Noirvember Film Series #1:
“Leave Her To Heaven” (1945), directed by John M. Stahl, is the story of a young socialite and seemingly perfect wife, who is consumed by a jealous nature which leads her to possess everything she loves to the point of destruction. Based on the 1944 novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams, and adapted for the screen by Jo Swerling, “Leave Her To Heaven” explores a behind-the-curtain look at the American dream and those who live in it. Paving the way for a genre, noir, which moved through various definitions over time, this film draws on the darkest elements of the human psyche to illustrate mans complicated relationship with success and happiness. Ahead of its time, “Leave Her To Heaven” allows one to conceive of a woman who could mask a monstrous nature behind a beautiful exterior, and forces audiences to reconcile with the most deceitful of villains – the ones in hiding.
The film stars Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, whose face in this classic is nearly more iconic than the film as a whole. Her cunning expressions, disingenuous charisma and stone cold indifference is as frightening as it is compelling. Ellen Berent sits on a train when she meets the author of the very book she holds in her hands, Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), with whom she strikes up a conversation. With all her beauty and effortless poise, it does not take long for her to get his attention, and even less time for him to fall in love. It is a clean sweep. She casually leaves her husband, persuades Harland into marriage, introduces him to the family, and they move to the countryside to a picturesque estate where he can write and she can live out her long-awaited dream of being a homemaker.
The film is one of the first pictures to utilize Technicolor, and more notably, it is the first to use it without necessity. Most of the films to inhabit this palette were big costume heavy pieces – musicals like “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) or action movies like “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) or “Gone with the Wind” (1939). “Leave Her To Heaven” took this color motion process and focused it on Tierney’s face. As Anthony Lane had written, “Each frame of her seems to be hand-tinted, s if she had ordered it.” With lips, “as red as a witch’s apple.” Fittingly so. Her icey blue eyes hold the wickedness that condemns her, and just like with her husband, the audience is hypnotized by their power, even hidden behind sunglasses. Leon Shamroy won the Oscar for Best Color Cinematography that year (a category which no longer holds space at the Academy Awards).
As noir was somewhat loosely defined as the genre expanded throughout the decades, it often is motivated by a dark existential themes found in crime drama or melodrama. As prior to this film, noir was recognized by being in black and white, this was considered the first film noir shot in color. It is also regarded as having one of the best examples of the “femme fatale” in cinematic history. The “femme fatale” (French for “fatal woman”) is the stock character that is mysterious, beautiful and seductive with ill-intent. She ensnares her victims with her charm, and then becomes the “maneater” or “vamp” that she is, leading them to ultimate demise. However, it is also worth noting that she does not fit the typical motivations of this persona, as she is driven by her desperate yearning for love, where most of her contemporaries seek power or money.
Though, the novel was the primary source material, there are references to mythology seen throughout the film. Ellen’s destructive possessiveness is said to have began with her adoration for her father, which, in Greek mythology, is referred to as the Electra complex, where one harbors an obsession for their deceased father. To corroborate this theory, the film includes a scene where Ellen holds an urn of her fathers ashes at her waist while riding a horse, a visual reference to Hippolyta, the Greek goddess, and the magic girdle which was bestowed upon her by Ares, her father and the god of war.
“Leave Her To Heaven” is startling and brilliant. To see a woman in the mid-1940’s with flawlessly coiffed hair and fashionable elegance unearth such darkness was disturbing. This is the straight mans worst nightmare. Each scene unraveling a new layer of deception, a new admittance of evil, a new fear realized. Films like this paved the way for extraordinary stories to come – “Gone Girl” (2014, based on the book), “Nocturnal Animals” (2016), “Inception” (2010), “Get Out” (2017), and more. “Ellen was capable of anything… Yes, she was that sort of monster. A woman who sought to possess everything she loved – who loved only for what it could bring her.” A woman “who is now reaching from the grave.”