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On Golden Pond, With a Psycho

Leave Her To Heaven, Dir. John Stahl, Now Playing, The Film Forum

John Stahl’s 1945 film Leave Her To Heaven is said to be nearly unclassifiable. Branded a “Technicolor Film Noir”, Heaven is dark, twisted, and the dark and light coexist quite well in this refreshing, disturbing, slightly misogynistic tale of love gone horribly wrong. In classic noir, the context supports the characters’ despicable actions. Bad folks move through shadows in the dark urban streets at night while all the good folks are fast asleep.

I'm going to baste this guy on a spit.  © Twentieth Century Fox.
I'm going to baste this guy on a spit. © Twentieth Century Fox.

In stark contrast, Leave Her To Heaven is set in New Mexico’s bright, rolling hills and in the sparkling lakes of Maine. All the evil deeds are done not only in broad daylight, but drenched in Technicolor, and full of elements of psychological melodrama. Visually similar to the films of Douglas Sirk, (who in 1959 remade Stahl’s 1934 melodrama Imitation of Life) Heaven, among other films, serves as a model for the trashy soaps to come. Thanks to censorship, the ridiculously taboo subject matter in Heaven is intelligently scattered throughout the film rather than spoon fed to us through bad exposition. All the trashy, psycho-sexual elements in Heaven lie just below the surface, requiring much more attention than, say, Days Of Our Lives.

Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) is a writer off to visit a friend’s ranch in New Mexico. On the train he meets the stunning Ellen Berent, (Gene Tierney) whom he soon discovers is headed for the same place. The film’s sparkling palate only magnifies Ellen’s gorgeous, sadistic eyes. The ultimate femme fatale, Ellen gains her victim in the first five minutes of the film, as too-oblivious Richard becomes putty in her hands. Wilde plays the unsuspecting, simple man well and willingly jumps head first into Ellen’s deadly web. Ellen’s first words to Richard are that he looks exactly like her dead father, and within one day, her old engagement ring nowhere to be found, Ellen suddenly announces to her family that she and Richard are now engaged. (They’re not.) Ellen then proposes to Richard, he foolishly accepts, and she grabs his face in her hands a bit too tightly and says, “I’ll never let you go. Never, never, ever…” If you ask me, he really deserved all that was coming to him. But then, most guys in noir do.

Speaking of soap opera plots, it is soon uncovered that Ellen loved her father too much, until he didn’t have a soul. Yikes. The ranch was Ellen and daddy’s “special place.” They only came there together—apparently mother was never invited. Now mom and daughter gather to sprinkle Dad’s remains up on the mountain. Poor Mrs. Berent even went so far as to legally adopt Ellen’s cousin Ruth as a companion/replacement for her husband and daughter. Ruth (Jeanne Crain), who looks startlingly like Ellen, takes on the role of Ellen’s opposite—a wholesome, down to earth girl with a love for gardening. Ruth spends her days bringing things to life, while Ellen’s hobby is sucking the life out of everything that comes her way. Though the story is complicated, the characters are simple, and incapable of having depth. Ellen is “evil, and Ruth is “good” and Richard is “dumb.” In a slightly uncomfortable scene, Ellen scatters her father’s ashes while from horseback. Gene Tierney shakes her unnaturally triangular breasts against the bright, rolling hills of New Mexico as Richard watches from a distance, totally emulsified.

Heaven is pregnant with clues in its dialogue, cinematography and editing. No shot is accidental, and the earlier scenes in the film perfectly foreshadow the grim turn of events to come. While still in New Mexico, Richard takes his typewriter out to the pool to work. He hears a voice and looks up to find Ruth on a ladder trimming the roses, ethereally framed against the bright blue sky. As they speak there is a shot of the pool, and a blurred figure drifts along below the water’s surface slowly, like a shark. The JAWS theme music would’ve been fitting here as Ellen bursts out of the water looking devastatingly beautiful, and just as psycho. As Ellen races two young boys across the pool Richard cheers the youngsters on, but suddenly, a random voice from off screen remarks, “Ellen will win. She always does.” Even the gardener knows.

Everyone is trying to tell Richard to get the hell out while he still can. He ignores them and maintains a terrific deer-in-the-headlights look until it’s too late. Ellen is a tad too crazy, and Richard a tad too dumb, and its sort of hard to feel much sympathy for either of them. Yet you do, maybe because neither of them seem to be able to help themselves.

Soon after their wedding, the happy couple takes Danny, Richard’s crippled kid brother who is bursting with Leave It To Beaver-like earnestness, (and not all that suppressed gay sexuality) to Back of the Moon, Richard’s cabin on a secluded lake in Maine. Things go downhill as Ellen expresses jealousy for everything that distracts Richard, including his writing. Ellen is horrified when Richard surprises her with a visit from Ruth and her mother, which sends Ellen over the edge, again, and drives the family away. Ellen spends long days with Danny while Richard works on his new book—but three’s a crowd, and in a chilling scene Ellen lets Danny learn what happens to those who overstay their welcome. On a long swim across the freezing lake, the camera frames the shot perfectly as Ellen’s boat follows poor Danny like a shark following its pray. Tierney looks fantastically evil wearing a smart coat and dark glasses as she sits in the boat and watches as Danny’s blond head bobs in and out of the water, as he pleads for help. Ellen’s not really a born lifeguard, as she demonstrates.

Poor Richard sinks deeper into denial, and in a last ditch effort to save the marriage Ellen becomes pregnant, and then intentionally miscarries when she sees Ruth and Richard growing closer. Things only get worse, and finally, and way too late, Richard comes to his senses —but only after Ellen has destroyed nearly everything and everyone who came between them. Leave Her to Heaven is a seriously entertaining, dark film. It’s a perfect blend of noir, daytime drama, with touches of Freud, and in the end it’s obvious that all Ellen really wanted was to spend a little time with her man. Whoever the poor fool might prove to be.


Mary Hanlon


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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