The Criterion Odyssey/Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Jo Swerling
Based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Director: John M. Stahl
Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Darryl Hickman
Release: December 19, 1945
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Awards: Shamroy won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Tierney was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce.” It was also nominated for Best Art Direction, Color (lost to “Frenchman’s Creek”) and Best Sound (lost to “The Bells of St. Mary”).
Percent Noir: 50%
This is a much more important film to the noir movement than most give it credit for. In addition to proving that the world of noir can be framed in color just as well as in black and white, “Leave Her to Heaven’s” spectacular box office grosses (it was one of the biggest movies of the decade) helped ensure that noir would continue its relationship with the American public for at least the next few years. The fact that it’s awesome is just icing on the cake.
Gene Tierney is the movie, plain and simple. She might be more remembered for her turn in “Laura,” but this is one of the best performances ever in a film noir, male or female, hero or villain. When she is onscreen, you cannot take your eyes off her, and when she is offscreen you long for her to return. I believe that’s the definition of a movie star.
Tierney plays Ellen, who becomes infatuated with novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) because he reminds her of her recently deceased father. She seduces Richard, tosses aside her current fiancé, attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), and the two are soon married. Though at first she seems like the ideal wife, catering to Richard’s every need and helping Richard’s disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman)… it soon becomes apparent that she loves Richard too much. She becomes obsessed with having Richard all to herself and does anything necessary to make that happen. First, she allows Danny to drown, then she aborts her unborn baby by throwing herself down a staircase. Finally, when she suspects that her adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) and Richard are in love, she commits suicide and, in the process, frames Ruth for murder. As one does.
While the entire movie is filled with great moments, Ellen’s murder of Danny and her self-induced miscarriage are both transcendent. Screenwriter Jo Swerling and director John M. Stahl did not place the drowning in the middle of the night on a fog-filled lake – it takes place on an idyllic day in crisp, beautiful technicolor. Ellen is wearing white, her shockingly red lipstick a beautiful visual contradiction (Tierney’s red lips alone are reason enough for the movie to be in color) and has donned dark sunglasses so that we cannot see her eyes as Danny calls for help, goes under, surfaces and then goes under again, disappearing for good. It’s unnerving and hard to watch, weirdly harder because of the beauty surrounding the characters.
And then there’s the miscarriage scene. The brilliance here is what happens immediately before, with Ellen ensuring her hair and face is in a peak beauty phase. She puts on some perfume, ensures she looks as beautiful as possible and then tosses herself down the stairs savagely. Wow.
Even as I write that, it’s important for me to underline that – at least for the first half of the film – the filmmakers and cast choose to underplay Ellen’s insanity. In most of her scenes, even when she gets a little short or a little angry, she seems normal enough… like that person you see snipping at someone at the bank. You don’t assume they are crazy, you just assume they are having a bad day. Contrast this with the “crazy person everyone assumes is sane” characterization – Robert Ryan in “Crossfire” or “Beware, My Lovely,” for example – where they have wild eyes and are all but frothing at the mouth, and this is a portrait of Stahl and Tierney trusting the audience.
It’s also notable that one of the reasons that Ellen is so memorable is that she isn’t like most other femme fatales. They’re after money, power or… well, that’s it. Usually money or power. And they’ll move heaven or earth to get it. Ellen? She’s after love. All of Richard’s love. Until he, like Ellen’s father, has nothing left to give.
Stahl smartly has Tierney just let loose in certain scenes and allows stillness to take over in others. Tierney makes some very interesting acting choices that linger in your mind long after the film ends. Take the moment where Richard is accusing Ellen of killing his brother and Tierney’s face is contorted into shock and misunderstanding and then, in a fraction of a second, her face goes entirely calm as she admits “Yes.” 99% of other actresses would have turned the switch into a “moment,” but here the briefness of the emotional change is what gives us impact.
Wilde is passable but not memorable as Richard, hitting all the marks he needs to but not really bringing much else aside from a great set of arms. Just imagine what someone like Joel McCrea could have done with the role. It’s quite funny that Crain plays Ellen’s adopted sister, because she looks one heck of a lot like Tierney and could have passed for her blood sibling. She is likewise fine, though she rises to the occasion for her big scene confronting Tierney about her wickedness.
Aside from Tierney, the main standout is Vincent Price, who takes what could have been a thankless role and invests it with more life and vigor than you could have ever expected. He takes over as the main presence of the movie after Ellen dies, and thank God for that, or the last half hour of the film would have been quite a slog. There’s something amazing about his court scenes, specifically the way he cross-examines Wilde and Crain. Their characters answer his question and, a mico-second after they finish speaking, Price is already asking the next. It’s a shockingly invasive way to question someone, and really works to build tension for the audience.
Swerling’s screenplay is about as good as screenplays come, taking the time needed to delve into the characters while also fascinating the viewer from moment one. Look at the unconventional way Ellen and Richard get engaged. Or Ellen explaining her dream of Richard drowning. Or how he both exploits and undercuts the awkwardness of falling in love with a woman who says you remind her of her dead father. It’s a shame Swerling isn’t as well remembered as several of his contemporaries – his work writing Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” and uncredited polish on “It’s a Wonderful Life” are testament to his greatness.
Director Stahl’s approach to the material is to be standard in the macro so he can get away with the savageness of the small scenes. He uses chapter cuts between scenes and films everything in bright technicolor glory to trick the audience into thinking this is a high-brow weepie melodrama, when… well… it’s not. Because of these things, he can get away with the drowning scene or the miscarriage scene because the audience isn’t expecting that kind of material. I somehow have never seen any of Stahl’s other films (he directed the original versions of “Magnificent Obsession” and “Imitation of Life”), but I wish he had done more noir, because the performances he gets from Tierney and Price (both of whom are noir favorites) are career bests for both. And before you start arguing about Price’s work in Roger Corman’s Poe films or his amazing stuff in “His Kind of Woman,” I’ll ask you to watch him here again.
I’m surprised “Leave Her to Heaven” has never been remade – this is a plum role for a star that has a great pedigree behind it. Whatever the case, “Leave Her to Heaven” is one of my favorite films noir, and that drowning scene is one of the best murders in the history of film.
Flore Maquin offers up one of the best, most impactful covers of 2020 so far – illustrating the most iconic scene of the film in all the bright and beautiful colors anyone who knows the film already loves. Bonus points for those sunglasses with just a hint of still water reflected.
I award it four-and-a-half garden hoes out of five.
Megan Abbott provides an okay essay – don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film yet under any circumstances. While I give her credit for trying to get into the psychology of Ellen (and calling out how sympathetic the filmmakers make her in certain scenes), Abbott also does one of my biggest essay pet peeves – just describing the plot beat by beat and then embellishing each note a bit. She also gives a shout-out to Anthony Lane in the first paragraph, which is just… ugh.
I award it two switched glass toiletry bottles out of five.
Yikes. Barely any.
- The wonderful Imogen Sara Smith must have been told before her interview started that hers would be the only extra of substance on the release, because she goes for it. Context on where the film fits in the film noir cycle, backstory on Stahl, backstory on Tierney, focus on the outstanding sequences, thematic storytelling… Smith covers it all and makes it look easy. Really an outstanding interview.
- A trailer. Sigh.
There really should have been more. Nothing was even brought over from the Fox DVD.
I award them one-and-a-half sunglasses out of five.