Sunday, July 13, 2008

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

"Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her." Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

There was a time, not so long ago, when the film makers of Hollywood felt compelled to surrender certain evil characters to Divine Judgment. Bad people usually came to a bad end. In the 1945 film noir Leave Her to Heaven, lovely Gene Tierney portrays a woman who is rotten to the core. Many villains have some redeeming qualities; others are so hardened in their ways that there appears to be no turning back. Tierney's Ellen Berent is one of the latter type. Filmed in brilliant but brittle color, unlike other noirs, Leave Her To Heaven builds a perfect world and a perfect character, but behind the facade is decay and sickness. As film critic Paul Brenner says:
In the film a character remarks, "Everything is beautiful here." Everything is beautiful in Leave Her to Heaven. In fact, too beautiful. Scorsese at the screening called Leave Her to Heaven a "film noir in color." And in this disturbing film of psychotic obsession director John Stahl and cinematographer Leon Shamroy, depict a noir world in the shining sun, not in the standard low budget studio style of dark shadows and Expressionist lighting, but in a lush Technicolor splendor. The bright desert skies, the verdant green vegetation at a lakeside retreat, the sumptuous palette of food and flowers, Tierney's feral jade eyes are all too lovely and over-ripe, the black noir ooze ready to rot the luxuriant surface just as Ellen's toxic jealousy is ready to destroy everything around her. As Ray Collins remarks in the film, "Ellen always wins."
Ellen is deceptively lovely and sweet; all is neat and pristine, from her monogrammed dressing gowns to her care for a crippled boy. The veil is only gradually pulled away as Ellen's hapless husband Richard the novelist, played by Cornell Wilde, slowly realizes that he has been deceived about his bride's character. Ellen will stop at nothing, not even murder, to obtain her ends. There are clues given all along that something is not quite right with Ellen, and the viewer can pick up on it, even if Richard does not. The way Ellen rides through the desert scattering her father's ashes makes the blood run cold. It soon becomes evident that she is a pathological liar. But Richard lets passion obscure his reason. When he discovers his fatal mistake, it is too late.

It is difficult to tell how much Ellen's wickedness overlaps with psychological problems, problems which could have been addressed if caught soon enough. Ellen was given her way too much as a child and so later does not support any interference with her plans or desires. What she seems to desire most is total control of her husband. She becomes jealous not only of his writing and of every other person in his life. The scary thing about Ellen is that it is easy for anyone to identify with some of her quirks. Some of the friends and relatives who annoy her are truly annoying. However, in Ellen's case the little things that bother her are allowed to fester until the rage is out of control.

Jeanne Crain is Ellen's foster sister Ruth, of whom Ellen becomes insanely jealous. Ruth is utterly guileless and fun-loving. Not as glamorous as Ellen, Ruth's charm and loveliness are genuine, and stand in contrast to Ellen's tedious self-absorption. Richard and Ruth inevitably fall secretly in love, so discreetly that they will not admit their feelings to each other. Ruth's love for Richard is demonstrated in a heart-stopping court room scene, at great personal cost to herself, proving Ellen's relationship with him to be the maniacal obsession that it is. Richard must then save Ruth from false condemnation by enduring public humiliation and censure. Authentic love, characterized by sacrifice, overwhelms its counterfeits of lust and self-indulgence. Ellen's evil genius, which even her death could not seem to end, is foiled at last. Leave Her to Heaven, for all its over-the-top melodrama, demonstrates how the subtle poison of jealousy can destroy lives, and only love can save. Share


Kirt Higdon said...

Thank you very much for this and other movie reviews. You're helping me to add some classics to my Netflix rental list. Some of these oldies (this one, for example) I had not heard of before.

EC Gefroh said...

Elena, this movie is great! Gene Tierney is such a good actress, I couldn't stand her after her performance. :-)

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Kirt, I thought it would be fun to write about classic movies this summer.

Yes, Esther, Gene was a marvelous actress. She makes it so that you have to hate her. One must see her in "Laura" to love her again.