Monday, May 4, 2020

Leave Her To Heaven

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Mar 24, 2020
Review by Christopher S. Long

The genres of melodrama and noir share only a short border, but both intersect in the enigmatic and magnetic blue-green eyes of actress Gene Tierney, star of director John M. Stahl's “Leave Her To Heaven” (1945).

Ellen Berent (Tierney) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) size each other up on a train. Richard coyly steals glances while Ellen gazes with increasing boldness and evident hunger. The meet-cute turns meet-sinister when Ellen explains the fascination this stranger on a train holds for her: “You look so much like my father.” Yikes!

Perhaps a bright, successful novelist like Richard should take this was a warning to switch cars while he still can, but the problem is that Ellen looks so much like Gene Tierney. He was doomed the instant he spiraled into the gravity well of those inescapable eyes. Next thing Richard knows, they're married, even if he can't quite remember the proposal. Ellen has a way of getting what she wants, and she wants Richard. All to herself.

Stahl makes Tierney's uncanny beauty the centerpiece of the film, and not just by asking screenwriter Jo Swerling (adapting the best-selling novel by Ben Ames Williams) to devise excuses for the actress to slip into a diverse array of sweaters, bathing suits, and nightgowns. Tierney's flawless face matches the flawless d├ęcor of the palatial Berent estate, and her ruby-red lipstick, positively bleeding in lush Technicolor, shines as luminously as the sun that glistens off the pools and lakes featured in the film.

To the degree that “Leave Her To Heaven” qualifies as a noir, it is the rare noir that doesn't rely heavily on shadows and murky spaces. The lustrous colors and the sheer brightness of the set design threaten to envelop Richard as surely as the gloomiest of noir alleyways, and so does the ugliness lurking just beneath his perfect housewife's perfect visage. She won't let anything get in the way of their wedded bliss, not her family, not their baby, not even Richard's polio-stricken little brother (Darryl Hickman). Richard is warned that “Ellen always wins” but fortunately he's not in a full-fledged noir, so fate still permits him a potential escape route, primarily in the form of Ellen's true-hearted cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Ellen's beauty blinds Richard to her flaws and Tierney's beauty can blind viewers to the quality of her performance. She renders Ellen both as supremely domineering and also vulnerable as a woman who only “loves too much”, at least according to her mother (Mary Philips). And though Tierney relishes in some of the overwrought flourishes of the traditional melodrama (a spiteful trip down a flight of stairs among them) she creates one of the most soul-chilling scenes of 1940's Hollywood simply by sitting still and staring passively through a pair of dark sunglasses.

“Leave Her To Heaven” ends on its weakest note with an extended and tedious courtroom scene which at least gives Vincent Price something to do after only the briefest of cameos earlier on. But Tierney's performance is indelible and cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who netted the film's sole Oscar win, deftly paints peril into every frame of this glowing Technicolor dreamland turned nightmare. 

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This 2K digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive, with support from The Film Foundation. A new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm color reversal internegative. A 35 mm nitrate Technicolor print was used as a reference for picture restoration.”

Without the original Technicolor footage, we can't be certain how precisely the colors match the original release, but with the reference print, this 1080 restoration provides a robust, bright image bursting with color. I couldn't spot any obvious flaws in the presentation.

The LPCM mono track is cleanly mixed with no evident dropoffs. The swelling original score by Alfred Newman is well-preserved. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.

Criterion has gone light with the features this time, including only a Trailer (2 min.) and a new interview (26 min.) with critic Imogen Sara Smith, the author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond The City.” Smith touches on the mysterious early life of director John M. Stahl, who long claimed to be born in New York but was, in fact, born in Azerbaijan. She also provides some visual analysis of a few scenes in the film.

The slim fold-out booklet features an incisive essay by novelist Megan Abbott.

Final Thoughts:
Gene Tierney was at her career peak, following up “Laura” (1944) with a role of a lifetime as Ellen in this film. Criterion offers little in the way of extras this time, though the interview with Smith is very strong, but this is a solid high-definition presentation of this strange melodrama-noir.