Friday, October 27, 2017

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Director: John M. Stahl


20th Century-Fox’s most successful motion picture during the 1940s would surprisingly not come from anything lavish, or grand. Rather it would come a film about obsessed love. A film noir shot in glorious Technicolor, Leave Her to Heaven is a gripping suspense thriller dressed up in a light love story turned bad. It is a wonderfully shot picture, paired with innocent acting and splendid writing that provided Fox with its greatest money maker of the decade. Its style would make it a model of suspense and would inspire a future generation of filmmakers.

Leave Her to Heaven is suspense drama of a woman whose obsessive need for her ensnared husband’s attention proves to be dangerous for their relationship and everyone around them. When novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meets socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), it blossoms into a surprisingly swift romance and nuptial. Drawn to Richard for his resemblance to her late father, it becomes apparent that Ellen has an infatuated nature and intends to be the only focus of her husband’s attention. This jealousy for his absolute attention leads her to eliminate others aspects that even momentarily divert his devotion.

Her obsession turns lethal as she allows Richard’s beloved and disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) to drown while he was living with the two of them. Later, when the expectant Ellen begins to feel that their future child was encroaching on Richard’s attention, Ellen purposefully falls down a flight of stairs, causing her to miscarry to gain sympathy from her husband.  As Richard becomes aware of Ellens instability Ellen’s begins to believe Richard is taking a liking to her adoptive sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain). Ellen drastically exacts her revenge by committing suicide by poison and staging it in a manner that frames Ruth of murder, manipulating her ex-fiancĂ©, the District Attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), with final communications in attempt to convict her sister. In trial Ruth admits her building feelings for Richard, while Richard confesses knowing the disturbed nature of Ellen, acquitting Ruth, but convicting himself as an accomplice to Ellen for not turning her in. The film concludes as Richard returns from two years in prison to his beloved home and the embrace of the waiting Ruth.

The film is a wonderful thriller and bucks a Hollywood trend with a female protagonist, adding complexities of a physiological and lethal nature. The plot and execution of lends to a Hitchcock-ian nature, but is directed by John M. Stahl, one of Hollywood’s cornerstone studio directors with origins dating back to the silent era. It is a simply shot picture on beautiful Technicolor presenting a plot that belies a tale more commonly delivered in a shadowy world of black and white.

The subject matter of murder and deception in an interesting way feels much greater in this film than other like suspense pictures. Perhaps this is due to the fact the death and dishonesty lies on a much more intimate plain of a secretly jealous lover rather than a grander plot of international espionage, gang warfare, or preconceived murder mysteries. It is a tale of love delivered in a mind of obsession to the point where anything that gets between a wife and her husband becomes a target for her to eliminate, and disguising her eliminations in a series of accidents and unfortunate events. Furthermore, and perhaps the most shocking piece of the plot, is the idea of a forced miscarriage created by one of these staged accidents, a sensitive idea of the time as well as contemporaries. This film is seeded with these dark ideas that would shock many.

Ellen watches as Danny drowns.
The clear focal point of the film lies within the performance of then 24 year-old Gene Tierney. Despite the picture revolving around the tale of the husband, Richard, played by Cornel Wilde, Teirney’s performance as Ellen drives all aspects of the plot and suspense. Tierney is beautiful and at times down right seductive with her portrayal, but when Ellen’s mind turns to jealous thoughts Tierney’s performance becomes cold and haunting. The way Tierney shapes Ellen into this woman of infatuation contrasts the quiet, sinister manner she plans the deaths Danny and even her own unborn child. Somehow you still feel Tierney’s performance even after her character’s death, which she carries out in a final plot of revenge. The performance is so strong that it would gain Tierney an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress; a deserving honor.

Tierney’s performance overshadows greatly her fellow cast in carrying the feature. Wilde’s performance as Richard is solid, but serves merely as a foil to guide the plot along for the tragic tale. His ability to command much more attention is correctly tapered down as he portrays a much meeker character than his other leading man roles. Wilde’s future would find him in more bombastic, swashbuckling characters which utilized his physic to a greater extent than this much more humble performance.

Vincent Price, who plays Ellen’s somewhat jealous and political ex-fiancĂ©e Russell, surprisingly becomes the great screen presence following Ellen’s death as he delivers the prosecution in the film’s trial near the conclusion of the picture. Unlike the elderly, frail persona we may best remember him in the later years of his career, here Price is the tall, powerful, and booming personality that somewhat embodies Ellen’s missing presence in the film’s last act. His performance would help gain Price notoriety as his career was on the rise in Hollywood in the mid-1940s.

Surprisingly underused in the picture is the performance of Jeanne Crain who portrays Ruth, the adoptive sister of Ellen with whom Ellen becomes jealous of, concocting the idea that Richard is falling in love with her. In the end the characters somehow come together in a romantic way by after Ellen’s accusations, a plot point that is weakly written and even more weakly acted out, becoming the most lacking portion of the plot. Crain at the time was a rising star in Hollywood and a talent Fox would begin to push forward more often, but with the assembly of this film it feels her role is more of an afterthought, and fails to display her talents to the fullest.

Yet another supporting actor from the film that would see acclaim was Darryl Hickman, who portrayed Danny, Richard’s disabled brother whom Ellen manipulates into deadly situation, meeting his demise. 14-year-old Hickman’s energy feels very forced and ingenuine to me perhaps because he appears much older that he was. His overly boyish delivery sets him up as an generally likable character which comes to the climax when his exuberance and Ellen’s encouragement has him swimming in the middle of a lake before his weak legs begin to fail him. It is here we observe as a stone-faced Ellen watch him struggle until he disappears under the water. Hickman’s performance in Leave Her to Heaven would help make Hickman into one of Hollywood’s most notable juvenile stars for the time. His career would fade from motion pictures as he matured, eventually finding work in the medium of television.

The haunting picture Leave Her to Heaven would become one of the better critically acclaimed features of the years and one the best at the box office for 1946 after premiering in late December 1945. The beauty of the film’s Technicolor would earn the film its only Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color), the only win of the four nominations the film received. The contrast of the film’s light nature with the stark gruesome plot would produce a haunting picture. Its effect would inspire the likes of filmmaker Martin Scorsese who lists the film as one of his all-time favorites. Leave Her to Heaven stands up well with the passage of time, continuing to grip viewers with its colorful dark suspense that is sure to be heralded for generations to come.

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