Bright Lights Film Journal

This week (3/6-3/12) at the Film Forum in NYC: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Today starts a Film Forum revival of John Stahl’s 1945 “nature noir,” LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, as creepy a subtextual indictment of post-code Americana as I’ve ever seen. Gene Tierney stars as Ellen Berent who makes the mistake of giving her obsessive insane “pre-code” love to post-code American family man dork Cornell Wilde; his idea of a honeymoon is to drag his hot and willing bride off to some remote lodge in the mountains, not for a week of amorous lovemaking, but rather for tedious and corny sing-a-longs with the extended family. Not one of his relations can understand why she would possibly want to spend some time alone with her new husband on their honeymoon, this being a HANDMAID’S TALE-style nightmare alternative universe where the edicts of Joseph Breen and the code are no longer even challenged, merely rotely obeyed until everyone falls into a genderless state of perpetual sexless cheer and Norman Rockwell gentleness.

Wilde’s got a straight-edge kid brother and he gets killed first, after he decides to hang around like a third wheel albatross on Ellen’s neck. The way Stahl frames this event in the peace and quiet of the lake makes a great ironic comment on the code and the craze for “discovering the great national parks” that was going on all over cinema in the late 1940s, early 1950s. I always root for Tierney in these scenes. I too know the frustration of having to run a cock-blocking gauntlet of resentfully undersexed friends and relatives every time you want to get your lover up to bed, or having to drag your urbane self out to buggy campsites to pacify your spouse’s yen for convention.

The drowning of the brother is nothing though, compared to the glorious moment of Gene throwing herself down the stairs to induce a miscarriage. Inevitably, old Corny Wilde must have waited until she was ovulating to slip her one, in order to hobble her via child, rather than worrying about whether maybe if he’d bothered to pay attention to her in bed and give her an orgasm, none of this mayhem may have been necessary. Thus we see the slippery con job our genes pull on us time and time again.

If we, living as relatively free as we do today, were suddenly stuck in a post-code Americana hell hole like this would we act any different than Tierney’s character? Or would we just quietly disappear–like Lea Massari in L’AVENTURA (1960)– before the bores could catch us and smother us back into the fold? Maybe I’m just unusually squirrely when it comes to the sorts of color schemes at work in the film; as Village Voice scribe Melissa Anderson notes, the color scheme “redefines mauve.” Man, I hate mauve. At least Tierney’s character, whom Anderson calls “one of cinema’s most chilling psychopaths” grew up in a situation outside the claustrophobic, chipmunk cheeked tedium of the “sanitized” American family. For some of us, growing up right in the mauve thicket of it all, not even throwing ourselves down the stairs could get us out of soccer practice. Lord knows I tried; it’s a very difficult thing to pull off, actually. Have you tried it? I’m not saying you should, but try it some time, it’s hard to do. To me, this girl’s a hero for that alone.

Where I’m going with all this is to analyze the ultimately corrupting nature of post-1934 cinema’s phony morals; the “as long as you feel bad about it, it’s okay to kill” sort of compromise with the censors. You can see this in the bookends to Winona Ryder’s career thus far: HEATHERS and SEX AND DEATH 101 (which I decried in an earlier post, which each use the killing of dumb jock frat guys as a fake out). The fact is, our stale society needs more LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN-style sociopaths, by which I man girls with cajones enough kill those who would hobble and baby them with Disney-fied prefab beige rusticity. We had THELMA AND LOUISE but somehow the drippy third wave feminism of gourmet shopping swept over the fire, But they’re dupes, man. The whole stylish shoe fetish thing is a scam. These people need shocking; art as shock therapy to jolt them from their carbohydrated stupor. Ellen is an artist, in that sense, a frustrated panther godess trapped in the hell of some L.L. Bean adman’s pre-presentation nightmare. It’s just too bad she couldn’t take a few more of those little bastards out before the inevitable mauve ocean swallowed her.