Thursday, May 30, 2013

On LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)

Leave Her To Heaven starring Gene Tierney.  That 20th Century Fox melodrama gets me every time.  She plays a beautiful young socialite whose heart belonged to daddy -- and it's murder on her family.  Just like in Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Blvd., there's obsession, jealousy, love, water, death...and a writer.  Leave Her To Heaven is not in black and white, but it has such dark emotions and deeds that Martin Scorcese calls this 1945 movie, "film noir in Technicolor."  Like Polanski's Chinatown.  I totally agree.
Gene Tierney was a longtime star at the studio known for its "Fox blondes" -- like Alice Faye, Sonja Henie, Betty Grable and iconic sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe.  Tierney was a raven-haired beauty who usually played sympathetic characters.  She was the young and talented Manhattan career girl loved by many in the classic film noir murder mystery, Laura.  Directed by Otto Preminger, it's also one of Tierney's signature films.


She's not so lovable in Leave Her To Heaven.  Her character, Ellen, is lovely but there's something monstrous under that gorgeous exterior.  Her own mother senses it.  If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.  If you haven't, I'll let you discover it for yourself.  If you have seen the movie, it's worth another look for the imaginative art direction.  Lyle R. Wheeler contributed to that.  One color dominates.  It's a blue-green that you'd associate with lake water.  It dominates when the movie opens and we see Ellen having dozed off while reading a novel in a train car.  Notice the car's interior.

This is how the fellow passenger, gentle novelist Richard Harland (played by Cornel Wilde), will see her.  It's his novel that Ellen Berent is reading.  But she doesn't know it.

He will politely make her acquaintance after being caught by her sleeping beauty.


Ellen is immediately attracted to this stranger on a train.  Not because he's a handsome young man, but because he bears such a striking resemblance to her late father.

As the story unravels, there will be a psychological use of this pretty color.  It comes to represent Ellen's dark obsession and jealousy.  We see it in the intense, famous rowboat scene on the lake.  By this time, she's married the man who looks like her father.

We see it in in the sleepwear attire she dons while upstairs after an argument with a loved one.  She's having another fit of jealousy.  Her family will be stricken with another tragedy.




We see it behind Richard and others in Ellen's life during the courtroom scenes near the end.  It's the same color that surrounded Richard and Ellen when they met on the train.


Gene Tierney received one Oscar nomination in her film career -- and it was for 1945's Leave Her To Heaven.  The Oscar went to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce.  If you young acting students want an example of how effective stillness can be onscreen, watch Tierney's performance in this film.  When she's alone on a horse in the hills, spreading the ashes of her dead father, you wonder "What is she thinking?"  It's like a moment out of some Greek tragedy with a somber music score that serves as a warning.

We get a clue into her true nature as she and Richard have a sandwich after her private funeral service for her father.  Iron-willed Ellen worshipped her father extremely.  About this extreme worship, Dr. Freud would've said, "Oh, girl...we need to talk."  She tells the smitten novelist that he's eating delicious wild turkey that's found roaming near the family's place there in New Mexico.  Ellen casually reveals how much fun she has shooting those turkeys because they're so clumsy and stupid that they can't fly away.

And, once again, there's the rowboat scene.  Gene Tierney makes her fabulous face as still as a death mask.  She wears shades.  Just like Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis does in Double Indemnity while she's in a Los Angeles supermarket, meeting her lover by the canned beans to plot her husband's murder.  You wonder what the hell is going on in that twisted mind of Ellen's.  This sequence in Leave Her To Heaven, directed by John M. Stahl, surely helped Tierney land her Best Actress Oscar nomination.  Stahl also directed the original versions of Back Street (1932) starring Irene Dunne, Imitation of Life (1934) starring Claudette Colbert and Magnificent Obsession (1935) also starring Irene Dunne.

Says Ellen to Richard, "I'll never let you go.  Never, never, never."  This is a tale of obsession, one that is smartly framed, photographed and decorated.  Look at the film literature is this shot.  Notice the books to the right of Richard and the guns to the right of Ellen as she holds him.  Those details tell you something about the characters.  She wants him.  Only him.  Ellen is always the winner, always the loner.  She can be tender and brutal.  Even her immediate family isn't fully aware of her madness.  Ellen's widowed mother remarks, "There's nothing wrong with Ellen.  It's just that she loves too much."

Leave Her To Heaven also stars Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price.



There's also a terrific, memorable supporting role performance by teen actor Darryl Hickman as the  writer's disabled younger brother.  If another cast member in this picture had scored an Oscar nomination, it should have been young Darryl Hickman in the Best Supporting Actor category.  He's excellent.


Cornel Wilde was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor of 1945.  Not for this film but for A Song to Remember, a historical biopic love story made at another studio.  Wilde played classical music composer Frederic Chopin.  Merle Oberon was his leading lady, co-starring as George Sand, the famed French novelist.  In one scene she carries a candelabra to place on the composer's piano.  That scene had a great impact on a young pianist from Milwaukee who became known as Liberace.  A candelabra became part of his act.

Besides Tierney in the Best Actress race, the film received Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.  It won for the color cinematography.  Leave Her To Heaven came out on Blu-ray recently and aired a couple of weeks ago on cable's TCM.  I watched it again that night.  Wow.  The rich, bright Technicolor really pops in the restored edition.  The sumptuous color production is a different yet effective way to present a definite femme fatale with a heart of darkness.



This movie must've been an awesome feast for the eyes on the big screen.  Watch the contrast of the vivid colors to the chilling actions in the film.  Watch how Ellen moves through the tranquil, sea-like aquamarine color in costume and set design like a seductive, dangerous fish in the water.  In 1988, it was redone as a TV movie starring blonde Loni Anderson, formerly of the WKRP in Cincinnati sitcom cast.  Anderson did this after she acted in a TV remake of another classic film that co-starred Jeanne Crain.  She took on the Linda Darnell role in TV's A Letter To Three Wives.  Loni Anderson played Ellen in the TV version of Leave Her To Heaven which was re-titled Too Good To Be True.  It was no match for the original -- a classic Fox film that I highly recommend you rent for some weekend enjoyment.  I think you'll agree with Scorcese...just like I did.

For a DVD double feature with more heaven and Gene Tierney, lighten the mood with an afterlife romantic comedy.  Famed director Ernst Lubitsch, the man worshipped by Billy Wilder, made only one film in Technicolor -- and it's a gem.  An often overlooked gem.  Heaven Can Wait stars Tierney opposite a delightful Don Ameche.
Based on a play, this 1943 comedy opens with a recently deceased and stylish old gentleman who goes to the lower level.  Henry assumes that, because he had a definite eye for the ladies during his most of his long life and marriage, he'll wind up in Hades after his life review.  We look back on this sweet playboy's life.  We see how his roving eye started.  We see how the enchanting and lovely Martha won his heart.



Insecure Martha was afraid that she would wind up a lonely spinster in Kansas.  New Yorker Henry made sure that didn't happen.  He may have had to pay off a chorus girl or two here and there, but Martha remained his loving and loyal wife for 25 years.



What will "His Excellency" make of Henry Van Cleve's life review?  Watch and see.


Fox's Heaven Can Wait starring Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, Charles Coburn, Spring Byington and Marjorie Main got Oscar nominations for Best Picture of 1943 and brought Ernst Lubitsch one for Best Director.  It's a Criterion Collection DVD release.










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