK!
      And yes, his death scene in this is pretty brilliant in being a chilling, very cinematic death of a minor. It must have been seen as pretty harrowing back in the day.

  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. One of the things about these overdone (in the best sense---the decor alone here is astounding) movies and their look at the overprivileged is that I think we really get a kick out of seeing these pretty people behave horribly - it confirms all our envious fantasies about them. Except for Chill Wills, no one in the film seems to have to hold down a 9-5 job, and they live in some of the most enviable real estate ever (what I'd give just for that Southwestern house!). One thing that many feminist-oriented viewers comment about this movie is that Tierney may be possessive but she has a point--she's on her honeymoon with her new husband, usually a time when you'd think that 2 people would want to be alone together, and suddenly her whole freaking family descends on her. I always wonder why Cornel Wilde's character seems to want people around rather than have privacy with his beautiful wife- is he uncomfortable with the situation? (There's one line of Tierney's, when she comments on how everything can be heard through the bedroom walls, that I marvel at getting past the censor.) There's really no other film quite like Leave Her To Heaven; it's really a product of its time; wonder what viewers will think of it a hundred years hence?

    1. I love the points you bring up! Movies like this were always full of these rich people who never worked. The Jeanne Crain character is (I suppose) expected to live at home until married, but in the meantime, putters around the garden and decides to take trips to Mexico on funds from who knows where. This sort of thing happens so much in old movies, I rarely ever questioned it.
      But best of all, I love you very common sense appraisal of Wilde's idea of a honeymoon: family around at all times! I don't know that I ever thought of that, but as they are newlyweds, it creates a sympathy with Tierney's plight and makes you wonder about him.
      Everything you mention points to why some classic films will last forever; they so reflect an attitude of their time...even a film as shockingly offbeat as this one.
      Thanks for new things to think about next time I give this film a look!

  5. Hi Ken,
    I was watching "Leave her to heven" again recently, and I was more than happy to read your review here paying tribute to Gene Tierney.
    After seeing "The Ghost and Mrs Muir" (which always makes me emotional at the end) I went through an unpredictable Tierney phase which made me read her autobiography (quite icing actually, especially when she talks without any restraints about her suicidal urges and how she acted through those to make people believe she was fine), and watch many of her films from the 40's amongst which I loved "Dragonwyck" (a Rebecca type movie, but more acid-fairytale like). But "Leave her to heaven" was probably the most surprising of her part for me, and I love how you depict the exact impression which affected me when I first saw it: from typical full technicolor romance to vivid crazyness, Tierney, who in most of her movies was all sweetness and civility, goes from Bambi eyes for her prey to full overbearing charisma (I mean that scene when she breaks up with her fiancé "Oh, That's a tribute.") I'm happy to see I'm not the only one with a fondness for this movie even though the subject was really dark. :)

    1. Hello Ivar
      Wonderful reading about your thoughts on this film. It sounds as though you're more familiar with Tierney's work than I am, but even a passing familiarity with her films reveals this to be quite the notable departure.
      I read her autobiography several years back and, like you, I was taken by her candor in discussing her issues with depression and mental illness.
      To see her as Mrs. Muir (and yes, isn't that the most touching conclusion of any film?) and to see her in this is to witness an actress whose beauty somewhat overshadowed her talent. She's very good, I think, and I'm glad you enjoyed the film. Thank you for stopping by here to share your thoughts on this technicolor noir that I truly adore. Much appreciated!

  6. Hello Ken,
    I agree with you about this film, Gene Tierney was never better. She was just so compelling in her portrayal, one could not look away from the screen. I also liked Cornel Wilde, but Jeanne Crain held her own with Miss Tierney so well - it's like she wore steel armour in the confrontation scenes, but had a gentleness all her own. A beautiful film not only for the performers but for its overall execution, it's a film I would definitely watch it again. Sometimes it's better than everything is not spelled out for the audience, leaves them more tantalised. Thank you for the great review.

    1. Hello Athanasios,
      I like your observation about Jeanne Crain...I think it's very much the impression I get, too. She handles herself nicely against strong co-stars.
      From the look of it to it's unexpectedly dark world view LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is indeed one of those films whose dynamic visual style is more than matched by the performances and story.
      I haven't seen it in some time, but your considered comments may inspire a revisit soon. Thank you so much for reading this and commenting. I so appreciate it!