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Leave Her to Heaven (Blu-ray Review)

10 Jun, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price.

That 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck personally produced it and music department chieftain Alfred Newman scored it qualified this three-strip feast of underlyingly nasty Technicolor noir as a preconceived blockbuster of its day — though, if anything, the movie version of novelist Ben Ames Williams’ bestseller may have a better critical reputation now than it did going on 70 years ago when it opened the December after the August that World War II ended. Cosmetically, at least, several scenes suggest what the boys overseas may have been fighting for — which would include third-billed Jeanne Crain and her “nice-girl” demeanor, splendid outdoor surroundings rendered via Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning cinematography and, as a throwaway, the greatest “woodie” station wagon I have ever seen on screen. But underneath, we’re talking a double-edged sword thanks to the admittedly physical dish Gene Tierney plays — an ‘A’-list schemer who would initially seem to belong on the list with Crain until we get to know her.

That troubled rowboat shot of Tierney on the Blu-ray jacket is no lie: sunglasses hiding her rotten true character and with a most disturbed and disturbing expression on her face. This is, of course, a fascinatingly icky story’s famous payoff scene — though, as Julie Kirgo points out in this Blu-ray’s liner notes, there’s a second one here that likely caused more trouble with the Breen (i.e. censorship) office at the time, neither for the first nor last time in the movie’s production. Through it all, male lead Cornel Wilde sleepwalks through the first half and then some in a passively what-me-worry daze of femme domination. Wilde is one of those actors who got a little more interesting as they aged (was that dude in shape in The Naked Prey or what?). But actually, this was one of the biggest years of the actor’s career because 1945 also saw A Song to Remember — a surprise biopic smash over at Columbia that “put Chopin on the map,” at least with the unwashed masses.

Possessive to sociopathic extremes after feeling shortchanged by her beloved father’s death, Heaven’s Tierney is a woman who knows what she wants: which is a broken engagement to a politically ambitious Vincent Price and marriage to Wilde and within days of meeting the latter on a train. Of all the movies that made old-school rail travel look sublime, this one has Oscared three-strip to close the deal, and the film’s photogenic locales hop-skip from New Mexico (with the scattered-ashes scene, nicely directed by John M. Stahl, that Andrew Sarris notes in The American Cinema) to Georgia to Maine. None of these principals here seem to have any money needs or to have been adversely affected by the war, though death becomes the dominant factor in the story’s makeup in its second half. Tierney got her only Oscar nomination here, which I used to think something of a stretch — but now I think she pulls off something fairly difficult in making her character at least pitiable to a point. Plus, let’s face it: there’s a limited pool of actresses who even could have taken on her role because it is Tierney’s extraordinary physical beauty that likely allows the character to get away with her shenanigans for as long as she does. I can’t think of many other movies where a lustrous physical veneer (and not just the actress’s) is so at odds in a fascinating way with the emotional corruption at its center.

Heaven is one of the most beautiful-looking movies ever made, and Cleopatra’s Leon Shamroy got one of his four Oscars for photographing it. In the mid-1940s, color was primarily used for historical dramas (which would include Westerns), musicals and an occasional comedy. I can’t think of many other dramas whose settings were contemporary to the time that utilized it, and offhand, I can’t name a single one that did in which everything below the surface was so diseased. Of all the movies I’ve ever seen, the colors here come the closest to replicating the look of the era’s magazine art (Colliers or the Saturday Evening Post) as actors almost seem to walk off the pages. Newman’s score is semi-famous among movie-music aficionados, and Twilight Time, per usual, welcomely isolates it on a separate track. This said, there are long passages where silence does the talking (note the rowboat scene), and they get under your skin.

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