The second half of a double feature shown at The New York Film Festival with Drums Along the Mohawk, and introduced by Martin Scorsese under the auspices of Scorsese's The Film Foundation as a restored three-strip Technicolor masterwork, Leave Her to Heaven, was clearly a film that Scorsese holds close to his heart. Scorsese could be seen at the screening in his seat, his head cradled in his hand, absorbing a climactic courtroom scene with vindictive prosecutor Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), as if seeing the damned thing for the first time, when you know the guy must have seen the film dozens of times already. It certainly holds a peculiar place in Scorsese's personal life. He related at the screening how he first encountered the film in the middle of the night in a big house in Hollywood. Awakening by a dreadful asthmatic attack, he switched on a colossal Zenith TV, and saw an otherworldly close-up of Gene Tierney on the set that hovered over the Los Angeles landscape through the window of his room. He proceeded to watch the rest of the film "through long gasps of breath."
Leave Her to Heaven stakes out its territory in the form of a flashback, as novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) returns to a small lakeside town that has now become tainted with the aftertaste of murder. Homespun lawyer Glen Robie (Ray Collins) relates the sorry tale of how things came to such a pass and the film-length flashback begins -- noir fatalism in the blinding daylight. We are taken back to the genesis of all this misery, the ravishing but deadly Ellen Berent (played to evil perfection by Gene Tierney, in an iconic film noir role), who meets Harland on a train and quickly latches onto the poor sap, and soon her berserk compulsion for him drags the innocent Harland and his loved ones down into the dark waters of tormented possessiveness.
The most stunning scene in the film occurs on a beautiful and quiet lake. Tierney is out in a rowboat on the lake with Harland's crippled brother Danny (Daryl Hickman) and encourages him to swim out to the far shore, her intent being to get rid of Danny so that Ellen and Harland can spent some time alone. As Danny starts to get weak, swimming in the water, Ellen drops the oars and quickly dons black sunglasses, staring impassively ahead as Danny goes down for the third time.
In the film a character remarks, "Everything is beautiful here." Everything is beautiful in Leave Her to Heaven. In fact, too beautiful. Scorsese at the screening called Leave Her to Heaven a "film noir in color." And in this disturbing film of psychotic obsession director John Stahl and cinematographer Leon Shamroy, depict a noir world in the shining sun, not in the standard low budget studio style of dark shadows and Expressionist lighting, but in a lush Technicolor splendor. The bright desert skies, the verdant green vegetation at a lakeside retreat, the sumptuous palette of food and flowers, Tierney's feral jade eyes are all too lovely and over-ripe, the black noir ooze ready to rot the luxuriant surface just as Ellen's toxic jealousy is ready to destroy everything around her. As Ray Collins remarks in the film, "Ellen always wins."
Ellen always wins but film history doesn't. For every Leave Her to Heaven rescued from oblivion there are countless pieces of time moldering into dust because funds are not available to save cinematographic history. What lives and what dies is always subjective --notoriously, at one of the initial meetings of The Film Foundation, Woody Allen remarked about film preservation, "Just don't save Porky's." Ideally, everything should be saved, whatever the perceived quality. But it is highly unlikely that such an apocalyptic moment will ever arrive where funds will suddenly before available to save everything. So in this censorious world of film tastes it is comforting to have Scorsese as a film preservation Torquemada.
Reviewed at the 2007 New York Film Festival.
Leave her to L'Oreal.