SFIFF: Color her deadly

Pub date April 23, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

It’s a mug’s game determining the correct genre of John M. Stahl’s 1945 Leave Her to Heaven — especially since a true shorthand pitch should dodge the question entirely to note instead that it contains at least one, and arguably two, of the most unsettling murder scenes in movie history. Stahl’s adaptation of a million-selling potboiler by Ben Ames Williams is both a film noir and a melodrama. But even those two genres scarcely cover its facets: it’s also a revealing antecedent to some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most esteemed or idiosyncratically baroque suspense films.

Modern-day responses to Leave Her to Heaven often invoke melodrama yet rarely explore the ironic historical relationship between Stahl and Douglas Sirk, the oft-worshipped master of that genre’s ’50s Technicolor peak. It was Stahl who — between 1934 and 1935 — directed the original black-and-white versions of two crucial volumes in the Sirk library, Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation of Life (1959). Because Leave Her to Heaven predates the first of those remakes by close to a decade, it’s safe to assume that Sirk took a look at Stahl’s movies and liked what he saw. Many Sirk trademarks — an uncharacteristically dramatic use of shadow within Technicolor; a fondness for otherworldly shades of blue evening light; staging that heightens the artificiality of mid-20th century American society; set decoration that turns dream homes into prisons — are to the fore of Leave Her to Heaven.

The harsh visual symbolism one associates with Sirk is also present in Stahl’s most famous movie. Disabled young Danny (Darryl Hickman) is first glimpsed by viewers and by Ellen (Gene Tierney) with his eyes closed in slumber. Later in the film, when another character’s offhand remark gives Ellen the idea to become pregnant, a staircase looms behind her. These foreboding touches are the type of morbid rewards that await anyone who returns to Leave Her to Heaven after experiencing the film’s strange mix of slack stretches and stunning moments a first time.

A unique tension stems from one aspect of Leave Her to Heaven that separates Stahl’s movie from the cinema of Sirk: Stahl gives his anti-heroine Ellen an almost mythic power that even infects the film’s nature scenes, which are so eye-piercingly vibrant they verge on surrealism. At one point glimpsed through binoculars like an approaching enemy in a war film, Ellen’s family are too intimidated by her to enforce suffocating social niceties or break free from them. Instead, they alternately resemble statues or nervous animals that sense the presence of a predator. Ellen meets her soon-to-be husband Richard (Cornel Wilde) at high altitudes on that favorite Hitchcock existential vehicle, a train. His (and Stahl’s) love-at-first-sight gaze into her green eyes — and a later scene in which Ellen rises from beneath green waters — has the uncanny doomed allure that Hitchcock somehow sustained throughout 1958’s still-matchless Vertigo. (A notorious scene from 1981’s Mommie Dearest also tips its bathing cap to Ellen’s swim.)

A place in 20th century film history is a rich reward for Leave Her to Heaven. When Ellen rides horseback through New Mexico’s arid landscape at dawn, coldly tossing her father’s ashes to and fro before hurling the urn with true abandon, the wild horses psychodrama of Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) steeplechase-jumps through a film buff’s mind. The symbolism of a high-strung woman riding a horse isn’t unique to those films, but in his adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1961 novel, Hitchcock even goes so far as to echo, with a slight reversal, Leave Her to Heaven‘s competitive relationship between Ellen and her adopted cousin — "not my sister," she makes clear — Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Leave Her to Heaven is a true downer — and feel free to add an extra r to that description. In the 1967 survey Films and Feelings, critic Raymond Durgnat cites it as an example of its era’s penchant for "tightlipped misogyny," suggesting Durgnat wasn’t a film noir fanatic or a Freudian. The movie’s melodrama is classically cruel in the Joan Crawford tradition, built on a story almost sadistically entwined with the lead actress’s autobiography. A year or two before shooting, Tierney gave birth to a deaf, blind daughter after contracting measles from someone whom, years later, she discovered was a fan. The film’s screenplay grazes this experience with a reference to the mumps — watch Ellen tense up and turn ice-cold when it occurs — and through the character of Danny. If Ellen is one of filmdom’s most tragic characters, aspects of Tierney’s real life miseries are more unsettling. She underwent shock treatment at least 27 times.

Not exactly funny — and yet there is a truly hilarious coda to Leave Her to Heaven‘s story. In 1988, the same scenario was remade as TV movie Too Good to Be True, with a lineup too amazing to be believed: Loni Anderson plays the Ellen role, with Patrick Duffy from Dallas as her long-suffering husband, Neil Patrick Harris from Doogie Howser, M.D. as swim-happy Danny, and Julie Harris, a Baldwin brother (Daniel), and Larry "Dr. Giggles" Drake rounding out the cast. If that weren’t enough, the teleplay goes so far as to exaggerate the original’s most vicious scene by turning what looks like a rescue attempt from above the surface into an act of murder underwater.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN Sat/26, Castro, and Sun/27, PFA.

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