Wednesday, December 26, 2007

PSIFF08—Leave Her to Heaven (or, alternately, Leave Her to Spoilers)

Here's a question for you: When you know that a character is going to die in a movie, does it make you watch their presence on screen with a different attention? Having just discussed Fatih Akin's scriptural device of foretold deaths via "chapter headings", I shifted to research on the PSIFF revival screening of John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven, to be introduced by the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller. I was startled to read that in nearly every review of the newly-struck print, all the deaths in the film were clearly laid out. It made me wonder at what point does a film's shelf life expire so that—by entering the film "canon"—it's no longer necessary to announce spoilers? I guess another classic case-in-point would be Alfred Hitchcock's infamous shower scene in Psycho. Is there anyone who doesn't know (or shouldn't know) what happens to Marion Crane when she decides to freshen up a bit?

As Wikipedia summarizes, Leave Her to Heaven is a 1945 20th Century Fox color film noir motion picture starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain, with Vincent Price, Darryl Hickman, and Chill Wills. It was adapted for the screen by Jo Swerling, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams, and—as mentioned—directed by John M. Stahl. The title is a quote from William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In Act I, Scene V, the Ghost urges Hamlet not to seek vengeance against Queen Gertrude, but rather to "leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her." Leave Her to Heaven won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. It was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Gene Tierney), Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color and Best Sound, Recording. It was later adapted for television in the 1988 production of Too Good to Be True.

One of my favorite essays on the film written a couple of years back when the film came out on DVD by Matthew Kennedy for
Bright Lights Film Journal almost lovingly pays tribute to what Kennedy describes as "a hothouse creation of the ripest, richest kind." Spotlighting Ellen Berent as played by Gene Tierney—"Hollywood's most beautiful overbite"—Kennedy writes: "Leave Her to Heaven shares a closer kinship to Michael Powell's British-made Black Narcissus (1947), where color similarly acts as a breathing character amidst turgid, denied emotions of lust, covetousness, dislocation, and death. If it sparks a memory of Douglas Sirk's lush dramas, there's a reason. Stahl directed Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession in the 1930s. Sirk remade both in the 1950s."

When the new print screened earlier this year at the 45th New York Film Festival, Slant's Dan Callahan was likewise dazzled by the color, evoking "the cool Technicolor greens slashed by the red of Ellen's fire-engine lips." Callahan writes: "Immediately pulsing with the thumping drums of Alfred Newman's stormy score, the film proceeds very slowly at first, as Stahl builds a dreamlike Technicolor atmosphere around his three leads, Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain. These actors are eerily one-dimensional, and Stahl uses their limitations as performers to his advantage, making them look like sleepwalkers in a sort of Life magazine nightmare." He adds: "It is Leave Her to Heaven's signal achievement that Stahl is able to make Ellen both mysteriously unstoppable and poignantly trapped."

Greencine's David D'Arcy caught the same screening at the Walter Reader Theatre where the festival capsule extolled: "Some kind of alchemical fusion occurred between Tierney's exquisite features, [Leon] Shamroy's color palette and director John Stahl's feeling for melodrama, because Ellen is a virtually elemental figure of alluring menace." After puzzling over Tierney's access to nylons during the war, D'Arcy concluded: "Over the top doesn't come close to describing this one. Just be thankful that it's campy enough to keep you laughing through much of the torture that Tierney practices so easily."

Tom Hall was there as well and reported at The Back Row Manifesto: "This print looked fabulous and really brought [out] the depth of design that went into every shot, but there was some controversy in the Q&A after the film when the 20th Century Fox representative was challenged on the studio's preservation strategy (which, in all fairness, was implemented years ago) and their decision not to strike the print from an actual Technicolor positive. Instead, the print came from a restored pre-Techincolor process copy. A lively discussion ensued, and while not all complaints were salvaged, the fact that the film was available and looked so great on the screen assuaged any reservations I had about the image itself; Why pick fights in a graveyard? We're all headed to a digital world anyway..."

I certainly look forward to catching the film in Palm Springs and am—as ever—eager to hear Eddie Muller's introduction. This one is a "must-see" for me.

Cross-published on


Uncle Gustav said...

"When you know that a character is going to die in a movie, does it make you watch their presence on screen with a different attention?"

I never read reviews before seeing a film. Reading about a film beforehand will color my perception. It's virtually impossible to be objective about something I've already read about.

A few months ago I saw Bridge to Terabithia, a children's film that was advertised as a fantasy. Not having read the reviews, I wasn't aware of a key plot element which apparently had been revealed by some critics.

Going into Bridge to Terabithia with this awareness would've altered the entire viewing experience -- because I'd be paying less attention to the film waiting for that key plot element to happen. Any opinion I would have had of the film under those conditions would've been invalid, as I'd be measuring it against my expectations.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for responding, Flickhead! Though ordinarly I prefer to approach a film with "fresh" eyes (I never claim to be objective), there are other times--when I'm having to choose from a selection of films at a festival, let's say--where I sometimes lean on reviews to help me make my choice. I guess I don't believe there's any such animal as a virginal viewing experience. Whether it's reviews or your own life history, your initial experience of a film is always going to be what it's going to be and--if the film is good enough--it will follow and enhance the given gradient. I think all my years studying at the Jung Institute convinced me there are only so many stories. It's rare that I'm surprised by some twist in the tale.