I thought Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) was Born to be Bad, but she had nothing on Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), the beautiful psychotic narcissist who… well, I guess no man forgets this film in a hurry.
I will confess, I took a little while getting into this- I think I was side-tracked by the gorgeous, golden-hued cinematography which suggests a melodramatic, intense romantic feature, belying the noir-tinged psychological thriller it turns out to be. It just looks so Gone With the Wind, its so, well, Hollywood Technicolour, larger than life- I knew of the year the film came out and assumed it would be post-War escapism. I honestly think that, had it been shot in traditional black and white, it would have been much more obviously classic noir, right from the start, but instead thanks to its Technicolour charms it all rather sneaks up on the viewer. Well, that’s how it progressed for me; I had no idea what was coming.
Gene Tierney, of course, starred in Laura, that highly-regarded (and rightfully so) noir that I watched last year, and the role for which she is best-known, but I think she might actually have been better in this. We first see her on a train, staring at a male passenger across from her – we think she’s slowly recognising him from the back cover of the book that she has been reading (he’s the novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde)) but instead she’s fascinated by his resemblance to her recently deceased father. We don’t know it yet, but Ellen has an unhealthy obsession regards her father and that’s soon to be transferred to Richard, and woe to anyone who gets in her way. The two soon learn that they are vacationing in the same luxury resort in the desert, a favourite place of Ellen’s father, and it transpires that she has come to spread his ashes there. Once this duty is done (whilst racing on horseback with big, sweeping music playing on the soundtrack) Ellen begins seducing Richard who is quickly beguiled by her mysterious enigmatic beauty.
Richard is pretty much a moth to the flame and something of an insipid wimp. Ellen’s fiancé, attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), suddenly arrives on a (typically) stormy night, furious that Ellen has broken their engagement. Much surprised by this unexpected turn of events, Richard is even more shocked when Ellen announces to everyone that she and Richard are to be married. He lets himself get swept away by the events and the whirlwind romance, clearly intoxicated by her beauty.
There’s a moment, perhaps midway through the film, which is so shocking that… well, its perhaps silly to worry about spoilers with a film already 76 years old, but hey, I’ve already stated I had no idea what I was watching. Richard has a younger brother, Danny, who has been crippled by polio and comes to live with the newly married couple. Ellen clearly resents the young man intruding upon her marital bliss, although outwardly she pretends to enjoy having him with them and content at the immediately extended family unit. What happens to poor Danny is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in any film; I just cannot believe it isn’t something as infamous as Psycho‘s shower scene, its remarkable that I’d never even heard about it.
By this point of course, Leave Her to Heaven has become some other film entirely from the one I thought I was watching. Its a trick increasingly difficult to fall for, the more films one watches, and of course I’ve seen many, many films, so its immediately a special experience. There’s a few moments later on… I mean, Ellen is one of the most incredible characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. Whether she actually qualifies as a femme fatale, I’m not certain, but she’s certainly bad to know, and a nightmare when the subject of her romantic interest. Gene Tierney was evidently some kind of extraordinary talent- I can’t imagine too many actresses carrying off a role such as this as well as she did. Its so strange that I haven’t seen many of her films – indeed, this is only the second, although I have her following film, Dragonwyck on an Indicator Blu-ray to watch soon. How strange this world is that I can ‘discover’ an actress and films like this after such a long time. Times and situations such as this, I rather wonder whatever next.