In the more than seventy years since the birth of the film noir movement, cinema scholars the world over have written chapter upon chapter of academic texts attempting to define film noir. All forms of analysis from visual to narrative have come into play in an attempt to define this very complex group of films. One film which flies in the face of much of the film noir study is Leave Her to Heaven. While the 1945 feature comes straight out of the post WWII era, it couldn’t be farther visually from the rest of film noir. As such, how does this gorgeous and bright movie land its film noir classification.
Leave Her to Heaven follows writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) as he meets and falls in love with the super beautiful Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney). However, the whirl wind romance quickly turns rocky and the couple are plunged into all kinds of melodramatic wackiness. The film is directed by John M. Stahl from a script by Jo Swerling.
Probably most stunning about this film is the use of color. In fact, the film is known for its rich and vibrant look in a period where most films were still shot in black and white. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy won the 1946 Academy Award for his work. Luckily, the TCM: Classic Film Festival showcased this screening in the glory that is nitrate, making the full and beautiful color even more so. If you ever have the opportunity to see this film in nitrate, don’t pass it up. Shamroy’s cinematography is definitely a star of the movie, and it needs to be seen… on the big screen if possible.
Historically, this movie brings some interesting context. Ellen is held as a phenomenal example of the femme fatale. The film was released in January 1946, barely six months after the end of fighting. This period in history saw a drastic shift in gender roles. During the war, “Rosie the Riveter” government propaganda told women it was their civic duty to fill the jobs of the men fighting overseas. It became a necessity; however, when the war ended in 1945 things changed. Suddenly, soldiers were returning from overseas and they needed their jobs. However, some women weren’t ready to go back into the kitchen just yet.
In this post WWII era, two primary takes on female sexuality rise to precedence in popular culture. Perhaps most prominent, we see the emergence of the femme fatale as part of the film noir movement. Also, as the 1940s move into the 1950s there is a development of a toxic motherhood. Films demonstrating this trope focus on the damage done to children by aggressive and over-protective mothers. Women couldn’t win during this period as cinema forced home a strict example of idealised femininity, largely aimed at corralling women back into the home.
This is the prevailing climate out of which Leave Her to Heaven emerged. Watching it, there’s no question that Ellen is definitely unhinged. However, at the same time her behaviour is somehow understandable… except perhaps the child murder. As the film progresses, Ellen feels like a woman struggling against the societal norms of the period. The film (through its characters) seems to be forcing her into a subservient role. In fact, the conflict in the plot comes from Ellen’s unwillingness to conform to these expectations. She’s a young wife who just wants to enjoy her husband and her new marriage. Unfortunately, she comes up against resistance from all-sides. Her husband, her family and the world around her seem in disregard of her feelings and opinions. Rather, she’s supposed to conform to their expectations and wants. As such, it is in this facet of her behaviour which ultimately pigeonholes Ellen as the femme fatale. While so many of her fatale contemporaries are vicious and evil, Ellen feels misunderstood. Questions of mental illness and societal pressures dramatically affect her character, crafting the complex and complicated woman we see on-screen.
Also notable is actress Gene Tierney’s performance as leading lady and femme fatale Ellen. Her intense and layered portrayal of the character is a fascinating one as she takes the young woman through a number of emotional and mental states. The complicated character is a new level for the actress, who does some of her best work in the movie. In fact, Tierney earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for this film. Unfortunately, she lost the award in an incredibly rough year. Joan Crawford took home the Best Actress Oscar for her legendary work in Mildred Pierce.
Ultimately , Leave Her to Heaven experiences some struggles, especially when viewing it through a contemporary perspective. Some lines don’t hit as they did in the 1940’s (“The Girl Who Plows,” anyone?). At times, some of the performances also feel a trifle over-the-top. Ultimately, these moments don’t detract from the power of the visuals.
Leave Her to Heaven brings an interesting tone, combining film noir with an almost Sirkian melodrama.This is a “sunshine noir” It feels like a contradiction in terms, but it somehow works with stunning beauty on-screen. Film noir is known for its bleakness, and this more than comes across in Leave Her to Heaven. However, rather than seeing it in the setting (as we do in other films), the bleakness comes across in the complicated characters seen on-screen.
Leave Her to Heaven is a slightly deeper cut in the pantheon of film noir. In fact, a recent viewing of this movie was actually the first time for me. Watching the 1945 drama, it becomes clear that this film is a treat and appears even more so in a restored nitrate print showcased at the TCM: Classic Movie Film Festival. Ultimately, Leave Her to Heaven is a truly complex work of cinema which demands to be watched a number of times to truly appreciate everything happening on-screen. Add this one to your list if you haven’t seen it.