Directed by John M. Stahl
Screenplay by Jo Swerling, from the novel by Ben Ames Williams
Starring Gene Tierney, Cornell Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Darryl Hickman, Mary Phillips Vincent Price, Ray Collins, Chill Wills, Gene Lockhart
Even though I saw Laura years ago, where Gene Tierney stars as the titular Laura, and I recall enjoying it, even though Tierney did not register with me. I was far more into the fact that Clifton Webb, who I always thought of as the archetype of fussy, but not overly-stern movie dads thanks to his turn in Cheaper by the Dozen, did a pretty good heel turn. Plus, the fact that a very-young Vincent Price got to play a straight part in something other than a B-grade thriller was pretty exciting to see.
It wasn’t until the episode of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This focused on Tierney that I really became aware of her. Saddest fact of Gene Tierney’s life? While pregnant, Tierney gave some of her time to the Hollywood Canteen during WWII and likely picked up rubella from somebody there, which resulted in severe mental defects to that child. Other sad facts? She was given shock treatments to combat depression, which had the side-effect of destroying some of her memory functions, and she eventually came close to jumping off the window ledge of her mother’s apartment in a notable brush with suicide.
Perhaps the reason she never really registered for me before seeing Leave Her To Heaven is one of volume. Unlike Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, who made lots of movies, Tierney’s filmography is thinner. Just as important is while she worked with name-brand directors like Michael Curtiz, George Roy Hill, Otto Preminger and Ernst Lubitsch, the film she made with them were their second-tier efforts. They were good, but aren’t the ones we remember them for.
Perhaps perceptions of Tierney would be different if Leave Her to Heaven had a larger cultural than it does. And really, it should. After all, the film was an adaptation of a best selling novel, made by the director of the original versions of Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession, and starring an actress on the rise. Its cultural footprint should be bigger, but it’s not. Despite Tierney’s Oscar nom for Best Actress, Leave Her to Heaven won just one award from it’s four total noms – Color Cinematography for Leon Shamroy – and while director John Stahl had made the two previous films mentioned, the superior versions of those stories came later, with both remakes directed by Douglas Sirk.
What’s It About?
While traveling out west to stay with a friend, Richard (Cornel Wilde) meets a mysterious woman. This is Ellen (Gene Tierney). Turns out, Ellen’s staying with the same friend, having come west to scatter her recently-deceased father’s ashes over some part of New Mexico he was fond of. Over the ensuing days Richard and Ellen grow close and form a rapport. He also develops a rapport with her sister, Ruth (Jeanne Crain). Before long, though, Richard and Ellen marry. Only, Ellen is a possessive and jealous woman, to the extent that she tries to exclude – through charm and subtle menace – everybody and everything from his life that is not herself. This includes not only running off a trusted family friend (Chill Wills), but also standing by and watching Richard’s physically-challenged brother drown in a lake. In the end, when the Ellen suspects Ruth is in love with Richard and wants to run off with him, Ellen poisons herself and frames Ruth for the murder. At trial, after the truth about Ellen comes out, Richard and Ruth are free to be together. Which sort of proves that Ellen was right to worry about Ruth and Richard after all.
I spent a bit of time at the top previewing my thoughts on the film, at least in a roundabout way, which is to say that the film is clearly second-string in film history, even as it has some dynamite at the middle of it.
Of course, the dynamite is Gene Tierney.
Gene Tierney received a total of one Oscar nom in her career, for Leave Her To Heaven, and it’s fair she was nominated. But while I call her ‘dynamite’, and describe her as the reason to watch the film, I don’t want to oversell Tierney’s performance and make it seem as if it’s somehow explosive, or camp, a’la Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Rather, she’s the low-key sort of dynamite, the charmingly passive aggressive sort of dynamite. She doesn’t rant or rave, and barely raises her voice most of the time. Hell, I’m not even sure she sneers at all. And as far as being murderous, she doesn’t actively kill anybody other than herself. Rather, she coldly stands by and watches somebody die without lifting a finger to help.
No, Tierney is villainous, and chilling, by being so charming. By being so comely. Her charm is her menace, and Tierney is so subtle at playing it most of the time that had Ray Collins not stated the thesis of the movie inside the first three minutes – Jealousy is the deadliest sin – you might not even realize she is a villain for the longest time. After all, most of her actions are similar to the way a person gets in the throes of new love, when they want to be everything and anything to their love. They want full attention. But because Ray Collins tells us straight-up what the movie is about, we’re on guard for it.
I suspect the reason he has to tell us to watch out for the theme is one of sexism. After all, if she were a man doing the same things, we’d see her subtle manipulations as alarming. But because she’s part of the ‘weaker’ sex, and beautiful and petite, men especially have a hard time perceiving her as a threat, no matter how manipulative she seems. Hence, Ray Collins tells us what the movie is about so it doesn’t fly right over our head.
So Tierney is great playing the low-key dynamite of the movie. She does not rant or rave or bug her eyes. She’s perfectly civil, if a bit tart, throughout. Even her deathbed scene – yes, the film won’t deprive her of that – is mostly low-key. There’s no wailing or gnashing of teeth. She just gives the goods and dies. But where Tierney excels is in playing a character who wants to do all those things, to wail and gnash and bug out her eyes, but also knows she can’t. That her edge is to hide herself. This is a character who is knowingly clever in hiding herself, even while remaining emotionally dependent and vulnerable at the same time.
Good as Tierney is, her co-lead in the film, Cornel Wilde, is mostly bland. He was bland in The Greatest Show on Earth, and he’s bland here. Jeanne Crain does her best but she’s no great shakes either. She’s not bad, but not great. She’s adequate.
Where the film fails, and what makes it a second-shelf kind of thing is that, for being a soap opera, for being melodrama, the emotions are pitched quietly. The music never really swells and the actors never chew any scenery. It’s too milquetoast to really be what it should. Moreover, the pacing is bad – the film occasionally felt endless and repetitive, even as it glosses over huge chunks of story that you might’ve wanted to see, instead of seeing what is actually in the film. All this is aside from the fact that the movie ends with what feels like an ungodly-long trial for Ruth – remember, Ellen framed her sister for murder – that is completely void of all normal rules of court, particularly with respect to hearsay.
In the end, Tierney is great, but the film is only so-so.
It’s A Wonderful Life
It almost seems as if the universe wants this series to eventually be nothing more than an exploration of the extended family tree of It’s A Wonderful Life. After all, Jimmy Stewart has played a pretty large part in several movies, and we’ve seen at least four other actors popping up in other movies recently – two in The Bishop’s Wife, and two in My Darling Clementine. Just to sort of keep the train rolling down that track, it’s work noting that this week’s entry is from a screenplay written by Jo Swerling, who it’s said did uncredited work on the screenplay for It’s A Wonderful Life.
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 He’s equally good as Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty.
 It’s the equivalent of Henry Fonda being in The Wrong Man for Alfred Hitchcock. Yes, the movie is fine, but it’s not exactly his top-shelf stuff.
 This victory seems a little odd to me, or needs to be explained. The DVD I watched had good photography, and was moody, but some of the colors seemed almost separated from one another, as if watching a 3-D filmstrip without wearing the glasses. I’m inclined to think the blame here is on misalignment of the image in the transfer process, but it’s just as likely this was the way it was shot and should look.
 To be fair, when Richard realizes his brother is drowning, Ellen puts on a good show to sell her ‘concern’.
 At least, Wikipedia says this is a fact, but wouldn’t you know it? It’s unsourced. Still, I’m happy to include the ‘fact’ here for no other reason than it ties this movie back to one of my all-time favorite movies and gives me another chance to talk about that.