Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Dead Perfection

leavehertoheavenposterIt seems fitting that Gene Tierney should share a “birthday” with Technicolor.

Engineer Herbert Kalmus incorporated the company that would become synonymous with lush cinematic entertainment on November 19, 1915, exactly 5 years before little Gene Eliza made her entrance into the world.

Technicolor loved Gene Tierney, showcasing not only her enchanted, flowerlike beauty but also the currents of thought and passion pulsing behind that exquisite mask.

Vincent Price called Tierney “our most underrated actress,” and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven abundantly supports the claim.

Playing a psychopathically possessive wife, Tierney delivered her greatest performance (if I’m arguing) in this Technicolor outlier—a modern psychological thriller made in an era when the costly color process was typically reserved for musicals and historical epics. This paradoxical Technicolor noir gives us the chance to see the 1940s in a color palette of taupes, eggshell blues, and amber-browns instead of the remote elegance of grayscale.

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I can hardly think of a more underplayed, chilling portrayal of evil on film than Tierney’s Ellen Berent. She wells up with crystal tears of self-pity at the slightest perceived encroachment on her territory. Yet, in the face of other people’s pain, she exhibits the hard composure of a porcelain doll.

She wields that soft, unnaturally smoke-lowered voice of hers to do as much damage as possible. Notice how it catches slightly at the ends of sentences, making an inconsequential remark sound like both a proposition and a threat.

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And those eyes. Eyes the color of water. Fickle eyes. Eyes that send one thumbing through a dictionary for underused words like verdigris and eau-de-nil.

Eyes that sparkle like empty fishbowls when she gapes in incomprehension at the meanness rising from within her, at the difference that cuts her off from normal human feelings. Icy eyes that balance her fiery red lips. Eyes that tell the truth when those lips lie.

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Evil Under the Sun

Tierney’s incarnation of wickedness forms the centerpiece of Leave Her to Heaven’s cruel, vaguely surreal beauty. The film’s toxic glow, its peculiar brand of unreality, contrasts with the studio-set whimsy and pageantry of color musicals or period dramas. Sequences shot on location in Leave Her to Heaven present us with a world that bears no marks of expressionist gloom yet fills us with foreboding. The film’s universe, like its protagonist, basks in sunny indifference to human suffering.

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Commenting on the oppressive ambiance of Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said he wanted to give his film the menacing aspect that a commonplace room would suddenly assume if you knew there was a corpse behind the closet door.

Leon Shamroy’s pellucid Technicolor cinematography for Leave Her to Heaven accomplishes something similar. Its uncanny perfection signals to the audience that something is very awry. No corpse behind the door, though. Just a succubus at the breakfast table, wearing blood-red lipstick applied so crisply that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s tattooed on.

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The movie’s interiors suffocate you with their chic, premeditated quaintness—down to seafoam sofa cushions and potted cacti and bibelots you only notice on repeat viewings—as though the characters had invaded a decorating magazine layout.

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Outside, vines cling caressingly to trellises and columns. Flowers grow in harmonious bunches clearly arranged by God’s florist. Cerulean skies, complete with Magritte-wallpaper clouds, choke the frame, overshadowing the characters with backdrops of blue ether and picture-postcard mountains. Wide spaces become perversely claustrophobic.

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It’s how I imagine the world would look if you knew you were going to die soon: agonizingly alive, sadistically radiant, a world laughing at you because you have to leave it. A world that has you right where it wants you. The air shimmers with irony.

Blue Gazes

Ellen’s nature emerges through 3 key scenes, connected by the dominance of teal blue and the act of looking or exchanging glances.

From the first, Leave Her to Heaven defines Ellen by her aggressive gaze. When Richard spots Ellen reading his novel on the train, he looks her over and likes what he sees. When she drops her book, he picks it up, hands it to her—and attracts her even more fixed attention. As Richard lights a cigarette, Ellen stares at him.

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In the film, Ellen’s gaze makes Richard curious and mildly uncomfortable. In Ben Ames Williams’s source material, however, Richard grows downright angry, initiating and losing a staring contest with her. Although that reaction isn’t present in the film, it reveals the extent to which Ellen’s scrutiny threatens her future husband by reversing the traditional one-way structure of the male gaze.

He looks at her as an embodiment of his fantasy—a moment later, he’ll recite grandiloquent prose from his own novel to describe her—yet he quails when she returns his look and sees in him (we come to find out) an updated version of her fantasy object: her father.

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The cinematography and editing emphasize the unsettling persistence of Ellen’s stare. We get 4, yes, 4 shots of her—oddly immobile against the dancing, arid landscape seen through the train car windows—just looking at Richard. Deliberately awkward and protracted, this series of shots forces the audience into Richard’s position, making up excuses for this odd, gorgeous girl, desperately trying to rehabilitate the “meet cute” from its creepiness.

The train car’s color scheme accentuates these jeux de regards. The teal walls and deep blue-green curtains match the color of Tierney’s eyes. This is no coincidence. The entire decor amplifies the power of Ellen’s gaze, as though the setting were an extension of her, almost a huge eyeball, an apparatus for looking.

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To quote Nietzsche’s gift to psychological thrillers, when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back. In Leave Her to Heaven, when you gaze at the female fantasy object, she gazes back—and you become her fantasy object.

True, the close-ups of Tierney serve the actress up for the movie spectator’s gaze. Well, I’ve seen this with an audience, and, believe me, the focus on gazing and looking jolts the viewers, chastens them, and makes them wary, tainting the vision and reducing our pleasure to nervous titters in the dark.

Still Waters

The film’s most famous sequence, the drowning of Danny, derives its horrific impact from its refusal to look horrific or include the signifiers of doom that films have trained us to expect.

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The soaring Alfred Newman score makes no comment on the heinous crime. The quality of light doesn’t change to telegraph a major shift in Ellen’s trajectory—from thought to act, from jealous wife to murderess. Tierney doesn’t jubilate in her triumph. She sits emanating darkness, her pale eyes piercing through her tinted shades.

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As in the train car, blue-greens overwhelm the color palette: the bright grayish-blue sky, the deep green pine forests in background, and the glimmering, saturated navy-teal waters. When she whirls off her terrycloth robe to jump in and “save” Danny, Ellen reveals an aquamarine bathing suit. These colors tend to calm and soothe; they suggest refreshing coolness and peace. The shock of Ellen’s sin alarms us all the more amidst this consonance of teal shades.

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Again, eyes and the act of looking take on central importance. We can identify the precise moment when Ellen decides to eliminate Danny through the way her eyes narrow in a medium close-up. The pristine mountains and sky shine behind her, as though tacitly condoning what she’s about to do.

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As Danny struggles, burbles, and cries out for help, the act of gazing holds power over life and death. By casting herself as a spectator in the drowning that she’s effectively staged, Ellen tries to dissociate from her guilt. She puts on sunglasses, perhaps as a shield against the ugliness of her actions, but we can still see her light eyes peering out in anticipation (especially spooky on the big screen).

We watch her watch Danny die. And through the act of watching and consuming the beauty of images we symbolically share in her wickedness. Our bond with Ellen (a most unlikely heroine) rests on a surfeit of visual splendor. Feast your eyes, the film seems to tempt us, and be seduced.

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Dressed to Kill

Ellen escalates to the next level of violence by throwing herself down a flight of stairs, inflicting injury to her own body in order to kill her unborn child.

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In the previous scene, Ellen bemoans how pregnancy has changed her appearance, looking at herself in a bedroom mirror. We can see Ellen. We can see the glass of the mirror. But we cannot see her reflection, as though she, like a vampire, doesn’t have one.

Shortly thereafter, she seizes on the idea to stage her fall. Rushing to her closet, she carefully selects her costume for this performance, an alluring blue lace peignoir.

vlcsnap-2015-11-19-16h43m25s233 After a dissolve, Ellen is looking in the same bedroom mirror as before—but this time all we see is the reflection, not Ellen. She glides towards the mirror like a phantom and the camera glides in step with her. She dabs perfume on the curve of her neck and retouches her lipstick.

Although this shot doesn’t completely synch with Ellen’s POV (it stays in place as she moves away), it aligns the viewer with her perspective. It appears as though the spectator were standing in front of the mirror; she is our reflection.

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Tierney floats down the hallway in the icy blue nightdress, just a few shades lighter than the cornflower blue wallpaper all around her. These restful shades of blue, the swirling, gently suspenseful music, and Tierney’s slow progress to the edge of the stairs imbue the scene with an inappropriately dreamy, romantic vibe.

Just as the drowning took place against a background of idyllic sparkling waters and the wholesome outdoors, this crime toys with our emotions by contextualizing an act of brutality within a gauzy, delicate domestic setting.

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When Ellen steps to the top of the stairs, the camera moves from her to the staircase and the long drop, as though guided by her thoughts. Ellen pauses, digging one silk shoe under the ragged carpet to lend realism to her plunge.

She looks up; for me, this close-up represents the zenith of her beauty in the film, all eyelashes and cheekbones and lipstick. Since we haven’t seen this angle of her before, the shot strikes us as the face of a stranger, almost diabolical in its intensity.

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We get a POV shot of the bottom of the stairs, again strengthening our association with Ellen’s perspective, then another close-up of Ellen. As her nerve and excitement mounts, her eyes widen until a tiny spark of malice gleams there.

The foot steps into nowhere, and we hear a scream. Ellen lies at the foot of the stairs, her unconscious figure fragile and sad, like a lily snapped off its stalk. The images won’t relinquish their willful loveliness. The yawning disconnect between hideous deeds and onscreen perfection stays strong.

The viewer has witnessed all the scheming behind this tragedy concocted by Ellen, yet we can’t escape the aesthetic victory she’s masterminded—carefully costuming and choreographing her murderous leap.

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Leave Her to Heaven was a smash hit for 20th Century Fox in 1945, and it resonates with an encouragingly large audience today. When I post a picture, a GIF, or an observation related to the film, it often goes haywire. Why? Because we love pretty surfaces? Because we’re attracted to the dysfunction underneath them? Or because the film itself asks those questions, confronting us with our allegiance to aesthetics over morality?

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I would argue that the enduring popularity of Leave Her to Heaven comes from its challenges to viewers and their gazes. This Technicolor noir interrogates the sinister beauty that reels us in, noting how we make excuses for beauty and for our own appetites for beauty. The film suggests that even the act of being caught looking at things you ought not to want to see contains a frisson of forbidden delight.

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Most of all, Leave Her to Heaven eschews easy answers and reassurance. It offers no pop Freudian jargon to assuage our fears over Ellen’s crimes and neatly pinpoint the etiology of her jealousy. It shows how people ignore blatant danger signs because of love and fear and loyalty. It illuminates a world of blinding beauty where evil can break loose at any moment. A world very much like our own, in fact.

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This post is part of the Gene Tierney Blogathon hosted by The Ellie Badge! Click the banner below to check out all of the other entries!

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4 thoughts on “Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Dead Perfection

  1. Leave Her to Heaven is one of my favorites – and one of those instances where the movie is much better than the book. A great review – and you explained beautifully the unsettling nature of the gorgeous locations. The wide expanse of nature in this film seems not to invite, but to witness, coldly, like Ellen herself.

    I think part of the films allure is that, evil as she is, you can’t help sympathizing with Ellen at times. Who wouldn’t resent a bunch of in-laws crashing what’s supposed to be your honeymoon? Who wouldn’t resent a husband out enjoying an active lifestyle (with your younger sister, no less) while you’re cooped up in the house? But Ellen doesn’t complain – instead she kills people.

    • That’s a great point. I do find some of the characters irritating, but I feel very badly about that, like it makes me share a bit of Ellen’s guilt! It’s an interesting and, I think, intentional choice. For instance, they could’ve made Danny much more of an angelic, lovable child. The authors of the great French noir text “Panorama du Film Noir Américain” called him “egotistical and mediocre,” so I think they agree, as well.

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