What is a film noir? There seem to be a lot of answers to this questions but what a film noir basically always requires are a collection of dubious characters, some kind of mysterious, dangerous woman, stylized dialogue and actions, sexual tension around almost every corner and a combination of crime and lust. Does Leave her to Heaven fit into all this? Well, it probably fits into this template enough to quality for the title – the movie is undoubtedly extremely stylized, lust and desire drive the plot and Gene Tierney’s Ellen Harland certainly deserves to be called ‘dangerous’ even if she is not a typical femme fatale. In this way, Leave her to Heaven certainly resembles other classics from its era, most notably Double Indemnity which caused a whole series of movies telling a fatal, tragic and criminal story in flashbacks (even in the same year Mildred Pierce did just the same). Yes, Leave her to Heaven does have what it takes to be called a film noir, most notably the kind of artificial action and dialogue which very often is extremely superficial but, when done right, creates a whole world of its own in which everything makes sense, in which sexual tension believable influences a character’s decision in a few minutes and which not only exists despite all its stylized elements but actually because of it. And, of course, there are the other ingredients of film noir – a grim black and white cinematography, dark figures hiding in foggy alleys, crimes committed in the emptiness of a sullen street, a world that almost knows no sunlight. And obviously, this is the one aspect in which Leave her to Heaven couldn’t be more different – instead of darkness and gloom it gives the viewer an array of colors that would put Douglas Sirk to shame, blue skies and green trees dominate the landscape, a crime is committed in open daylight on a wide, beautiful lake, everything is covered with a bright, light and beautiful surface – but underneath, Leave her to Heaven hides the same kind of dark secrets that its brothers in black and white offer, a horrible truth behind respectful facades. This stark contrast between exterior and interior crafts a strikingly undecided atmosphere and presents a place that should be quiet and peaceful but is constantly haunted by tragedy and thus is maybe the biggest asset of Leave her to Heaven – or actually rather its second-biggest asset since the greatest aspect of Leave her to Haven is undoubtedly its leading lady who plays a role that maybe makes it very easy to leave a lasting impression since the actions and deeds of such a woman are impossible to forget but also has to be played with careful attention to remain probable enough on its own but also fits into its stylized surroundings.
Martin Scorsese apparently called Gene Tierney one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Era – I cannot comment on this since my knowledge of her filmography is not extended enough for this but she was certainly much more than a pretty face and never afraid to show a dark, off-putting and arrogant side in her characters. And the words ‘more than a pretty face’ not only refer to her talents as an actress but also to the fact that the word ‘pretty’ doesn’t even begin to describe her riveting and transcendent beauty which maybe sometimes made it hard for her to get the credit as an actress she deserved but wonderfully helped her to overcome various problems in Leave her to Heaven’s script. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and there are various different kind of beauties that have lightened up the movie screens over the years – there is the unique, sometimes sharp beauty of actresses like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, the exotic and mysterious beauty of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, the sex-filled but also innocence looks of Marilyn Monroe, the elfin beauty of Audrey Hepburn or the timeless elegance and flawless looks of Grace Kelly. Most of all, Gene Tierney seems to fit into the category of Grace Kelly, a flawless and elegant beauty but she also possessed an exotic, even more obvious pulchritude that made her an almost surreal presence in her pictures. In black and white, Gene Tierney could glow and shine even in the darkest settings, in color she almost looked like a painting. Whenever she is given one of Leave her to Heaven’s long, wordless close-up, the strong, rich colors of the picture make her appear like a creature out of a fairy-tale – unreal and mystical but Gene Tierney’s face also knows a certain hardness and bitterness that helped her to always show the danger and rage hiding behind her eyes. Her beauty, despite its elegance and style, never appears innocent or soft – instead, she could explore various shades and layers in her characters, turning her face more than once into a window to her inner feelings and this way extend the women she played beyond her own beauty. As just mentioned, she could portray women who were charming and graceful but also spoiled, mean-spirited, arrogant and self-righteous. This was never displayed better than in The Razor’s Edge in which she constantly pushed the character of her alcoholic friend to the edge of her own mental and physical stability to regain her influence over the man she loved her whole life but rejected too many times. It’s a realistic portrayal in which Gene Tierney was willing to create a strongly off-putting but still intriguing character. This unlikable, ignorant quality somehow was very often visible in the women she played – and Gene Tierney’s voice, her elegant but also hard face, her representation of the feeling of constant superiority helped her immensely in her creation of Ellen Harland, a woman who slowly, step by step, reveals her obsessive nature and a feeling to have the right to sacrifice the existence of others for her own happiness.
In Leave her to Heaven, Gene Tierney’s beauty helped to cover various simplifications in the plot but her own interpretation of Ellen Harlan always goes beyond this and crafts this women with a clear, sometimes limited but still captivating determination. The truth is that the screenplay of Leave her to Haven offers Gene Tierney much less than what could be expected based on the premise of the part. Ellen Harland may be the movie’s centre and most vigorous character but she only exists on the surface and the role is almost a cliché, created only as a vessel for the movie’s plot and filled with all the expected ingredients – hidden moments of obsession, child-like innocence mixed with murderous energy, a constant change of mood and all the other aspects expected from such a character. Furthermore, the screenplay also never invests any time in the relationship between Ellen and Richard. The idea that Ellen’s obsession comes from Richard’s resemblance to her beloved, idealized father may offer some interesting thoughts but is mostly too flat and stereotypical for any deeper observations. Because of all this, Leave her to Heaven mostly rests on the fascination that it thinks Ellen Harland can evoke in its audience – but this concept only works if the actress actually possesses this fascination. In this aspect, Gene Tierney was certainly the right choice for the role as her unique, fascinating beauty and ability to be so completely engaging from the first moment on helped to make the sudden romance between Ellen and Richard believable and also created the following tone of the story in which Ellen more and more showed her true nature but still possessed enough appeal and charm to keep Richard close to her. But while Gene Tierney certainly made the most of her role, the script unfortunately did not allow her to find more subtle shades in Ellen, give more reason to her love and her obsession beyond the clichés of the script. This is why Ellen Harland, as stated before, is not the typical femme fatale – she does not seem to act out of her own decision but rather seems controlled by her own obsession. The part of Ellen Harland does not allow Gene Tierney the same playfulness and risks as Double Indemnity did Barbara Stanwyck – both had to face the difficulty of portraying characters that had to be strangely unreal in the context of her story but also believably enough to capture the audience’s attention. Both actresses succeeded in this part but Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson was still a woman who was very much the master of her own mind and could therefore show a whole amount of subtle hints at the thoughts going on inside her head. Gene Tierney’s Ellen Harland did not give her the same chances because she had to follow a certain formula and could not truly invest in any deeper layers because Ellen only exists as a woman driven by her own madness.
So, Gene Tierney was given the luxury of a scene-stealing and unforgettable part but she was not allowed to act beyond the tight guidelines of the script and had to play a psychopath with all the expected moves and actions. But miraculously, Gene Tierney still came out of this battle victorious since her embodiment of this woman, predictable as it may seem sometimes, works surprisingly well – Ellen may be a predictable character but Gene Tierney knows how to keep her surprising, making Ellen’s desperateness, her constant change of moods, the unfriendliness and hate that becomes more and more apparent with every day she cannot have Richard for herself extremely disturbing and memorable. Right from the start, Gene Tierney knows how to establish Ellen as an unforgettable presence before she even opens her mouth during the first seconds of her appearance thanks to her dark, mysterious beauty which is so immensely helped by the stark colors of the movie. And when she finally does open her mouth, the effect is staggering – instead of a deep and husky voice, Gene Tierney sounds almost like a little girl, saying the words ‘Thank you’ without any hint at a mature, experienced and self-assured beauty. Gene Tierney apparently started smoking to lower the sound of her voice, stating that she sounds like an angry Minnie Mouse but this soft and slightly child-like sound only added to her portrayal of a woman who acts with the determination of a spoiled child. In later scenes, she unfortunately sometimes overdoes the effect of her voice, reducing her lines to a dramatic whisper even when there is no need to do it. But what Gene Tierney does not overdo in those early moments of Leave her to Heaven is the slow process during which Ellen becomes more and more obsessed with Richard – only in small steps she begins to reveal Ellen's true nature. Her remarks how much Richard resembles her father might seem like the sorrow of a devoted daughter, her attempts to prevent Richard’s little brother from living with them already feel rather peculiar (even though Gene Tierney wonderfully displayed a refreshing honesty in Ellen, both in the scenes opposite Danny whom she clearly loves as long he does not come between her and Richard and opposite Danny’s doctor whom she unsuccessfully tries to convince that Danny should not come with them) and finally her open hate opposite her family which is disturbing her quiet life with Richard fully materializes the woman that Ellen truly is.
It’s intriguing that neither Leave her to Heaven nor Gene Tierney really decided on the character of Ellen – Ellen may constantly seem lost but Gene Tierney isn’t, even when she is keepng her character in the dark. Most of all, her Ellen is not a psychopathic mastermind – rather she crafts her as a women who doesn’t know when to stop, who is unable to see the world beyond her obsessive love and is therefore mostly a pitiful creation, dangerous as she may be. She never seems to be truly satisfied about her deeds but doesn’t regret them either. This way, she perfectly manages to make the viewer wonder and shiver at the same time. And when Ellen finally decides for herself to take a tragic step to have Richard all for herself, Gene Tierney creates the most unforgettable scenes of 1945 – when she sits in a little boat, just waiting for ‘her problem to solve itself’, Gene Tierney is able to communicate all of Ellen’s feelings even through a large pair of sunglasses, moving her lips and distorting her lower face without truly moving a single muscle. It’s the wonder of Gene Tierney’s beauty that she is able to look so completely off-putting in this scene, displaying her hate on her face without ever losing her classic elegance. But instead of turning Ellen into a symbol of evil, Gene Tierney more than once finds the child-like innocence in Ellen again, making it visible how desperate, lost and lonely she feels and that she cannot find an escape from her own obsessions. Gene Tierney thankfully doesn’t use these moments to try to evoke sympathy for Ellen or her actions but instead tries to give reason to unreasonable deeds. She even seems to regret her own doings before she started them, trying to convince Richard’s brother to leave them alone and almost showing a feeling of regret when she does not succeed – regret not for herself but even more for him. In the following scenes, Gene Tierney again underlines the child-like nature of Ellen as she is unable to connect to Richard again after what happened – nor can she stop her ever increasing jealously from further alienating herself from everyone around her. Gene Tierney manages to never turn Ellen into the kind of stereotypical villain that deserves the audiences’ hate but rather creates her as a victim of her own obsessions, unable to keep control over herself, acting more out of fear than anything else. But even in the child-like innocence, Gene Tierney also finds an almost shocking amount of truth when she lets Ellen speak so depreciatory about her unborn child. Gene Tierney intensifies both Ellen’s desperation for her own situation and open disdain for everything that is not Richard and constantly lets these emotions clash with each other to further and further destroy the balance in Ellen’s life and mind. The look on her face when she is standing at the top of the staircase is a perfect combination of determination, doubt, hatred, seclusion – and madness.
Overall, Gene Tierney gave a chilling and noteworthy performance that perfectly fulfilled all the tasks of the script even if it sometimes remained too limited. Still, her ability to show Ellen’s slow descent into the darkness of her own mind, her inability to stop her actions to be completely alone with the man she loves and her way of beautifully underplaying all the madness and demons that haunt her results in various unforgettable scenes for which she receives