As it was raining very hard last night and there was really nothing to do but go to a movie, I decided to go to the classic movie theater and watch the film Leave Her to Heaven, starring Gene Tierney, one of the most spectacularly beautiful actresses ever onscreen who does not get the credit she deserves. I’ve seen the film a number of times before, but never on the big screen, so this was a treat.
Upon entering the theater, I ran into a woman with whom I had befriended at a screening of “His Girl Friday,” the both of us sharing an undying love with Rosalind Russell, and I almost expected to see her here at this showing of Leave Her to Heaven because at our last meeting she expressed a similar admiration for Gene Tierney. I was not disappointed. There she was, and we spent the time before the film discussing the merits of aforementioned actress, with my using the French phrase “super belle” to describe her beauty. She insisted that her beauty was not everything, there was a fire and life to her that superseded her immense looks, and I must say that I agree. Her life was not to be envied–her marriage to designer Oleg Cassini produced a daughter born blind and mentally retarded, due to Gene’s acquisition of German measles while pregnant. She developed bipolar disorder, and spent much of her mid-adult life in and out of mental institutions. She wrote about the experience in her autobiography, “Self Portrait,” a very brave thing to do in that day. My friend and I discussed all that, until the movie started we were both enamored with it.
Ellen Berendt a woman who marries a man she meets on a train, proceeds to become so jealous of everything that comes between them that she will stop at nothing to destroy those things. In a famous scene, she encourages her husband’s teenage, disabled brother to go for a swim in a lake near their house, and *SPOILER ALERT*watches remorselessly as he tires and ultimately drowns. She makes herself fall down a flight of stairs while pregnant so that the unborn child will not come between her and her husband. The film wraps up with an incredible, mind-bending conclusion that you would never expect, so prepare to be surprised.
One of the interesting things about this film is that it is shot in a beautiful Technicolor. In a film that deals with murder, treachery, and revenge, the use of color is something very rare indeed during this time period, with the vast majority of these films being in black and white, as clear representatives of the film noir genre. The film itself is very much a part of the genre in its treatment of its subjects, and it is in fact largely classified as a noir film, despite its unusual use of color photography. For a film such as this, whose plot could be considered part of film noir, the use of such tranquil, almost pastel colors has an unusual effect. It sets a scene of calm and serenity, in the place of the traditional stark black and white photography of the genre, which almost makes you feel like something is bound to happen at any moment. Indeed, many of the horrid things that Ellen does in this movie are approached gradually, with a sense of calm and reserve. The scene with the boy in the lake is played with no background music, just the sounds of the water coupled with Tierney’s heartless gaze through her sunglasses. The fact that she wears sunglasses, too, is something quite remarkable to me. It masks any emotion that may be happening behind her eyes, and instead allows the viewer to imagine exactly what she is feeling behind those glasses.
As the scene ends, she suddenly yanks off her glasses, revealing her bright blue eyes in a piercing gaze.
The film also stars the lovely and talented Jeanne Crain, who does quite a good job in the thankless role of younger sister Ruth, with not much action to speak of. Chill Wills has a supporting role, but his character does not advance to plot much at all, nor does the character of Ellen’s mother. Ellen’s father, who is never seen in the film (according to the plot, he died shortly before the main action took place), has more of an impact on the story than any of the other supporting characters, and it seems like much of what happens in terms of the supporting characters is simply filler. Many of them could have been cut out, but then again the more characters there are, the more action happens, no matter how tiny, the more evidence we have to think Ellen is a monster. I must say that one of the benefits of this movie is that it is VERY nice to look at–Cornel Wilde plays the husband, Gene Tierney the main character, and Jeanne Crain the supporting role. In all, this is a movie well-worth seeing. There is a recurring theme of eyes speaking emotions rather than words–in addition to the lake scene, there is one scene toward the end that Cornel Wilde plays completely with his eyes, absolutely brilliantly. He says not a word throughout the entire scene, but his eyes speak it all, which I say is a mark of a great actor.
If you would like to see Leave Her to Heaven, it is readily available on Netflix and in movie stores. It also happens to be shown often on public television.