Film: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Stars: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, Mary Philips
Director: John M. Stahl
Oscar History: 4 nominations/1 win (Best Actress-Gene Tierney, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Sound)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars
(Spoilers Ahead) It is, of course, Valentine's Day today but since I'm single I thought it would be fun to watch a noir movie, which of course ended up about as close to Fatal Attraction as one can get from a 1940's film, so it goes along well with my jaded heart on such a day (kidding, kidding...kind of). The film is the tale of one Ellen Berent (Tierney) a woman desperately in love with an author she meets on a train named Richard (Wilde), who marries her quite impetuously and watches as her entire world crumbles. The film is a melodrama as much as it is a noir, with the final third of the film turning into a pretty staid and eye-rolling courtroom drama as Ellen, after going on a bit of a murderer's spree (killing both Richard's disabled brother and her unborn son) offs herself to frame her sister Ruth (Crain) of the murder after she suspects Richard has fallen in love with her.
However, up until that point the film has a couple of really great scenes amidst some soggy melodrama. Gene Tierney won her only Oscar nomination for this mammoth hit for FOX (it was the studio's highest-earning picture of the 1940's), and you can see what the draw is. The film is not shy about first making you almost cower in fear at her beauty (I texted my brother as the film started, "Cornel Wilde is cute and all, but Gene Tierney is so gorgeous she genuinely looks like a cartoon"), and then spend the rest of the film subliminally making excuses for her as she continues to be worse and worse of a human being. Tierney will always be one of my favorite performers (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which we recently visited, as well as The Razor's Edge or especially my beloved Laura, all being treats in my opinion), but I will admit that I was a bit flummoxed for the first half of the film as to why Tierney was nominated, and part of me wondered if she was getting it simply because she was (at the time) one of Hollywood's biggest stars and this was such a big picture that it felt like she had to have it, in a similar way to say Doris Day in Pillow Talk or Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. However, I will admit that the scene where she watches a young Darryl Hickman drown in broad daylight is bone-chilling, and played to perfection in a method that rivals Barbara Stanwyck waiting at the train in Double Indemnity. Tierney's performance never again matches Stanwyck's (she's too full of clenched glares and doesn't have the ease that this role requires in scenes with other people to make her seem convincingly manipulative), but there's power in her Ellen and the drowning scene alone probably mandated this nomination.
The mention of broad daylight is an interesting look at the cinematography, which actually won the Oscar. The film is shot beautifully, all gorgeous shadows like we're in a Douglas Sirk film, but the real trick of Leon Shamroy's work in Leave Her to Heaven is the way he throws typical noir on its head by having the most heinous of actions take place not at night, but during the day. Look at how brightly-lit something like the drowning sequence is in the film-you almost certainly assume Tierney will dive into the water and save Hickman at the last minute, and that he'll die later on in the evening, but here (like when she forces her miscarriage) Shamroy and director John Stahl play with our expectations and force us to realize that even in the safest of settings we cannot trust Ellen. The film was also nominated for Art Direction (the set is fine, but the backdrops look unusually fake even for a 1940's picture, particularly an early scene where Cornel Wilde somehow manages to step in front of a series of mountains in just a ten-foot jaunt) and Sound (a strange nomination, quite frankly, and one that feels like it was earned in the courtroom scene for getting Vincent Price's voice to be as loud as possible, but the movie's score work in compliment with the film and the rather clumsy way that noise=passion makes me think this is the least of the citations), but it's the cinematography that stands out: gorgeously-lit, beautifully subtle, a sort of precursor to the grandness that something like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes would soon perfect in the hands of Jack Cardiff.
Those are my thoughts on Leave Her to Heaven, a film I have long wanted to see thanks to my devotion to Tierney. Do you have any thoughts on the picture? What is your favorite Gene Tierney film? What is your favorite of Leon Shamroy's eighteen nominated films? Share your thoughts in the comments!