John M. Stahl's 1945 Leave Her To Heaven is a terrific film to spring on your less well-informed friends who think 1940s films, particularly 40s "women's pictures," as it were, are silly and trivial and kind of bland. Not just because it's a staggeringly beautiful film, you know, physically; there's neither a bland nor trivial frame in the whole thing. And it was perhaps never more gorgeous since its release than it is now, in the wonderful Film-Foundation-sponsored Technicolor restoration that opens at New York's Film Forum on March 6. Also because this movie has—sorry, there's really no other way to put it—one of the greatest "Holy shit!" factors, not just in 40s films, 40's melodramas, "women's pictures," you name it, but in all of film.
Even though what shall from hereon in be referred to at "that scene" is always wrenching no matter how many times one has seen the film, it can be something of a hoot to watch the reaction of newbies. Okay, so the character played by Gene Tierney, well-off one-time daddy's girl Ellen Berent, is rather unusually possessive of her new husband, novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde). And yes, the living quarters Richard and Ellen share at Richard's Maine getaway, Back of the Moon as he calls it, are a little cramped now that Richard's convalescing younger brother Danny (a very sweet
Dwayne Darryl Hickman) is living there. But...but...but...
Sigh. I understand that this is a pretty serious site, and that we're devoted to in-depth discussions of film with no regard for spoilers or any such thing. But there is such dreadful pleasure to be had in the revelations of Ellen's awfulness as they unfold onscreen that it seems almost sacreligious to discuss them. And Ellen's actions actually get worse! And Stahl keeps an entirely straight face throughout; the direction does not only have a sober commitment to the over-the-top emotions of the character, but a remarkably deft hand in maintaining narrative momentum, ratcheting up suspense. One should pay particularly close attention to the camera placement and the editing in "that scene," the views of Tierney's impassive face going in closer with each reverse shot; the face stays frozen, and the montage asks, "is she really going to do this?" And it resolves, somberly, "yes, she is." (Tierney is always most intriguing playing damaged characers—see also Sternberg's Shanghai Gesture.) And more importantly, the picture (which Stahl directed from a typically intelligent Jo Swerling script, based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams) never ceases to understand that Ellen is a monster of love—a love too all-encompassing for any individual, let alone the world outside, to ever assimilate.
The picture's world is art-directed within an inch of its life, not a single detail left to chance. The picture is largely confined to three settings: first there's the Taos ranch owned by Ray Collins' Glen Robie, Harland's lawyer and an old family friend of the Berents. It's here that Harland and Ellen fall in love. The house itself is rambling, expansive, like the big sky country surrounding it; there's a romantic majesty to it. Back of the Moon is rustic, woodsy, not nearly as claustrophobic as Ellen complains it is; one's almost able to smell the pine. The Berent home is Bay Harbor is more ramshackle in a particular Maine tradition. Each of the settings constitute a sub-genre of Real Estate Porn, to be sure. The designs of art directors Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford (not to mention the set decorations by Thomas Little and Ernest Lancing) give cinematographer Leon Shamroy wonderful material to work with, but the film's look reaches an apotheosis of delirium in the courtroom scenes late in the picture, presided over by Vincent Price, as a vengeful district attorney who some time before was thrown over by Ellen for Harland. The aqua-and-white coor scheme of the courtroom make the action look as if its suspended in the daylight sky, something you'd see in a celestial courtroom imagined by Powell and Pressburger. This particular break from "realism" (something the film wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to in the first place) spins Leave Her To Heaven's take on amour fou into some cosmic realm. It provides a strangely heartening reminder of just how exhilaratingly bizarre Hollywood moviemaking could get.