Leave Her to Heaven (1945) is an audacious film strictly within the confines of its sprocket holes.
Then you do a double take at that release date, and marvel that:
If Leave Her To Heaven were made today, and were as popular now as it was then, dozens of think-pieces, amateur and professional, would be devoted to pondering one question:
"What the hell is wrong with us, America?"
Yet as far as I've been able to tell, no such controversy enveloped the movie back then. Make of that what you will.
(Although the original trailer's "mental hygiene" narration hints that somebody fretted enough about the film's subversive quality to give it a Reefer Madness spin — see this movie, boys and girls, but don't enjoy it).
Leave Her to Heaven concerns wealthy, vivacious and beautiful Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), who falls for Richard Harland (Discount Farley Granger — I mean, Cornel Wilde), when they meet-cute on a train. She's reading a new novel, and he's the author. But that's not why she's attracted to him. It's because, she says, Richard looks like her father. Who just died.
Incredibly, Ellen and Richard are both headed to Rancho Jacinto in Taos, New Mexico. She and her father used to vacation there, just the two of them, and tomorrow she'll be scattering his ashes on the rugged land they loved. Richard is at the ranch for some post-publication rest and relaxation, but gets neither. Ellen throws over her fiancé (Vincent Price), proposes marriage to this writer guy she's known for one day, and he says yes. Well, he doesn't say no.
As her family explains matter-of-factly to Richard, "Ellen always wins."
Ellen forfeits her honeymoon to visit Richard's teenaged brother Danny, who's being treated for polio at Warm Springs. But she hadn't bargained on Richard bringing Danny to live with them, permanently, at his gorgeous Maine lakeside lodge — then inviting her whole family for an extended visit too. Surprise!
Ellen hates surprises.
Now, only a Democrat would condone the murder of crippled kids, but at this juncture, many viewers, mostly female, will start siding with Ellen, and squirming, because we know we're not supposed to.
And Ellen knows she's not "supposed" to be resentful either, because it's not "feminine;" she's supposed to be docile and sacrificial, warm and maternal.
Ellen can only perform these attitudes for a moment or two before cracking. Whenever she admits how she really feels — she wants her new husband to herself, and didn't expect to become the instant "mom" of a disabled teenaged boy, his bedroom separated from the couple's by walls so thin they're a millimeter shy of shoji — she's greeted with scorn:
Silent, dirty looks, or her husband telling her she's being (you'll never guess) "hysterical."
So she becomes the perfect housewife, but her husband still seems more devoted to Danny, to his writing — hell, to the old caretaker who looks after their rustic spread — than to her. (PS: Gene Tierney has never looked more beautiful, which is saying something. We're told early on that Richard is colour blind, but it's hard not to wonder about his eyesight in general. He's orders of magnitude more enthusiastic about taking a morning swim with Danny than having sex with his eager new wife. But Ellen is the "crazy" one...)
There follows a scene with Ellen and Danny out on the lake, which remains bone-chilling 75 years later.
Her plan backfires: After Danny's death, Richard is more remote than ever. "If only he had a child of his own," her adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) muses. So Ellen gets pregnant. And hates it.
The Breen Office ordered director John M. Stahl to cut any dialogue in this vein. He didn't. Ellen can't stand the sight of her pregnant self, or the thought of what her body will look like after giving birth. "I hate the little beast," she snaps. "I wish it would die."
So she gets another brainwave.
Now everyone in the house feels suffocated and depressed. When Ellen discovers that Richard dedicated the novel he's been writing all this time, not to her, but to her "sister," things come to a head.
Believe it or not, that isn't the end of the movie. Ellen still has some schemes up the diaphanous sleeves of her narcissistically monogramed ensembles – even as it turns out, from beyond the grave.
If Leave Her To Heaven is Brothers Grimm for grownups, Ellen Berent is an almost (Ayn) Randian creation. (The Fountainhead was published two years earlier.) With her aversion to motherhood, her single-mindedness and her ruthless need to win, she "reads" as stereotypically masculine, a man trapped in a woman's body, or Robert "Baby, I don't care" Mitchum in drag. (The cover of the original Ben Ames Williams novel that's flashed onscreen shows a decidedly unladylike young woman wearing pants.)
That's why it's no surprise that Lauren Bacall was considered for the role; she'd have aced the cod Hawksian banter in the courtship scenes between Ellen and Richard. But Bacall's less-refined features and deep voice would have been too on the nose. (Interestingly, Tierney lapses into a Bacall impression occasionally, as in the "lake scene," above.)
If that set piece seems familiar, by the way, you may be thinking of a similar one in 1951's A Place in the Sun. Having fallen in love with wealthy and stunning Elizabeth Taylor, equally stunning but poor Montgomery Clift plots to drown his plain pregnant girlfriend, played by Shelley Winters.
(Why Shelley Winters winds up underwater in so many films is a question for another time.)
And again, many viewers sympathize against their will:
Taylor and Clift are so awfully gorgeous together, and Winters is pretty annoying, and certainly in the way...
Speaking of beauty, and complicity, some have said that Leon Shamroy's peerless Oscar-winning Technicolor cinematography in Leave Her To Heaven makes them feel like accomplices in Ellen's crimes — call it celluloid Stockholm Syndrome. (This charge has also been leveled against last week's movie, JFK.) Unusually for any film before or since, one can practically smell the fresh Maine air, and feel the warm New Mexico sun. The homes are so stunning, the landscapes so breathtaking, especially in the newly remastered Criterion edition, a print so sharp it could scratch your corneas.
With every exquisite frame of Leave Her To Heaven, we are deliberately being provoked:
How far would we go?
How much will we — do we? — rationalize, about Ellen's choices, and our own?
How often have we uttered the words, "I'll kill you"? Sure, we don't "mean it," or act on the urge, but considering the near-infinite word combinations possible in the English language, why do we reflexively blurt out those particular three?
While writing this, I found out that there's a new mini-series coming out about Betty Broderick.
Betty met her future husband in college. While caring for their four children, she worked mundane jobs to put her husband through law school, then through medical school. He expressed his gratitude by running off with his much-younger secretary, telling Betty she was now too fat, old and ugly to be the wife of such an accomplished man. (Whether or not this was before or after he had Betty committed to a mental hospital, I can't recall.)
So one night, Betty went to her ex-husband's house and shot him and his new bride to death.
My reaction in 1989, when this story broke, was: Good.
Decades later, I've mellowed out considerably, and learned many humbling life lessons, so when I was reminded of this infamous crime earlier this week, my reaction was:
As Ellen tells her sister: "Sometimes the truth is wicked."
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