' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

Friday, May 02, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

Though it was made 15 years earlier than “Psycho”, and though “Psycho” was based in part on a real-life story, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic of 1960 shares much in common with John M. Stahl’s “Leave Her To Heaven.” If Norman Bates was a deranged mama’s boy gone rogue then Ellen Berent is a lunatic daddy’s girl gone off the deep end. Which is why even if “Leave Her To Heaven” arrived in an era for film noir, it’s more reminiscent of pure horror, right down to the Monster That Cannot Be Killed, reaching out even from the grave and threatening to haunt forever.


Ellen’s emotional balance seems off the moment we and novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) first meet her aboard a train. This is not a Meet Cute. This is a Wait A Second. After introducing himself, she stares at him. It is less a Hawkeye “Why I’m looking at you, miss” stare from “Last of the Mohicans” than a creepy, obsessive, through-the-“Rear Window” stare, particularly when she explains just how much he resembles her father. Later, upon meeting Ellen’s sister and mother, the chill between them is obvious. Then she jilts her fiancé (Vincent Price) and declares her intention to marry Richard. That’s after knowing him for roughly 48 hours. Alarm bells should have sounded. Storm flags should have been raised. But, to be fair, Ellen is played by Gene Tierney and Richard is a man and, well, whatareyougonnado? Wild’s fine in the part but the part is purposely no match for Tierney. Consider the poster, re-casting the traditional male-dominant pose of cinema with the woman instead towering over the man.

It’s her marriage and it’s her movie. Stahl and his cinematographer wield their lavish Technicolor as a weapon, serving varying glamorous locales like celluloid neopolitan ice cream, a perfect contrast to the brewing horror. It could be argued these vivid colors are meant to symbolize the tempestuousness of Ellen, except she seems much more cold-blooded than warm. If location and color scheme was truly meant to summarize her character – or lack of it – the production would have needed to move to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole. Which would have been doubly appropriate, in fact, since solitude is what Ellen craves.

Frighteningly possessive, she wants Richard all to herself, so much so that she actively wants to take on the roles of the traditional housewife. She wants to cook and clean. She wants to be subservient and be in control. It’s 1945, it’s a few months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and she wants a pre-war life post-war. Or maybe she just wants everything to be like it was with Daddy, re-casting her own spouse in the fatherly role, a startling idea to say the least, but one which the film suggests without necessarily fully exploring. It is more content to simply watch how far her warped idea of civility will be maintained, damn the familial obligations.


She shuns her mother and sister and comes to hate Danny, the paralyzed young brother of Richard who is sent to stay with them. His fate is the film’s singular moment, terrifying not just for what transpires but how it is presented, ignoring not only a-bad-thing-is-about-to-come score (even though you know a bad thing is about to come) but ignoring a music score altogether. The production is pure Hollywood but the moment is straight realism, and Tierney’s matter-of-factness, her expression hidden away behind a pair of sunglasses she dons but a moment before, as if polite society could not bear what it would have seen in her eyes, is what renders it so monstrous.

Ellen’s mother says that her daughter’s flaw is “loving too much.” That could be argued up to a point, until the film’s third act, that is, when she finally realizes her husband is giving up on wedded bliss (he’s got his reasons) and so she gives up on wedded bliss and decides to take her vengeful psychosis to the next level. It’s a bold move to take your Oscar nominee – Tierney, that is – and move her out of the picture before it’s ended, except that she doesn’t actually going anywhere. You feel her presence right up until the credits roll.

Ostensibly the fim ends on a happy note but I'm not buying it. Leave Her To Heaven? Ha! You can't tell me she didn't slip the angel at the pearly gates a mickey and start turning lights on and off in the middle of the night from the ether.

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