This essay on John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven were written by Tim Brayton, Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Leave Her to Heaven will screen in our series tribute to 20th Century Fox on Saturday, November 9 at 2 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be preceded by an introduction from Schawn Belston, 20th Century Fox Film Archivist.
By Tim Brayton
The term film noir immediately brings with it several associations: high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, squalid city environments seen at the worst in the dead of night, hapless men being suckered into criminality by gorgeous, untrustworthy women. Almost none of these apply to the 1945 release Leave Her to Heaven: it’s a beautiful Technicolor spectacle (winning an Oscar for its cinematography), set in the Arizona desert and the forests of New England, seen in bright, soft light. There’s a hapless man, but he’s a novelist. The film has a femme fatale in the form of Gene Tierney’s magnificently sociopathic Ellen Berent, but she’s not looking to use a man and discard him; indeed, the plot hinges on how desperately she wants to stay with him. Despite all of this, many sources throughout the years have confidently described Leave Her to Heaven as a film noir. So what gives?
To begin with, we need to remind ourselves that American filmmakers of the 1940s weren’t consciously making a thing called “film noir”: that label was applied by French critics years later. At the time Leave Her to Heaven was new, it was something much simpler: the latest prestigious literary adaptation released by 20th Century Fox, during a decade where that studio was having great success with such projects. In this case, the film’s origins in a book by Ben Ames Williams are foregrounded in the most literal way possible: the opening credits are styled as the first pages from a copy of the book itself. It’s a far cry from the ripped-from-the-headlines or pulp fiction origins of the era’s great hard-boiled crime thrillers, positioning the film securely in a cycle of respectable melodramas cropping up throughout Hollywood in the 1940s. Cementing the film’s level of prestige, it was fashioned as a vehicle for Tierney, who was becoming a major star for the studio thanks to 1943’s Heaven Can Wait and 1944’s Laura (the latter being a much more conventional example of film noir style and narrative concerns).
For the first half of the movie, you’d never suppose this was anything other than a romantic melodrama, as Tierney and Cornel Wilde’s Richard Harland meet on a train and embark on a swift, passionate love affair, despite her engagement to attorney Russell Quinton (played by Tierney’s Laura co-star Vincent Price, years before he became a horror movie icon). The only hints of the darkness to come are situated entirely in Tierney’s subtle performance, which netted her only nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Much of the pleasure of Leave Her to Heaven resides entirely in her inscrutable facial expressions, with doubt and mistrust flickering around her eyes and mouth: this is a film in which much of the drama comes simply from watching her staring off-camera. This pays off in a startlingly savage mid-film twist, where we discover how fully Ellen’s desire to possess Richard outweighs every other human concern. We’ve seen the hostility in her face and heard the chilliness in her voice, so we can’t claim to be entirely surprised by the narrative developments of the film’s second hour, though the overwhelming bleakness of much of the plot from this point forward is shocking for a Hollywood film of the 1940s.
Which brings us back to film noir. While the term originates in visual aesthetics (it refers to the heavy shadows of high-contrast, low-key lighting), it has long been used more to describe a sensibility of hopeless nihilism and the fear that human life and American culture have become meaningless in the wake of World War II. Leave Her to Heaven demonstrates this sensibility in spades. In the remarkable character of Ellen, a woman whose desire for freedom and autonomy have curdled into a propensity for cruelty that must be seen to be believed, we see the American dream corrupted into barbarity, and Tierney’s performance holds back nothing. Ellen is a legitimately terrifying figure, all the more so since she’s so easy to find empathetic and engaging in contrast to Wilde’s milquetoast Richard. She’s much more than a mere femme fatale, leading the hero to a bad end: she’s the most active figure in the movie, the character whose goals and desires are most clearly laid out. That her pursuit of those desires proves to be so completely destructive is what makes Leave Her to Heaven such a powerful articulation of the post-war despair that was creeping into so much of American pop culture at the time.
The film was directed by John M. Stahl, one of the final films of his impressive but undervalued career, and he proves to be nearly as crucial to its effect as Tierney. Stahl’s characteristic approach to filmmaking, as seen in such films as Seed and Back Street (both screened earlier in 2019 at the Cinematheque), is to leaven melodrama through understatement and a lack of sensationalism. This restraint is on display throughout Leave Her to Heaven, though it’s perhaps most powerful during the mid-film lake scene where the drama takes such a decisive turn. In the hands of a more exploitation-minded director, this could easily be turned into a moment of drawn-out tension. Instead, Stahl treats it as a moment of swift brutality, letting stillness and silence (it is a notably music-free sequence) do the work of letting us know that something awful is happening, and then pushing through that moment so succinctly that it’s over almost before we’ve entirely processed the enormity of what we’re watching. It’s one of the most upsetting moments in Hollywood films of the 1940s, still devastating after 74 years of ever-increasing screen violence.
Despite all its bitterness and bleakness, Leave Her to Heaven was a massive success. It was one of the highest-grossing films of 1946, the peak year for cinema attendance in the United States; it would end up as one of Fox’s biggest box-office hits of the decade. It’s easy to see why: as black-hearted as it might be, it’s a feast for the senses, and Tierney’s performance is one of the most complex and modern you’ll find in any ‘40s film. It hasn’t aged well in every respect, but it’s suffused with a feeling of danger and emotional intensity that remain electrifying all these generations later.