Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why This is Hell, Nor Am I Out of It

"Those repressed Okies, they go for that twisted, perverted stuff"
--Ed Wood (1994)

According to Wikipedia, Leave Her to Heaven (1945, directed by John M. Stahl) was 20th Century Fox's biggest hit of the 1940s. Bigger than Zorro, bigger than Santa Claus and Natalie Wood, bigger than everything. This, frankly, amazes me. All through last night's showing of the movie, all I could hear in my head was the line from Ed Wood that I've quoted at the head of this post. This is twisted, perverted stuff.

Leave Her to Heaven exists at a kind of cinematic crossroads where film noir, women's pictures, westerns, and melodrama intersect. A lot of people deny that it's film noir, and I can understand their point. It's a distaff movie, mostly about women, which is uncommon enough among noir films, and it's rural rather than urban. Also, it's in color: blazing, high-saturation "burn the eyes from your skull" technicolor. If your idea of noir is that it's a style rather than a genre, then this film is totally NOT film noir. If, on the other hand, you think of noir as an idiom--and that's my point of view--then this movie is noir to the core. Noir isn't the only lens through which to view Leave Her to Heaven, but it may be the most useful even if one struggles to connect the dots between this film and the dark city where doom lurks in back alleys. On the surface, and even deeper than the surface, this film's most obvious touchstone are melodramas. It's almost impossible to avoid comparisons to Douglas Sirk's films in the 1950s, a comparison made all the stronger by the fact that Sirk remade both A Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, two films originally directed by John M. Stahl in the 1930s. More than that, Leave Her to Heaven appears to be engaging in the same kind of coded dismantling of post-war bourgeois American culture, where everyone is affluent but nobody is happy.

The plot of Leave Her to Heaven follows the doomed romance between writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) and Ellen Barent (Gene Tierney), who meet, as lovers often do in classic films, on a train. Both of them have a common destination, it seems, and thrown together by happenstance, the two are attracted to each other. Ellen is traveling to New Mexico to scatter her father's ashes, and she meets her remaining family there. Harland ends up staying on the same ranch. Ellen fancies Richard enough to break off her engagement with Russell Quinton, an up and coming District Attorney, and uses the break to corner Richard into an engagement. Soon they're married, but Ellen is soon disappointed in her marriage. It's not all its cracked up to be. Try as she might to be the perfect wife, she can't seem to get Richard to focus on her and her needs. She becomes insanely jealous of Richard's brother, a teenager who is recovering from polio, and regrets becoming pregnant as a means of cementing her marriage, because it isolates her within her own house. She's also jealous of her cousin, Ruth (Jeanne Crain), who has struck up a friendship with Richard. Jealousy drives Ellen to commit ghastly crimes: she watches as Richard's brother drowns, she throws herself down a flight of stairs to abort her baby, and she kills herself while framing her cousin for the deed...

Ellen Barent Harland is one of the cinema's most indelible monsters, in part because her monstrosity is contained behind Gene Tierney's impossibly blue eyes and her polished and laquered movie-star face. During the course of the movie, Tierney's beauty contrasts so strongly with the completely awful things she does that it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. The movie pursues this kind of cognitive dissonance in its production design, too. As I've mentioned, this is a blazing technicolor extravaganza, in which the American Outdoors is writ large as a backdrop for what's essentially an intimate drama. It also provides a spectacular setting for Ellen's crimes. What may not be evident behind the intense contrasts this movie presents is that Ellen has a legitimate beef. She wants some time alone with her husband on their honeymoon, and instead, she has to deal with his disabled brother, her family, and the caretaker. And her husband is complicit in all of this! When can a girl find some time to get her freak on? Seriously?

Ellen reminds me a LOT of those characters that Lon Chaney used to play in movies like The Unknown and He Who Gets Slapped, where the monster is sympathetic because he's motivated by love that will never be returned. Ellen is kind of like Chaney's Alonzo the Armless, who cut off his arms to be with a woman who can't stand to be held, only to discover that the woman has gotten over it when courted by the strongman. Sometimes, the world is cruel. Ellen, for her part, completely sublimates herself to her role as wife and would-be mother only to be stifled by it. The movie suggests that Ellen could do anything. She's a horsewoman, she beats all comers in the water, she knows her father's chemistry lab inside and out. In another era, with different motivations, she would be a Renaissance woman. Instead, she's settled for a life of bourgeois domesticity. She does it for love, of course, but she gets nothing in return for it but bedrest, a pregnancy she doesn't want, and a man who doesn't love her back in return.

All of which begs the question of what the hell she sees in Richard Harland other than a pretty face. The pretty face is kind of characterless, actually. This may be an effect of the technicolor, which has an odd flattening effect on a number of faces, mostly the male faces, but Harland doesn't seem like he's passionate about anything in particular. He writes, sure, but he seems to approach that more as a job than as an art. There's a point in the movie where he notes that he dreamed of being a painter when he was in Paris, but gave it up when he saw the squallor in which the artists on the Left Bank lived. He chose, instead, a life of affluence rather than pursue any strong passion. He's a mediocrity, though one suited to life in post-war America, where mediocrities thrived. Even Jeanne Crain's earth mother-ish cousin has more glint of passion in her eyes when she does what she loves, though the movie is entirely correct when it ultimately pairs her with Harland. The one character that devotedly loves Ellen--played by a devilishly handsome young Vincent Price, I should add--is the one she casts aside. She knows that Russell Quinton (Price) would never be able to give his all to her, but unlike Harland, he would surely try. So why Harland, then? The movie suggests that Ellen has a serious Elektra complex, given that she immediately tells Harland that he looks like her father. As the movie progresses, it's clear that she felt the same kind of clinging jealousy with her father that she has with Harland, though that complex evolves toward a different myth later in the movie when Ellen turns into Medea.

The form follows function in this movie. Its plot turns strain at the credulity of the audience--some of the members of the audience were quietly giggling at some of the film's more excessive passages, particularly during the trial sequence at the end. I think audiences may bring too much internalized irony to movies anymore for true melodramas to work unless they're abstracted by another genre. The credulity is strained at points by the actual craft of the film at times, too. For all the beauty of its photography--and it IS beautiful--this has some of the worst day for night shots I can remember. This might be an effect of the intense technicolor. This also has one of the worst matte paintings I can remember in a major film, too. This is it:

I mean, that matte painting is worthy of Thomas Kinkaide.

Ultimately, though, the movie is best remembered for two sequences, both of which still have the power to shock. In the first, Ellen allows Danny, Richard's disabled brother, to drown. This scene is unparalleled for its depiction of heartlessness. It stacks the deck: I mean, Danny is a kid, and he can't walk. You want an innocent victim? This kid is the very definition. The execution of this scene is absolutely merciless: no music, only the lapping of the water, Danny's cries for help, the epic landscape, and the impassive, beautiful face of Gene Tierney. The sunglasses give us no window into her eyes, and that's probably just as well. In the second scene, Ellen has just finished railing on how she wishes the horrid little beast in her womb would die. To this end, she dresses in a fine gown, styles her hair, puts on her make-up, all as if she's going out on the town. Then she tucks one of her shoes under the rug and throws herself down the stairs, leaving the shoe at the top like it's a glass slipper after the ball. Abortion is still a raw nerve in our culture, and if killing Danny didn't put Ellen beyond the pale, this certainly does. This part of the movie raises all kinds of feminist critiques, though, and most of them are spot on. The baby, this line of thinking goes, is a prison, much as the post-War ideal of house and home is a prison, and the intersection of these beautiful cages for the Ellen Barents of the world is too, too much to endure. She can't even fuck the pain away with the man of her dreams. Talk about a raw deal.


J Luis Rivera said...

I want to see this so badly...

Anyways, your comment about people bringing too much irony to the melodrama could perhaps be applied to older cinema in general.

I don't know if it's condescendence or something similar, but most people does giggle when watching something older than 1970 in the big screen. As if watching "what granpa watched as a kid" was meant to be funny cause hey, it's old.

I'm sure that you'd love it, but most people would raise an eyebrow at Hawk's intellectual carrot for example. I blame postmodernism.

I guess I got a bit carried away. Great post.

dfordoom said...

I agree with your point about irony, and with Luis's point about modern audiences regarding anything old as inherently funny. The attitude that people in the past were stupid and that their beliefs must have been wrong because they're not the beliefs of today really annoys me.

crow said...

Wow, this does sound like a Douglas Sirk movie, but with a monster as the lead not a sympathetic figure like Jane Wyman. I need to see this because your review sure compelled me. I have a recording of "Dragonwyck", starring Tierney and Price (reading your review also reminded me of one of my favorite films, "Laura" while reading this) that I have been meaning to watch for a while, too. A technicolor movie with Tierney, and it has her as a sociopath--boy, does this sound intriguing.

Regarding widely regarded movies, I have to admit, Christianne, I do cringe at the African-American characters in Preston Sturges movies. I imagine they have a direct opposite effect today than then when I guess audiences thought making fun of them was funny. I was very uncomfortable with these scenes. It might appear this has nothing to do with anything you have written, but it came to mind after your comment on contemporary audiences today's response to movies from the past.


Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Brian. I didn't know you had a blog. Consider it followed.

Funny you should mention Jane Wyman. Leave Her To Heaven makes a GREAT double feature with All That Heaven Allows. I almost wrote of Ellen Berent: She doesn't even get a TV out of the deal.

Vincent Price loved the trio of movies he made with Gene Tierney. I know that he said on more than one occasion that Laura was his own favorite of his films. And, my heavens, was he handsome when he was younger. I totally dig him in Dragonwyck.

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: This is a film I can never watch again. I saw it when I was young and loved it, thought the Tierney character sexy and intriguing. Sure, she did horrible things, but still . . .

Then I had a son, and this movie (and many others) changed on a dime. In movies now, all boy children characters remind me of my son as a boy. I watched "Leave Her To Heaven" recently when I was in a Technicolor phase, and actually turned it off at the lake scene. It felt like some clever sadist had me in the rack. Even though my son's 21 now, I instantly saw his boy self out there, treading water, not understanding what was happening.

Suffice to say, all I see now in Ellen now is a monster who I could kill easily with my bare hands.

You know you're getting old when you have to turn away from a great film like this because it's too disturbing.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal.

It's a testament to the power of this film that it still strikes raw nerves in the audience. I sympathize with your relationship with this movie. I don't have children myself, but I have had a stalker, which kept me from really enjoying Leave Her to Heaven for many long years. I seem to be over that, but I can see how your situation is different. Children are a gift that keep on giving.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by.

Kevyn Knox said...

This film was a big influence on Sirk for sure. He has admitted as much. It was also a big influence on Martin Scorsese.

The film is certainly a gorgeous piece of work - both visually and emotionally. I only saw the film for the first time earlier this year (I was on a Gene Tierney kick at the time) and immediately saw the influence it would have on Sirk.

As you say, it is one of those films that deconstructs the post war American dream, and it could very well be the earliest example of such a sub-genre (can it be called that?). At least the earliest I can think of.

And yet, even through all the visual audacity that Stahl gave to his film, it is the sympathetic monster Tierney that is the most scarring, the most frightening, the most unforgettable, and the most deliriously brazen part of Leave Her to Heaven.

Great post on a great film. Your insights, as usual, are quite remarkable.