Saturday, August 29, 2009

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Director: John M. Stahl
USA 1945
110 min
Starring: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price, among others.

See it on YouTube here.

Writer Richard Harland (Wilde) approaches a bridge by boat, and is greeted by people who seem very uncomfortable. Harland looks around, a woman says "That poor man...". Harland steps into another boat and quietly rows on. A man speaks up, telling a fellow beside him that it was through him that Harland met that disastrous woman. The backstory unveils.

Harland meets his wife-to-be, Ellen Berent (Tierney), on a train. She notices a remarkable resemblance to her late father in Harland, something that at first seems pleasant. Everything is honky-dory at first (besides some dubious remarks about Ellen from her family, and the fact that she a little too early after meeting Harland broke her engagement to a previous fiancé, Russell Quinton, played by Vincent Price). Ellen meets Harland's beloved, crippled little brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), and encourages him in his illness.
Harland, Ellen and Danny move to a country place called Back of the Moon to live there together, but Ellen soon realizes that she hardly gets any time to spend alone with her husband. Harland writes a new book and Danny is always around. On top of that, her cousin and adopted sister Ruth (Craine). seems to have an affair with Harland. Or is it just in her imagination?
Soon weird things start to happen, making a cute countryside lovestory turn into a thriller.

To quote Raquelle at Out of the Past, Gene Tierney is THE SPAWN OF SATAN in Leave Her to Heaven. It was this film that made me realize that Tierney is not only beautiful, but also a darn good actress. (She was nominated to an Oscar for an Actress in a Leading Role, but lost to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.)
I never understand whether Ellen is really evil, just "loves too much" (wants all the candy for herself) or is in fact mentally ill. Is she lying about not remembering falling down the stairs, or did she actually have a black-out à la Laird Cregar in Hangover Square [post]?
After only having seen Tierney in Laura (1944) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), I was quite shocked and amazed by her character in this film. My respect for her acting skills grew a noticable amount.

Gene Tierney - beautiful and competent.

There are a lot of discussions going on about which genre this movie belongs to. To me, the answer isn't very interesting (as I've said before, I don't like to categorize art), but the discussion is. IMDb tried to put the film in the three main categories Drama, Film-Noir and Thriller - quite a broad spectrum! But it's not entirely a drama, nor entirely a thriller.
I'm tempted to call it a Technicolor-Noir. We have an amazing Academy Award winning cinematography, playing with shadows, lighting and camera angles. (See the Vincent Price scene I picked out, below - a great example.) But the sparkling colors make the noir-feeling go down a bit. But we do also have a cool femme fatale that we can't be sure if we can trust, on the other hand.
But to me, the most unquestionable noir resemblance is the beginning - like Sunset Blvd. (1950) starts off by showing the male lead drowned in a pool, the first thing we meet here is the shattered remains of Richard Harland, destroyed by an evil woman.

Scene: Vincent Price makes his entrance. I love the dialogue in this scene. "What in the world brought you here?" "An airplane."
Notice the low angle and the lighting on Price's face when he enters the room, simply brilliant.

One last thing I'd like to discuss is, again, the title. I discussed this in my I Wake Up Screaming post [here] - I want to know why the movie title was chosen. As far as I can recall, "Leave her to heaven" wasn't a quote from the film itself.
Imdb's trivia section gave me a hint:
The title is taken from a line from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet".
Okay - but why? No direct Hamlet connection wasn't obvious to me at first glance.
Since I didn't want to be as predictable as to do a Google search, I find myself tossing around in my bed wondering about the title. Since I couldn't sleep anyway, I got up to search my bookshelf for a hude book called "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare".

In Act I, Scene V of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1599-1601), I find Hamlet just having spoken to the ghost of his dead father. His father, King of Denmark, had told him that his death was no accident, but that it was his brother who poisoned him in his sleep to take over the throne of Denmark and wed the Queen, Hamlet's mother! Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Hamlet has to avenge his father's death.

As early as in Scene II, Hamlet spoke to himself about his mother, uttering my favourite words of Shakespeare; Frailty, thy name is woman! And the "leave her to heaven" quote is also about his mother, who after being a widow for only a month gets married to her dead husband's brother.
Spoken by the ghost of Hamlet's father, the dead king:
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Againt thy mother aught ; leave her to heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.
And there we have it - the reference! Hamlet's mother is a treacherous woman, just as Ellen. As far as I, to whom Swedish is my first language, can understand 16th century English, I guess that both Hamlet's mother and Ellen will pay for ther crimes when their time comes. Leave her to heaven to be judged, is my interpretation. Anyone having another opinion?

(Note: I don't usually read Shakespeare when I can't sleep. I find keeping "who is who" in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov much more effective.)

Laurence Olivier in the titlerole of the self-directed Hamlet (1948).


Kate Gabrielle said...

Great post!! I love the genre you put this in, I think it really is "technicolor noir" -- Gene Tierney is just scary. I think she had to be mentally unstable to do what she does in here, it's just ruthless!

I love that you found that Shakespeare quote, I always wondered where the title came from. Trust me, Shakespeare is hard even for people who's first language is English! I always liked him, though, I went through a spurt in high school where I tried to read a bunch of his plays.

Amanda said...

I love Leave her to Heaven. Tierney is a total ice queen in it. I saw an interview with Daryl Hickman on TCM with Child Stars and he hated working with Gene in this movie. Said she was mean and cold. Hoping she was just way into her part. Everyone is fantastic in this movie. Thanks for posing about it.

Mykal said...

Another Great Post! You have been quite the posting machine of late! Job well done, and I trust you are feeling better.

I have never been able to sit through this movie, and I have tried twice. Ellen's cold blooded killing of the boy - the way she watches him drown, I find terrible (I wish I had watched this film before becoming a father myself. Since that event some 19 years ago, I cannot see children being killed on screen when done with skill and realism, as in this film). I will try again soon, because I have always had a supreme crush on Tierney, who had the sexiest overbite in Hollywood history.

Despite only seeing bits and pieces of this film, I always thought the title was perfect. In Shakespeare, the meaning has to do with Hamlet's understanding of a woman (his mother) whose earthly transgressions were such that only God could afford her compassion - only God could understand her mortal plight and tribulations which had brought her to such black and evil deeds. It is a form of idealistic forgiveness, a Christ-like strength, which Hamlet wishes for himself. With regard to the title of the movie, I think it brings a certain added dimension and a certain sympathy to the main character which she may not deserve, but might be afforded non the less. -- Mykal

Tom said...

Great photographs. I love the poster for this movie!!

Lolita said...

Kate Gabrielle:
Haha, I was kind of proud of myself when the "technicolor noir" category popped into my head while stunningly watching the film!
I love Shakespeare! Me and my mother have watched Much Ado About Nothing together so many times (Emma Thompson can really pull off the dialog, wish I could say the same about Keanu Reeves...), and my mother's love for English poetry and plays have effected me a great deal while growing up.
I will struggle on with The Complete Works of Shakespeare!

I hope it was because of that... But otherwise, she wouldn't be the only great actress or actor who was unpleasant off-screen. I guess some eccentricity is required when being a great artist!

Haha, yes! I feel that I actually want to write about every movie I see, but that would be tiresome for you. But still, I might be just a tiny bit too frequent with my blog posts! One can't be perfect.
Oh, I see. It is kind of hard to watch tragedy on film if it's easy to connect with your real life. After my grandmother passed away in the Estonia catastrophe -94, I always had difficulties in watching disaster movies like Titanic and films alike.
Thanks for the Shakespeare clearing! I was on the right track! To think that just a title of a film can add so much to the film experience and the depth of the movie...

Lolita said...

Thanks! It's fun digging up just the right poster to use in your blog post :)