Monday 12 February 2024

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Director: John M. Stahl
Writer: Jo Swerling, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Stars: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain

Index: The First Thirty.

I had no idea what this film was before this project cued it up for me, but then I’m unsure now, having seen it. It’s often been described as the first colour film noir, which does make sense to a degree, but it’s truly a psychological thriller, one that would have a very different poster if it was remade today. And it may well be, as it’s apparently one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite movies. The man has taste.

Like Laura, Vincent Price’s first film noir, it’s told in flashback after an introductory scene. This one has a sombre Cornel Wilde returning to Deer Lake after a couple of years in prison. Off he goes over the lake in a rowboat as we’re told the background behind that, which begins with him meeting Gene Tierney by chance on a train journey.

He’s Richard Harland, a bestselling novelist. She’s Ellen Berent, who’s partway through one of his books but doesn’t realise who he is until they’re introduced on the platform after they disembark. They’re aiming to stay at the same New Mexico lodge, he with friends and she to scatter her father’s ashes.

Of course they hit it off, surprising nobody except Dick, who hasn’t realised how obvious his interest is to everyone else present. The real surprise shows up a few days later when Vincent Price, dumped by telegram, arrives to wish the new happy couple well and to ask for them to wait until after his upcoming election for district attorney to get married.

This is a great scene, because it comes right out of the blue and shakes up everything. It’s only briefly mentioned that Ellen was engaged when she takes off the ring but, next thing we know, she’s engaged again to Dick, who knew nothing about it. They’ve only just met and he hasn’t thought about proposing, but he backs her play and they soon tie the knot in Warm Springs, Georgia.

So far, so good, but this isn’t a happy movie and we start to realise that when Ellen shows a notable jealous streak. Sure, she seems like the perfect forties wife—gorgeous, loving, willing to work her tail off for her husband instead of hiring a cook and a maid—but she has no wish to share him with anyone, even Danny, who’s a polio-stricken younger brother he adores.

She doesn’t want Danny to come with them to Back of the Moon, Dick’s country lodge. She doesn’t want Leick Thorne there, even though he runs the place. She doesn’t even want Dick to keep writing; after all, she’s wealthy enough to keep them both and he obviously isn’t poor. And, when he brings her mother and adopted sister out to visit as a surprise, she’s massively upset. Everyone and everything is a drain on her time with her husband and that doesn’t fit into her plans.

So she manipulates everyone into doing her bidding and, if she can’t do that, she ensures she gets the credit for whatever happens. She does do it all for love, which is why she isn’t a true femme fatale, but it’s a controlling and smothering love and it won’t take long for us to see how dangerous it is, even if she hides it successfully from everyone else.

If Dick had had a pet rabbit, we’d be in Fatal Attraction territory, but he has a polio-stricken brother instead, which makes this even worse. No, she doesn’t microwave him, but you won’t be too shocked to find that Danny isn’t around much longer and things only escalate until we reach a suitably twisted finalĂ©, which is when Vincent Price makes his welcome return, with Russell now acting not as Ellen’s ex-fiancĂ© but in his professional capacity as D.A.

I knew going into this project that Price had a career to build. What’s surprising is that he was always a highly billed name, from being a co-lead in his very first movie, Service de Luxe, but, fifteen films in, he still hadn’t become the lead. If anything, his roles were shrinking, this being the third picture in a row in which what little screen time he was given was divvied up between a short early appearance and a short late appearance. Frustratingly, he was good at the very beginning of his career and he shines even in small, albeit well credited, supporting roles like these.

In this movie, he’s inconsequential early on, already an ex when he shows up and without any real options to do anything about that. So he vanishes again and we don’t expect him to return. Sure, this is a crucial scene because it thoroughly shakes up everyone’s expectations of what this is, both ours and Dick’s. However, he promptly becomes an afterthought.

Fortunately, he has serious power when he unexpectedly reappears. I have to be careful at this point to avoid spoilers, but he’s doing his job, trying a case, and it’s clear that he wasn’t elected D.A. for nothing. What I’ll say is that a lot of things have happened and it’s all led to a particularly tough spot for a couple of primary cast members. Russell Quinton is at home in a courtroom, he’s very willing to prosecute this case himself for personal reasons and he has a slam dunk task ahead of him. He doesn’t quite gloat as he turns the screw but he comes close and he has what seems to be justification.

Of course, we’ve been privy to all the events that went down during the hour and change between his appearances and so we know who did what and why. Even the way out isn’t truly a way out and that’s how we wrap back around to the beginning. If you’ll recall, this was all told in flashback. The vast bulk of the movie is an explanation.

As I mentioned, I’m still not sure what genre Leave Her to Heaven falls under. It’s not strictly a film noir, but it plays out rather like one. It’s a psychological thriller, but of a sort that was not really made back in the day. It’s far more of a Murder, Mystery, Suspense TV movie from the seventies, but with the social trappings of a few decades earlier.

More than anything, it’s a sort of women’s melodrama but flipped on its back and given a much darker approach. After all, what woman in 1945 wouldn’t want to bump into a rich and famous handsome author who adores her and is happy to settle down with her in his country lodge? Well, most of those women aren’t at all like this one, which is a good thing.

Gene Tierney owns this film as Ellen, with a very capable supporting cast. However, they’ll fade in my memory over time, while Tierney’s performance won’t. She was excellent in Laura but she’s better here, backed up by a patiently brutal script and TechniColor cinematography that won Leon Shamroy an Oscar. It should be seen more often.

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