[Fresh on Criterion] 1940s psychological melodrama ‘LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN’ purposefully uses color to light its dark side

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

LEAVE GER TO HEAVEN (1945)

Not Rated, 110 minutes.
Director: John M. Stahl
Cast: Gene TierneyCornel WildeJeanne Crain, Vincent Price and Mary Philips
Available on Blu-ray and DVD through the Criterion Collection.

Movie Grade: A

Gene Tierney’s gaze as Ellen Berent in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN would make Lady Macbeth cower in fear. But unlike Lady Macbeth (who prods her husband into killing the king so that she becomes queen), Tierney doesn’t need a man to do her bidding.

As Megan Abbott writes in her essay (featured in the recently released Criterion Collection of the film, “The Eyes of Ellen Berent,” “With a Medusa-like power, they dominate the screen, shifting between sea foam cool and oceanic intensity.”

Yet, in the film’s most iconic scene, her eyes are obscured behind sunglasses, callously watching a wicked act being committed just a few feet away. It is an image that has been artfully depicted in the cover art; however, when the film was released on DVD fifteen years ago – as part of 20th Century Fox’s Studio Classics collection – the image portrayed a melodramatic embrace with Gene Tierney peering up to Cornel Wilde, her left hand reaching for his shoulder as her blue-green eyes try to penetrate him.

The clash in covers adheres to the old axiom about judging books. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN has that odd distinction of being hard to classify. Film scholars and critics have argued on its genre: Is it a melodrama lacking the pomp and circumstance found in the works of Douglas Sirk? Is it a meet-cute romance that is doomed from the start? Is it the first film noir to ditch black-and-white photography in favor of color? How about all three?

HEAVEN was a literary potboiler that would become a major hit for Fox. Though some might find the narrative to be as placid as the crescent lake behind the Back of the Moon lodge – the setting for the film’s most infamous scene.         

John M. Stahl, well regarded for his women-led pictures of the 1930s like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, which Sirk would remake in the 1950s, directs Gene Tierney to her only Oscar-nominated performance as a remorseless femme fatale that is driven by a desire to replicate the love she had for her father. This consumption is very upsetting as Ellen abandons her socialite status to become the devoted housewife of author Richard Harland (Wilde), whom she meets on a train. As one stranger to another, she is the aggressor of the two; Ellen annuls her current engagement only to then propose marrying Richard.      

Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde star in ‘LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.’ Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Ellen has everything she wants. Everything but time alone with her husband. Something is always stirring. Ellen is easily able to disassociate herself from her mother and her adoptive sister. But when the couple elopes to the Back of the Moon lodge in Maine, there are tagalongs. Richard’s polio-stricken brother, Danny, who sleeps one room over, and Thorne, the caretaker milling around. This homosocial lifestyle is strange to Ellen, but she tries to make the best of things, her gaze disguising her true feelings. When Richard surprises Ellen by inviting her mother and sister for a visit, her veneer starts to chip. Richard’s typing, Danny’s golly-gee attitude, Thorne’s banjo plucking, and now all the Berent ladies under one roof! It becomes an insufferable state. A sense of claustrophobia descends, leading Ellen to take drastic measures to make things right.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is a kaleidoscopic Technicolor-hued nightmare, beautifully photographed by Leon Shamroy (who would win the only Oscar for the film’s four nominations), that is a fascinating study of obsession. Gene Tierney’s demeanor, or lack thereof, is cunningly opaque and likely to be obscured by shadows if this were shot in black and white. At that time, the use of Technicolor for a film like this was a curiosity. Technicolor was for costumed musicals or epics, and not meant for noirs. Brightly lit with somber hues, each image is a feast for the eyes. Shamroy’s photography matches Tierney’s beauty.

The intrinsic greatness about LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is what it restricts. Jo Swerling’s screenplay merely hints at Ellen’s emotional state, which is fitted with a father figure fixation that is shifted to Richard and simmering tensions with her sister. Still, the primary reasons to watch are for Gene Tierney’s performance and its infamous boat scene. Every bit as memorable of the shower scene in PSYCHO, only Tierney isn’t a victim. She’s a witness, her glasses protecting her eyes from the sun’s rays so they can remain cold and remorseless.     

Arriving in the Criterion Collection after its 2013 Twilight Time pressing went out of print, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN has the same color balance issues. The video is still an upgrade from the 2005 DVD release, but it would seem that the video elements aren’t available to give this film the lavish treatment it richly deserves. You can thank the guys at Fox who decided to discard all of their original Technicolor elements during the 1970s.

The disc is fairly light when it comes to supplemental material. This Criterion release includes a vintage trailer and a new video interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith (IN LONELY PLACES: FILM NOIR BEYOND THE CITY) where she covers the work of filmmaker John M. Stahl. The illustrated leaflet found inside the case has a very illuminating essay “The Eyes of Ellen Berent” from author Megan Abbott (DARE ME).

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is a disturbing tale of obsession where our primary character just happens to be one of cinema’s most heartless femme fatales. Glenn Close and rabbit stew have nothing on Tierney’s eyes.

 Extras Grade: C

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