Saturday, March 20, 2021

Gene Tierney Shines in a Slice of Cinematic Heaven

                One of the chief Golden Age Hollywood classics to have continually witnessed a rise in stature during the last several decades, 1945’s riveting Leave Her to Heaven has gained a reputation as possibly the most notable Film Noir in the Technicolor realm, as well as occupying a place among the highest-regarded melodramas of the period. Based on the Ben Ames Williams bestseller and directed by John Stahl with a willingness to vividly depict events bordering on and sometimes crashing into the improbable (one can imagine King Vidor and Douglas Sirk nodding in approval while leaving a screening of Heaven) while still craftily maintaining a sense of taste and decorum amid the often disreputable proceedings, the hard-to-forget tale concerns the escapades of Ellen Berent, a beautiful young woman who meets her ideal man and is determined to keep him exclusively to herself, at any cost. Featuring top 20th-Century Fox production values (Darryl Zanuck knew how to showcase a good story when he got one), including a first-rate cast, a skillful screenplay by Jo Swerling that plays up the ultra-dramatic plot points in a consistently enthralling manner, while parring back on a few florid events from the novel (a wild forest fire sequence from the book was wisely  trimmed) and sensational, Oscar-winning lensing of those lush Technicolor hues by Leon Shamroy, the movie placed among the biggest hits of the 1940’s, with audiences drawn in by the undeniable vitality of the film’s dark aspects and its issue-laden heroine.

                Clearly driving the storyline throughout much of the film, Gene Tierney uses her calm, upper-class reserve and perfect countenance to terrific effect in perhaps her most transfixing performance. Although the previous year’s Laura may be the first film that comes to mind when thinking of Tierney, and even Tierney in the Noir genre (although Heaven has edged closer to the title, and may now hold it for many), that desert-island choice showcases Tierney’s unsurpassable beauty as a romantic ideal more than providing her with a chance for impressive emoting. As Ellen, Tierney was assured many front-and-center moments causing audience’s mouths to gape would be onscreen, and she contently laps up these scenes with a dreamy composure that, along with Tierney’s preposterous, otherworldly beauty, makes Ellen’s troubled mindset even more eerie than if played in a less-tranquil, more obvious acting style (as in “look at me, I’m evil but hiding it from the other characters, but you know I’m bad, wink-wink”).

Tierney had a great run at 20th throughout the 1940’s and beyond, and although she could be charmingly competent and gentile in more traditional fare such as her debut in The Return of Frank James (wherein she ideally matches up with Henry Fonda), 1943’s Heaven Can Wait and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Tierney in particular excelled when allowed to use her cool detachment for more nefarious purposes, chiefly as the icy Isabel in The Razor’s Edge, who with calculated composure placidly pushes romantic rival Anne Baxter round her last bender and over the edge, and in her surprisingly fierce work in 1954’s much maligned The Egyptian, a would-be Zanuck epic that offers contemporary audiences plenty of viewing pleasures, with Tierney rating high among the most entertaining aspects of the film as the commanding Baketamon, who could teach Caligula a few things about ruling with an iron fist (it was nice to see a late-career role played this vividly by Tierney, who shortly thereafter faced serious mental set-backs that ended her career as a top star). With Heaven, Tierney gained her most substantial “bad girl” success, with a fitting Best Actress Oscar nomination to go along with the droves of patrons eager to see a performance that surely caused a great deal of talk around the water cooler, and everywhere else (in Tierney’s autobiography, she proudly relates the biggest complement she received for her Heaven work, when at a dinner party shortly after the film’s smash release the server refused to get near Tierney due to having seen Ellen’s untoward actions onscreen; Tierney patched things up by showing she actually possessed a much warmer demeanor than the inhumane Ellen).

As much as Heaven represented a career high for Tierney, 1945 did about as well by her handsome, amiable leading man, Cornel Wilde, for whom the film provided a nice one-two punch after his resounding success as Chopin in A Song to Remember, which would place him in the Oscar race along with Tierney the following year. Although the stoic character of writer Richard Harland, who becomes entangled in Ellen’s unhealthy obsession after encountering Ellen on a train reading his latest work in an un-obsessed manner, doesn’t afford Wilde the chance to make quite as big an impression as in his previous effort (or just by showing up in tights as “The Great Sebastian” in The Greatest Show on Earth), he proves to be exactly right for the part, providing a sensible point for audience identification, especially when he finally figures out how far beyond reason Ellen has departed and stands up to his formidable, very significant other. Wilde does such a capable job of illustrating Richard’s decency, patience and good nature that, aided with a smile that could melt diamonds, a viewer is thoroughly invested in his plight and wishes a happy ending for him, even if they simultaneously hope Ellen sticks around long enough to keep wreaking plenty of havoc on everyone and everything around her (watching Ellen’s nastiness is addictive, like when you’re eating too much ice cream but you can’t stop because it’s so rich and tasty). A true renaissance man who counted roles as a pre-med grad, fencing expert and playwright and screenwriter among his achievements, Wilde forged ahead as a top leading man for the decade following Heaven, before also adding the realm of directing to his accomplishments, possibly reaching his peak in this area with 1965’s gripping adventure The Naked Prey.

Similar to Wilde, Jeanne Crain’s star was on a swift ascent by the end of 1945 when Heaven hit theaters, having made her breakthrough in State Fair. Although Crain perfectly fits in the popular “lovely young ingénue” category, she also provided an equally lovely, serene presence onscreen during her heyday, avoiding the forced, saccharine playing often seen by those enacting “good girl” roles. Crain is just about perfect in something like 1946’s Margie, which helped cement her stardom but unfortunately is rarely seen today (I think rights issues are involved, and it’s a shame this wonderful film is largely overlooked; among other assets, Margie offers a great example of the A-1 results which could occur due to the special care taken in crafting a major studio release during these peak production years in Hollywood). In Heaven Crain is right at home as Ellen’s benevolent cousin Ruth, offering audiences an exact counter to Ellen’s vengeful nature, while also indicating Ruth has the quiet strength to combat any wrath her jealous relative throws her way. Crain would build on her 1945 success to remain a fixture of Fox output into the 1950’s, including another memorable double-header year in 1949, with solid work in A Letter to Three Wives and her Oscar-nominated title role in Pinky.

Vincent Price (in-between assignments with Tierney in Laura and finally gaining leading man status with her in Dragonwyck) also manages to make an impression as Russell Quinton, the attorney fiancé who is swiftly spurned by Ellen once Richard appears; Price gets a chance to shine particularly in a showy courtroom scene where he comes across as the most biased lawyer this side of Raymond Burr in A Place in the Sun, who acts like he’ll kill Montgomery Clift’s George himself if he doesn’t get a conviction. As Richard worshipful (to Ellen’s chagrin) younger brother Danny, Darryl Hickman comes through big in the film’s ultimate among many unforgettable scenes, with an unsupportive Ellen and the most unfortunately remote lake in film history creating suspense that likely caused Hitchcock, along with Vidor and Sirk, to leave the film satisfied, while also wondering how to top this fantastic moment in his next picture. Finally, as Ellen’s composed-yet-disapproving Mother, Mary Phillips does a great job with a side glance or worrisome look of suggesting the unhealthy nature of Ellen’s passions (Richard’s very strong resemblance to her dad is involved) that 1945 censorship would not allow within fifty feet of a film strip.

The burgeoning reputation of Heaven has been assisted by the approval of no less than Martin Scorsese (among many contemporaries), and some fine home video releases, including a Fox Studio Classics DVD and, more recently, nice Blu-ray representation on Twilight Time and Criterion. A 2018 entry into the esteemed National Film Registry archives further cemented Heaven’s status as a classic worthy of merit; it’s an engrossing slice of Golden-Age cinema that continues to captivate viewers long since it reigned as (according to Variety) Fox’s biggest hit of the 1940’s. I showed the film to some friends a couple years ago, and gave a spare copy to one who was especially drawn to it; in short order, she posted a video of her family verbally reacting (with a head scratch thrown in) to one of Ellen’s most inappropriate, “What the Hell!” actions committed to highly entertaining effect. Like the book you can’t put down Heaven initially was, the film version featuring one of Classic Hollywood’s most memorably-unhinged (if outwardly reserved) characters offers an all-consuming viewing experience to equal Ellen’s infatuation with Richard, with a much more rewarding outcome for audiences able to keep a safe distance from Heaven’s alluring, dangerous femme fatale and simply enjoy from afar the wild enterprises she undertakes.


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