Leave her to Heaven(1945) , A Film Noir shot in glorious Technicolor makes for a unique cinematic experience.
‘It’s like a film noir, in colour …. It’s the technicolor, how it’s matched to the strange perfection in Tierney’s face, her presence. The drama of the obsession of the color, reinforce each other and create something very special”
Martin Scorsese on Leave her to Heaven
“A woman who sought to possess everything she loved – who loved only for what it could bring her. Whose love estranged her own father and mother. Whose love possessed her father until he couldn’t call his souI his own. Who, by her own confession to me, killed my brother, killed her own unborn child – and who is now reaching from the grave to destroy her innocent sister. Yes, she was that sort of monster.”
This is how Richard Harland describes his wife Ellen Berent Harland, who is so obsessive, jealous and sick that she would kill anybody including herself to fully posses the object of her affections, whether its her father or her husband .
On the other hand, Ellen’s mother , Mrs. Berent describes her daughter Ellen thus:
“There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. It’s just that she loves too much”
Richard and Ellen, played by Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney respectively, are the protagonist of John Stahl’s 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven, shot in lush Technicolor, it is a film that works as a psychological noir thriller and a nightmarish marital melodrama. Ellen is a menacing, father-fixated and mentally unstable woman who wants to fully possess Richard, only because he resembles her dead father. And to this end, she coldly dumps her fiancée, Russel Quintan (Vincent Price)- to whom she is engaged to be married, and gets married to Richard whom she hardly knows; Then she lets Richard’s disabled brother drown because he was taking Richard’s attentions away from her; Then in an extreme act of Infanticide or rather foeticide, she kills Harland’s unborn child by toppling down the stairs; And in a final act of suicide, she sought to destroy her gentle, virtuous (adopted) sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) whom she suspected of having an affair with Richard. She is the kind of wife, from whom the ultimate statements of love : “I want to keep your house and wash your clothes and cook your food….And besides, I don’t want anybody else in the house but us, I don’t want anybody else to do anything for you,” and “And I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never”, sounds like death threats.
The film is an answer to the question whether a classic film noir can be in color. The high contrast, B&W camerawork with its chiaroscuro lighting effects are a major hallmark of classic noirs. In this film, the color cinematography successfully creates a analogous effect. Also, This film does not have an Urban setting like the regular Noirs; No Hard-boiled detectives, criminals or cops, instead the film is set in midst of rural cottages, rugged mountains and lakes. Also the film takes place largely in daytime and in bright sunlight as opposed to the darkness of night and rain which are again main elements of black and white noir films. But then, noir is also about character, tone and mood, and this film expands on a lot of Noir conventions giving it a unique perspective .The incredible Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography by Leon Shamory, The fantastic use of color in set and costume design, Alfred Newman’s swooping score and above all Gene Tierney’s Ice-goddess persona and unsettling performance, all contributes towards creating the mood of sustained uneasiness, paranoia, anxiety and suspicion which is the hallmark of all classic noirs.
The lead character of Ellen Berent , the femme fatale of the piece is very similar to, and yet different from other Femme Fatales in Noirs.. Usually , the femmes in Noirs are fallen women, one who comes from the lowest strata of the society, who are ruthless social climbers, who deceives people around them for their own selfish ends. Their motives towards the lead male protagonist are always suspect, we are never sure whether they are in love with them or not .Ultimately they are only in love with themselves and their primary interest being their own survival under any circumstances. The characters of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Ava Gardner in The Killers.,…… all follow this template.
In this film, Ellen’s is a beautiful woman willing and able to use her brains (as well as her beauty) to accomplish a selfish and ignoble goal . Except here, her selfishness is driven by her love for the “Hero”. She is intend on destroying everything that would keep him away from her. This is more of an expansion of the concept of Femme Fatale than a total subversion. Now take the character of Richard: All along, he know there was something very odd and sinister about Ellen. Right from the moment they met on the train, there is a sense of dread and unease. You can feel Ellen slowly putting the hooks into him, Intentionally dropping the book she was reading to grab his attention; and then later, riding off into the wilderness and waiting for him at the ridge, knowing fully well that he would follow her. Also, the speed at which she would drop her fiancée and hitches on to him would have given warning signals to any man. But he chose to go along with everything, because he is blinded by Ellen’s beauty and beguiled by her adoration. Even after his brother and unborn child die unnatural deaths around her, he chose to play blind. He is the classic Noir male who is deceived and led astray by a gorgeous woman. Even in her death, she continues to deceive him, making him burn her corpse and scatter her ashes , which would make him an accessory in her “murder.”
One of the main deviations from other femme fatales is that Ellen comes from the upper crust of the society. She is privileged and wealthy . She has no other ulterior motives for wanting her man other than pure love . She is no fallen angel but more of a Goddess. This is a new aspect of the Noir femme that is explored here. She is a goddess, who is imperious, entitled and finally angry who takes what she wants, punishes those who stand in her way and refuses to help her devotees who incurred her wrath. We can see the roots of Ellen in the mythical Greek characters of Electra: who is much attached to her father Agamemnon, and kills her mother and lover who murdered him; Then Medea: who killed her own children, after her husband, Jason leaves her for another woman. She is also reminiscent of Calypso: who enslaved Odysseus on her island for years, after she fell in love with him, thus delaying his journey back home to his wife. And that makes the virtuous Ruth, a stand in for Odysseus’ wife Penelope, who patiently waited for her husband’s return. At the end of this film, we see that Ruth has been waiting patiently for two years for Richard to complete his prison term, which he got on account of Ellen’s sins. The final scene in the film is the reunion between Richard and Ruth, after Richard is released from prison. Ellen is costumed and photographed like a goddess throughout the film, with the lighting creating a divine halo around her; A halo of red into which she sucks in her victims. Red is used here like black in B&W Noirs. and it is prominently highlighted in the lipstick and nail polish that she wears. We see her putting on the red lipstick, moments before she kills her unborn. we see the red nail polish on her toes just before she topples down the stairs.
So we get these familiar Noir tropes and characters in these very un-noir like settings and photographed in such gorgeous color, making the film much more disturbing and a much different experience than a regular noir .This uniqueness is manifested most in the very famous scene from the film, where Ellen drowns Richard’s disabled brother Danny in the lake . The scene starts out very serenely. then we get to the scene where Ellen asks Danny whether he would like to leave their cabin and go away to Maine with her family, But Danny who loves Richard and worships Ellen, refuses saying that if he needs to go then all three of them should go. An answer that infuriates Ellen. This moment marks a significant shift in the scene and character of Ellen: as Danny cramps up while swimming, Ellen subtly eggs him on to continue. While Danny starts to drown, She sits absolutely still as if she has been frozen over, as if she has become a statue. Danny’s prayers in front of his goddess goes unanswered. The angry goddess just stares down at him, as if from a statue. It is to be noticed that she is not doing anything “actively” to harm him, she just denies him her benevolence. The drowning scene takes place on a gloriously sunny day, the blue water is glistening, they are surrounded by greenery on all sides. Ellen is dressed in pristine white, Her red lips are specially highlighted. the only element of darkness are the dark heart shaped sunglasses she is wearing, symbolizing the darkness of her heart. Ellen looking on coolly in white robe and shades as the brother drowns amidst all that natural beauty is one of the most disturbing images in movies The image conveys an emotion than we will never get in the Black & White Noirs. Another facet of shooting in color is the way the photographer gets to distribute the color palette across the film. Really bright colors in the beginning and then colors starts to fade slowly as the drama gets darker and in the final court scene its almost monochromatic. For the final reunion between Richard and Ruth, it goes back to full blown technicolor. The happy ending goes against the grain of a regular film noir, which most probably would have ended with Richard’s incarceration. But in the spirit of the rich colors that bathe the film, the film has a more optimistic world view than the B&W Noirs..
The final court trial is the weakest section of the film mainly because Vincent Price goes overboard with his theatrical line readings. We realize that its not just Ellen who is quite obsessed in the film, but also Russell, who is obsessed with Ellen. Earlier we had this interesting conversation between Russell and Ellen , when Ellen had just hooked up with Richard
Russell: Perhaps you don’t think I’m good enough for you or romantic enough. I know people thought I was marrying into the Berent family for reasons, but that’s not true. I want you to know that I had only one reason. I want you to know that I was in love with you. I’m not a man who loves often, Ellen. I love once.
Ellen: That’s quite a concession.
Russell: I loved you. And I’m still in love with you.
Ellen: That’s a tribute.
Russell: And I always will be. Remember that.
Ellen: Russ, is that a threat?
Ellen knowing this, used him to settle scores with Richard and Ruth. It’s she who is speaking through Russell; grilling the two lovers of being complicit in her murder. But the scenes just go on and on; from a tight Noir, the film becomes a bloated melodrama, where the hidden love that Richard and Ruth have for each other is uncovered. Richard is acquitted of Ellen’s murder, though he is convicted as an accessory to her crimes as he had failed to report her criminal negligence. At the beginning of the film, we see Richard returning to his cabin, where Ruth is waiting for him, after serving out the two year sentence. the entire film unfolds in flashback, with Richard’s attorney narrating his story; obviously, flashbacks and voice overs are classic Noir elements.
Gene Tierney received an Oscar nomination (Best Actress) for this film, but she lost to Joan Crawford for another Noir Mildred Pierce. This was the second film after the iconic Laura(1944) that Vincent Price played a jilted lover opposite Tierney. This film seems to have been a major inspiration for Douglas Sirk in crafting his colorful melodramas like Written on the Wind and All that Heaven Allows. Martin Scorsese ,who is a big fan of this film and Tierney , has championed the cause of this film tirelessly, thus renewing interest in this wonderful film.