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Leave Her To Heaven: Thoughts on a Noir in Color
"Leave Her To Heaven was a fascinating hybrid: a film noir in color". Martin Scorsese's brief visual appraisal touches on what makes a seemingly simplistic story of a jealous housewife so interesting and complicated. While film noir is itself typically a subversive genre, John Stahl's 1945 melodrama is a film that endeavors to subvert key staples of that very genre. In turning its focus on the domestic sphere, removing the strong and solitary masculine presence, and shooting in technicolor instead of the traditional low key black and white photography, the film does not become more palatable than the traditional hard boiled noir film, but in fact becomes much more disturbing.
Film noirs from the 1940s can be said to feature a stock protagonist; usually, the films center around a masculine loner, a man generally separated from any semblance of family life. This type of character is found in staples of the genre such as The Big Sleep's Philip Marlowe or Double Indemnity's Walter Neff. However, Leave Her to Heaven chooses to focus almost exclusively on family life. The film begins immediately with the courtship between Ellen and Richard and they are married at the beginning of the second act. In addition to this, both a son and father-figure are added to the mix in the form of Danny and Thorne, as well as Ellen's mother and adoptive sister, Ruth.
With all of this, Leave Her to Heaven examines tensions within the family unit, rather than juxtaposing solitary and social life. The tensions, however, are decidedly noirish in nature; rather than the problems of finances or child-rearing found in typical melodramas such as Capra's It's a Wonderful Life or Stevens' Giant, Ellen and Richard's family strife stem from hyperactive jealousy, sexual frustration, and murder, all on the part of Gene Tierney's femme fatale. In doing so, Stahl takes the critique that corruption and murder are generally the product of the urban environment's seedy underbelly, a favorite theme of noir filmmakers, and transfers it to the domestic sphere.
With all of this, Leave Her to Heaven examines tensions within the family unit, rather than juxtaposing solitary and social life. The tensions, however, are decidedly noirish in nature; rather than the problems of finances or child-rearing found in typical melodramas such as Capra's It's a Wonderful Life or Stevens'Giant, Ellen and Richard's family strife stem from hyperactive jealousy, sexual frustration, and murder, all on the part of Gene Tierney's femme fatale. In doing so, Stahl takes the critique that corruption and murder are generally the product of the urban environment's seedy underbelly, a favorite theme of noir filmmakers, and transfers it to the domestic sphere.
The femme fatale's characteristics are inverted as well; typically a double-crosser to the service of her own ends, Ellen is devoted to Richard to the point of perversion. Her desire to love and live only for Richard isolates her within the family. This is made most apparent in the scene at the cabin, shortly after Ellen's family has joined her and Richard. The family, sans Ellen, seemingly belong in a Norman Rockwell painting; they sit around a fireplace, dressed for the outdoors, and sing folksy tunes. Ellen enters and is immediately set apart by the icy blue of her attire. Her desire to spend her honeymoon alone with her husband is obvious to the audience, but it is not recognized by her family and is therefore ignored. Thus, Ellen's hostility, in the family's eyes, is seen as irrational and she becomes alienated and, by extension, they become her enemies. In Ellen's mind, violence becomes an acceptable means of combating her foe, much as it is more traditional noirs. By transplanting the landscape from dimly lit alley to the high key living room set, Stahl explores the notion that these disturbing elements could be found within the confines of domestic life, a notion that can be most unsettling, especially to the perspective to a post-war American family.
Another unusual touch in the film's production is the characterization of the film's leading man, Richard Harland. Played with a degree of intentional contrivance by Cornel Wilde, Richard is sentimental, family oriented, and seems awkward in situations traditionally dominated by males in 1940s Hollywood. In short, he is everything that the standard noir male is not. As a writer he seems unnatural at his typewriter and in his outdoorsman clothes or riding a horse he looks uncomfortable, and he is easily dominated by the commanding performance delivered by Gene Tierney. In fact, Ellen makes a point of asking Richard, “How did you propose to me? … You didn't. I proposed to you”. So, in typical noir fashion, Richard comes under the power of forces he has no control over. However, Leave Her to Heaven differs in that Richard does not become an active participant in the film's plot. He moves through it passively, while Ellen destroys his family around him. In doing so, Richard can be seen as the mirror image of another film noir victim, Mr. Dietrichson from Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Dietrichson, like Richard, is unwittingly manipulated and ultimately falls prey to the machinations of the films plotters. Dissimilar, however, is the fact that Dietrichson is merely a minor character without even the distinction of a first name. Richard, on the other hand, functions as Leave Her to Heaven's main protagonist. Thus, the audience, who may be disturbed by the murder of the minor Dietrichson, can't avoid feeling helpless in addition to Richard becoming a truly innocent victim of a plot to destroy all that he holds dear.
One of the most striking aspects of Stahl's film noir is the way in which he seems to systematically remove any visual or storytelling elements so closely associated with the genre. The high contrast black and white photography is replaced with three strip technicolor, baroque camera work and expressionistic camera angles are removed in favor of the eye level, usually stationary camera, and the rapid fire dialogue delivery and character narration, so common in noir, gives way to calm performances and an objective point of view. As much as deep shadows and prevailing darkness in traditional noirs can make an audience uneasy about what they are not seeing, the mere fact that they are elaborately shot in black and white removes the audience from the reality of the narrative. Leave Her to Heaven takes the opposite approach; by shooting in color on evenly lit sets, Stahl attempts to connect what the audience sees on the screen with the way they see things in the real world: in color and usually at eye level. In this way, Stahl endeavors not to distance his audience from the violence and disturbing aspects of the film, but rather to draw them in as closely as possible.
In a further attempt to get in the audience's world, the fast talking, wisecracking street tough-type characters, whom seem so essential in populating the world of noir, are nowhere to be found. They are replaced by ordinary domestic characters, and their personalities and more naturalistic performances border on the mundane. Though the stock noir characters are surely crowd pleasing to an audience, they must certainly be recognized as stylized, and are thus removed. In fact the most fascinating and complicated character in the film is given to Gene Tierney, who plays Ellen with a calm, steely eyed reserve. By blending the ordinariness with the viciously possessive aspect of her character, Tierney delivers a performance that can be ranked as one of the most unsettling in noir cinema. Stahl's insistence on giving the audience, at that time, a more natural and realistic film, extends this unsettling aspect to the entire narrative.
Film noir is a genre that tries to make its audience enter into an uneasy and unfamiliar world in which danger lurks around every corner. Hard boiled films can be thrilling and disturbing to an audience, but, being so far distant from the realities of everyday life, they remain safely within the confines of the noir world. Though their stylistic elements are key to film noir, by removing the visuals and stock characters, while retaining the emotional and psychological aspects of the genre, Leave Her to Heaven can most certainly be considered one of the darkest of all noirs.