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Saturday Night Cinema: Leave Her to Heaven


Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is the film noir classic (in exquisite Technicolor cinematography, no less) Leave Her to Heaven. If you are an avid Gene Tierney fan like yours truly, this is Tierney at the height of her beauty and acting powers, as she plays one of cinema’s most chilling psychopaths. Gene Tierney was nominated for an Oscar as the cold-blooded murderess. Crazy never looked so seductive or “bit with such a ferocious over-bite as from Gene Tierney’s demented character.” “Tierney’s Ellen Berent is one of cinema’s most chilling psychopaths.”

Cornel Wilde as the object of her mad affection and the lovely Jeanne Crain as the long suffering sister are superb. One film critic described quipped, “everything is beautiful in Leave Her to Heaven. In fact, too beautiful.” And Jeanne Crain is something to behold. What’s interesting is that up until this film, the underrated Tierney was certainly considered the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, but not necessarily a world class actress. This film changed all that. She was nominated for best actress for this film (her only Oscar nod).
It was cited by the acclaimed director Martin Scorsese as one of his favorite films of all time; he assessed Gene Tierney as “one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Era.”

It is a riveting tale; think of it as film noir ….. in sumptuous technicolor. Tierney is pathologically in love with writer Cornel Wilde, and will stop at nothing from having her man completely and utterly to herself. Her feverish jealousy renders Tierney’s Ellen one of the most chilling psychopaths in cinema history.

Everything in this film is spectacularly beautiful; “too beautiful,” opined Paul Brenner, film critic.

Tierney is cold and perfect, her kid sister Jeanne Crain is the embodiment of goodness, and it all plays out against the lush expanses of the American Southwest.

The film’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Act I, Scene V, the Ghost urges Hamlet not to seek vengeance against Queen Gertrude, but rather to “leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her.”

Melodramatic? Uh huh. Over the top? Absolutely. That’s what makes it so delicious.

March 01, 2009

Cinema In The Round

Martin Scorsese famously called director John M. Stahl’s post-war Technicolor masterpiece “Leave Her To Heaven,” “a film noir in color.” The distinction is apt. This 1945 picture never crosses into neo-noir territory.

Gene Tierney uses her exotic pale blue eyes to stark unemotional effect as Ellen Berent, a femme fatale seductress who lays a marriage trap for successful author Richard Harland (played by Cornel Wilde). Ellen is an obsessive compulsive whose insular idea of wedded life excludes everyone except the man she holds onto with a death grip. Ellen’s twist on munchausen by proxy resonates with Gothic sensibilities. She has no use for the baby growing in her belly; her loyal husband is all the child she needs to contain and control. Moreover, Ellen has the ability to kill in cold blood.

A pre-horror maestro Vincent Price plays Ellen’s jilted former fiancé in this luscious thriller filled with chewy dialogue, great costume designs, and lakeside locations to die for. Every one of master cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s compositions is a work of sublime art. This is a picture that burns itself permanently on your eyeballs.

Mental illness never looked so seductive or bit with such a ferocious over-bite as from Gene Tierney’s demented character. Creepy never looked so seductive.

Anthony Lane in the New Yorker said:

Released in 1945, John M. Stahl’s melodrama is showing at Film Forum, in a restored print. A vampiric beauty named Ellen (Gene Tierney) gets her talons into Harland, a vulnerable writer (Cornel Wilde), and refuses to let go. In the process, she lets his disabled brother drown, and aborts Harland’s child by toppling down the stairs. Catch it on TV and you will find yourself complaining, “Please. No one behaves like that.”

But there’s the rub. Movies like Stahl’s were not made for TV. Their purpose unfolds only on the big screen, where the blue-velvet skies and the lethally smooth waters of “Leave Her to Heaven” acquire the unquestioned clarity of a fever dream. A scornful James Agee, reviewing it at the time, said that the story might have been “plausible enough in a dramatically lighted black-and-white picture”; but plausibility is not the issue, and color is the lifeblood of the film. When Harland, fresh off a train from the East, wanders out into the New Mexico night, still wearing a dark city suit, we find ourselves at the border where noir and Western meet. As for the brother’s death, with Ellen looking on coolly in white robe and shades, it remains one of the most perturbing in the history of Hollywood, far scarier than anything in “Watchmen”; where Snyder employs the latest tools of computer-generated imagery to jack up the foulness of his violence, and thereby renders it more absurd, Stahl takes the trouble to feel his way into the implications of three-strip Technicolor, and thus into the more vivid hues of the heart. First used for a full-length movie (Rouben Mamoulian’s “Becky Sharp”) a decade earlier, and brought to blooming fruition in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Wizard of Oz,” the new technology reached its astounding apogee in the lips of Gene Tierney, as red as a witch’s apple. Each frame of her seems to be hand-tinted, as if she had ordered it. Her soft voice dies to a low whisper at the close of every phrase. “I don’t want anybody else to do anything for you,” she tells her husband. And with that, the great conservative promise of postwar domesticity—the man, newly arrived or returned, waited upon by his woman—tightens into a threat

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