No matter what she says, don’t upset her
Fox, in the steady, low-volume releasing of its film library, has seen fit to give us the 1945 box-office smash Leave Her to Heaven. The DVD offers a few extras of fleeting interest, including a newsreel of Heaven at the Academy Awards as well as a demonstration of before and after restoration footage, but the movie’s the thing. Made during the twilight of the studio era, Leave Her to Heaven is a hothouse creation of the ripest, richest kind.
Leave Her to Heaven concerns itself with a father-fixated woman prone to brutal jealousy, but little here follows convention. Leave Her to Heaven succeeds as a mockery to expectations in storytelling. Gene Tierney plays a bad, bad woman, the very picture of pampered, useless, upper-class womanhood, but her desires are entirely reasonable. All she wants is a little privacy with her husband. Her downfall is confusing possession for love, and for taking extreme measures. That’s the usual domain of men in melodrama, their jealousy being the catalyst for countless acts of violence. Embody that impulse in Gene Tierney, and something altogether novel happens. She becomes the wedge between two brothers, not because they both love her, but because they love each other.
Leave Her to Heaven is bookended by an expository beginning that leads to a classic flashback, with a hasty resolution that smells of Production Code impositions. Interest picks up in between when Vincent Price enters the picture. Tierney has already made a beeline for Cornel Wilde, with Price as her jilted fiancé. But the specter of a dull romantic triangle is subverted not once but twice, when lovely Jeanne Crain shows interest in Wilde. Both plot lines take a back seat to the love of Wilde for his polio-stricken younger brother, played by Darryl Hickman. He is the catalyst that sends this tale into wholly original territory.
The success of Leave Her to Heaven belongs foremost to Gene Tierney. She was much more than Hollywood’s most beautiful overbite. She had the preternatural ability to be alluring and icy at the same time; she could change emotional colors with magnificent yet subtle clarity. Wasn’t she sweet and warm a moment ago? Maybe, but now she’s ready to kill. She was at the top of her game in Leave Her to Heaven, and alongside Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Heaven Can Wait, and The Razor’s Edge, she amassed a list of credits to stack against any others of the late 1940s.
Cornel Wilde contributes a solid, well-dressed, handsome leading man performance. Like Tierney, his good looks, highlighted by deep, dark brown eyes, distracted from his very real acting chops. In 1945, neither he nor Tierney could be denied. She was Oscar nominated for Leave Her to Heaven, while he was nominated for his sickly Chopin in A Song to Remember. Darryl Hickman plays younger brother Danny to perfection. He’s the kind of earnest, unaware boy everyone loves less than anyone wants to admit. Together with his able cast, director John M. Stahl creates economical, sustained tension in key scenes, allowing us various understated discoveries. Stahl’s technique is so discreet you may well ask yourself how he made your heart leap or your stomach turn.
Leave Her to Heaven was a huge smash at the box office, nearly topping the charts for 1945. Each of its Oscar nominations, including sound and art direction, were more than justified. Alfred Newman’s score, dominated by thumping kettle drums, was equally deserving of mention. Its sole win, for Leon Shamroy’s orgasmic color cinematography, is one of those just-right choices that too infrequently appear on the Academy honor roll. Leave Her to Heaven‘s reputation has grown. The elegant, contained work of Stahl and Tierney ages well, avoiding the camp fate of another color experiment of the era, King Vidor’s weird nympho Western Duel in the Sun. Leave Her to Heaven shares a closer kinship to Michael Powell’s British-made Black Narcissus (1947), where color similarly acts as a breathing character amidst turgid, denied emotions of lust, covetousness, dislocation, and death. If it sparks a memory of Douglas Sirk‘s lush dramas, there’s a reason. Stahl directed Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession in the 1930s. Sirk remade both in the 1950s.
To its credit, Leave Her to Heaven is an object lesson in the pitfalls of genre assignments. What exactly is it? If it’s a love story, it’s at least as twisted as Laura, in which Dana Andrews falls in love with Tierney’s portrait. Calling it film noir, as has occurred, is more problematic. The central character is a woman, not a private dick and public chump in the form of John Garfield, Richard Widmark, or Robert Ryan. There’s nary a gun in sight. And if classic noir is defined by its visuals as much as its character types, then Heaven must be catalogued elsewhere. It was shot in saturated, glorious Technicolor, with awful deeds committed in the countryside under the bright sun. Noir’s midnight inner-city back alleys are nowhere in sight. So perhaps Foucault was right — labels don’t clarify, they mystify. At least when they are used to limit our understanding of genuinely original works of art.