“Leave Her To Heaven” and Jeanne Crain: 2013 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon Post #4
It’s probably safe to say when considering the books written about the studio era of Hollywood, no genre (or, if you prefer, style) has been covered more than film noir. Part of this, of course, is critics, filmmakers and filmgoers have embraced film noir, and all of its trappings, since its inception (arguably, the first film noir was Stranger on the Third Floor, a 1940 film with Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr.). Also, film noir has probably been the most argued-about film genre (or style) in the sense that if you asked ten different people what noir is (or was), you’d probably get ten different answers. You could argue, of course, there are certain elements in a film noir – dark black-and-white photography (influenced primarily by the expressionist German films of the 20’s and 30’s), ordinary men who find themselves over their head, shady characters such as femme fatales (who were either outright villains or good-bad girls), and city streets that seemed to contain danger at any corner. But consider Leave Her to Heaven, a 1945 film directed by John M. Stahl. Today, this would probably be called a psychological thriller (back then, it was probably considered a variation on a “woman’s” picture, or a soap opera). It’s set in the great outdoors of New Mexico, Arizona and Maine (and was mostly shot there), most of the characters (with a couple of crucial exceptions) are nice, “normal” people, and it features beautiful color photography (it was shot by Leon Shamroy). Yet it has an ordinary man who finds himself over his head, and one of the all-time great movie femme fatales. Is it going too far to call this a “color noir”, as Martin Scorsese does in his documentary A Personal History of American Movies? Maybe so – “psychological thriller” does seem to be a better fit – but however you classify it, it’s as stylized, moody, and compelling as the best noir.
Based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams (adapted by veteran screenwriter Jo Swerling), the film stars Cornel Wilde as Richard Harland, a somewhat successful novelist who immediately becomes attracted to Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), who’s on the train with him, and reading his book (in a nice twist, she’s staring at him not because she recognizes him from the photo at the back of the book – she doesn’t, until later – but because he reminds her of her father). As it happens, they’re both going to New Mexico as guests of Glen Robie (Ray Collins), a lawyer (the movie is framed by Glen telling the story to someone else, though we don’t hear any narration); Richard is there to take a break from writing, while Ellen is with her mother (Mary Phillips) and cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain) to scatter her dead father’s ashes. Ellen, as it happens, is engaged to prosecutor Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), but not long after she meets Richard, she decides to break off the engagement, and pursues Richard instead. They have a whirlwind courtship and get married, and everything seems fine at first. However, Ellen doesn’t want to share Richard with anyone else – not Danny (Daryl Hickman), Richard’s crippled young brother, whom they visit in Georgia where he’s been hospitalized (Richard, of course, wants Danny to move with them to his house in Maine), not Thorne (Chill Wills), the handyman at the house, and especially not her mother and Ruth, who come to visit. Ellen’s mother says of her, “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen; it’s just that she loves too much.” It’s not till later, to his great horror, Richard finds out exactly what that means.
Though Stahl directed a variety films, including comedies (Holy Matrimony) and straight dramas (The Keys of the Kingdom), he’s probably best known for directing “women’s pictures”, particularly the original versions of Back Street (remade twice), Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life; Douglas Sirk remade both of those films in the 50’s (while Stahl’s versions were popular, Sirk’s were more so). While Sirk’s films were done in a more baroque style (which probably had to do with why they were so popular), Stahl was more restrained (I’m one of those who prefer Stahl’s version of Imitation of Life, partly because of this restraint). And although Shamroy’s cinematography here is lush, taking advantage of the beautiful New Mexico, Arizona and Maine scenery, Stahl isn’t afraid of night scenes, as in the scene where Richard goes out to find Ellen after she’s scattered her father’s ashes (everyone else thinks Ellen should be left alone, but it turns out she was waiting for him). Also, the music by Alfred Newman (one of 20th Century Fox’s house composers) is restrained, not dominating the movie like scores in melodramas of the late 30’s and 40’s often did. This comes out in what is probably the most famous scene of the movie; when Danny decides to swim across the lake by Richard’s Maine house (he wants to surprise Richard and show how far he’s come along), he gets a cramp, and Ellen just lets him drown. It’s made all the more eerie by the fact there’s no music, just Richard whistling when he walks by the lake, unaware of anything (until Ellen, to cover for herself, screams out Danny’s name and pretends to panic). Stahl mostly conveys the horror of the scene through the absolute chilliness of Tierney’s expression; even though she’s wearing sunglasses, we can tell just how psychotic she’s being.
Tierney received her only Oscar nomination for her performance here (she lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce), and it’s fully deserved. There was a peculiar intensity to her, both in looks and personality, that made her captivating in films she did in that period such as The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Laura (1944), and The Razor’s Edge (1946). Even the lighter roles she played (as the woman Don Ameche falls in love with in Heaven Can Wait, or an Italian villager in A Bell for Adano) have this forcefulness. Yet Tierney never overplays it. We’re tipped off to Ellen’s true character about a third of the way through the movie, when she’s trying to persuade Danny’s doctor to keep Danny from coming along with her and Richard to Maine. Ellen tries to speak reasonably about how Danny may not have what he needs to function comfortably in Maine (the house is remote, with not a lot of access to any medical facilities he may need, and Richard will be too busy with his novel to do much help), and even admits she’s also thinking of herself, as she just wants time alone with her husband (she says she gave up her honeymoon so they could come to the place where Danny is staying). Ellen then goes on to say while she loves Danny, “He’s just a cripple!” Ellen immediately apologizes, but the doctor (and the audience) immediately sees she’s more heartless than she may appear to be. Still, Tierney doesn’t overdo the moment (and Stahl, wisely, doesn’t either; again, there’s no music). Tierney also shows us how calculating Ellen is, not only in the drowning scene, but in another scene later when she decides to deliberate induce a miscarriage (she only got pregnant in a desperate attempt to get Richard to love her again, but became jealous when she saw Richard and Ruth spending so much time together). In real life, Hickman didn’t get along with Tierney, and called her aloof, but that aloofness works perfectly for the character (as does Stahl’s restraint in showing it).
If there’s one flaw with Leave Her to Heaven, it’s the courtroom scene that takes up most of the last 10-15 minutes of the film (after Ellen has killed herself and framed Ruth for the crime). It must be granted, of course, this most likely has to do with the Code restrictions at the time, but nonetheless, there are all kinds of problems with this scenario. First of all, the fact Russell not only knew Ellen, but was once her fiancee means he never should have been allowed anywhere near this case except as a witness (granted, it’s foreshadowed in his last meeting with Ellen, when he says he’ll always love her, and she asks, half-mockingly, “Is that a threat?”). Also, maybe Russell was calling Richard as a hostile witness for the prosecution, and if so, that would makes sense, but even then, his questions are at best leading and at worst argumentative, and any lawyer worth their salt would object to them. Moreover, any judge worth their salt would sustain those objections.
Then there’s the matter of Crain’s performance in the courtroom scenes. I must admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of Crain to begin with, finding her the weakest part of the three other movies I’ve seen her in; Pinky, directed by Elia Kazan (where she played the title character, a mixed-race woman trying to pass as white), and two films by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives (where she’s one of the wives) and People Will Talk (where she’s a patient/student of Cary Grant’s gynecologist). Crain wasn’t quite the “starlet” type that became popular in the 40’s and 50’s – she was more womanly than girlish – but there was, for me, something too bland and studied about her, with only occasional flashes of talent (she did a pretty good drunk scene in A Letter to Three Wives). Admittedly, early on in Leave Her to Heaven, she’s able to play “nice” without being bland or sickeningly sweet, and she and Wilde have an easy camaraderie that, if it doesn’t exactly set sparks flying, at least makes you see why they’re drawn to each other. And even in the scene where Ruth finally tells Ellen what she really thinks of her, Crain is able to suggest the resentment that’s been building up in Ruth all this time. However, in the courtroom scene, while it makes sense she’d want to keep up a calm front for appearances sake, Crain doesn’t even begin to hint at any inner turmoil going on. Even Wilde, whom I’m not the biggest fan of either, is able to at least do that.
Still, while the film was generally dismissed at the time it came out (Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times, called it “a piece of cheap fiction”, and James Agee – who was usually more perceptive – complained in Time that while the film might have worked as a black-and-white movie, Technicolor made it look ridiculous), it’s easy to see why audiences flocked to it (it was the second-highest grossing movie of the year, after The Bells of St. Mary’s), why it was recognized by the Oscars (the art direction and sound were also nominated, and Shamroy won for Best Color Cinematography), and why critics today have embraced it (I first heard about the movie when it first came out on video and Roger Ebert raved about it back in the 90’s). Whether you call it a “color noir”, or a psychological thriller, it’ simply a gripping movie.