Saturday, December 4, 2010

Leave Her to Heaven

Doesn't that title sound sappy?  At first glance,you might assume this would be a movie about a man who is grieving over his terminally ill wife.  That probably would have been a downer.  Or a very ballsy 1945 comedy.  Actually, the phrase "Leave her to heaven" comes from Hamlet, where Hamlet's daddy's ghost urges his son not to seek vengeance on his naughty mother, since heaven has a few things in store for her.  Like eternal punishment.  I've always liked that line, because it goes one step past "revenge is a dish best served cold;" it's basically saying concentrate your anger on the marginally damned, because the double- and triple-damned are going to get an ass-whoopin' either way.

Leave Her to Heaven is the story of Richard Harlan (Cornel Wilde) and his whirlwind love affair with Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney).  But you know what they say about whirlwinds, you reap what you sow.  The first clue that Ellen is zebra-in-a-tree crazy is that she introduces herself to Richard by telling him that he reminds her of her dead father.  And by "dead," I'm not talking about dead and buried, I'm talking about dead last Tuesday.  Ellen comes on strong, and since she is (in the parlance of the times) va-va-vroom and hamina-hamina, Richard goes with it.  Also a plus: she absolutely dotes on him, lavishes him with attention and affection.  She even takes him home and introduces Richard to her family, which consists of her sister, Ruth (Jeanne Crain), and her mother.  Ruth and mom are nice to Richard, but keep giving each other sideways glances.  I wonder why?  Perhaps it is because Ellen is already engaged to Russell (Vincent Price)?  Well, that can be fixed easily; Russell comes to visit and Ellen breaks up with him and announces her impending marriage to Richard.  And Richard is kind of like, "Whoa, that's news to me, but I'll go with it because you're crazy hot."  And just plain crazy.  At first, their marriage goes well.  Ellen insists on doing all the housework because she doesn't want anyone else cooking, cleaning, or anything for Richard.  But before he can high five all his friends, Richard starts to notice that Ellen has a pathological jealousy of anything or anyone that splits his attention from her.  That becomes a dangerous quality as Richard's handicapped little brother comes to live with them, and Richard's growing affection for Ruth can't be healthy either...

What a performance by Gene Tierney!  If you think Fatal Attraction is scary, then stop cheating on your wife this performance will show you how much more frightening a crazy woman can be.  She's alluring and passionate on the one hand, but on the other, she is a cool, calculating bitch.  She definitely deserved her Oscar nomination.  This could well be my favorite performance by a female character, pre-1960.  That might not seem like a huge statement, but I'm a big fan of Bogart, and that means she beats Lauren Bacall.  The rest of the cast is good, but not spectacular.  Cornel Wilde and Jeanne Crain show some moderate chemistry, but their main job is to let Tierney chew on the scenery.  It is worth pointing out that this is the first time I have seen Vincent Price in a movie where he was not creepy.  Director John M. Stahl doesn't appear to be a great director, but he got the job done.  The film looks great, though, thanks to four-time Oscar winner (including a win for this movie) for cinematography, Leon Shamroy.  He made Tierney and Crain look amazing throughout the picture, and his work on the lake scene was, while not technically spectacular, still beautiful.
Crazy Tierney...I shudder to think what happened to her other leg.

I watched this movie because I'm a big fan of noir films (at least, I haven't seen a bad one yet --- probably because I start with the famous ones), and this was described as a noir.  I would disagree with that description, and not because it was filmed in Technicolor.  There is way too much talk about love and feelings in this movie to be noir, in my opinion; emotions are something to be bottled up and alluded to with violent or mechanical imagery in noir, not laid out in the open.  Tierney is a great femme fatale, though, so I understand the confusion.  The years have been generally pretty kind to this movie.  In some ways, it is very old-fashioned, but Tierney's performance is one for the ages.  It's not perfect, but that mainly due to production values --- a nearly invalid pregnant woman doesn't have a baby bump, "late" in the mountains is still in daylight, things like that --- but some of the problems were definitely due to unimaginative direction.  For instance, there is absolutely no reason for this film to have a framing device, which makes the entire story a flashback.  There are a lot of vintage details that show this film's age, like twin beds in a honeymoon suite, but I find that sort of thing charming in movies.  At its core, this is a well-shot movie with mostly decent cast and one excellent performance.

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