Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Movies: Leave Her to Heaven

Gene Tierney does it again—I’ve only ever seen her before in Laura, but she is too good at playing these dangerous beauties—women who drive their men to madness through madness of their own (is it really that easy?) This time, in 1945 op-art Technicolor, she’s Ellen, the ultra-lipsticked obsessive lover. She falls for writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) seemingly only because he’s already fallen for her, but she falls much harder. She instantly breaks her engagement to the local district attorney, announcing to him and her family that she’s engaged to the author—which isn’t true, until, of course, she makes the announcement, and with a mixture of good-natured surprise and confusion, he corroborates. But her obsession deepens and her lies multiply; Richard’s only other family is a sickly teenaged brother, who lives in a long-term care facility. To win her husband’s trust and affection, the beauty becomes close with the boy, helping him to build his health so that the three of them can go together to the Harland lake-front property—the Back of the Moon, as they call it.

There, Ellen longs for her husband’s attention—he’s divided between his brother and his new book, and the sexual implications of that are clear: she is not getting what she wants. We see them wake together in separate twin beds. Ellen climbs out of hers, in full make-up and wearing a white nightgown of pre-code opacity. She clings to the side of his bed, begging as overtly as one could, onscreen in 1945, but is interrupted by the morning greetings of her new brother-in-law through the wall, and the promise of a morning swim before breakfast. In the light of sexual starvation, her reaction—to drown that brother-in-law in the lake, in cold blood and after premeditation—is perfectly understandable! And rather proto-feminist, if I do say so. Her next choice, to kill her fetus by intentionally falling down the stairs (nevermind that this would hardly result in abortion) is even moreso—even though she did choose pregnancy purposely, to shake her husband out of his grievance over his brother.

These actions, of course, only serve to push him farther away, deeper into depression, and closer to Ellen’s happenstance rival—her cousin (who was raised as her sister), who becomes Richard’s friend and confidante. But Ellen, lacking human empathy (clearly key to being a feminist!) reacts only with jealous rage, rather than a change in attitude. Her eyes become cold and venomous, as she refills a jar of white powder with a different white powder. . . poisoning herself with arsenic at a picnic and framing her cousin for her death.

All of this narration unfolds in a film-length flashback, while Richard is rowing across the lake to Back of the Moon after two years in prison for conspiracy—for having suspected Ellen of killing his brother without turning her in (this comes out while Ellen’s cousin is on trial for the poisoning). When, at the film’s end, he gets there, he’s greeted by Ellen’s cousin—the woman he now loves—who is wearing, disturbingly, the very same dress Ellen wore when she walked the same dock. David Lynch would have a field day with these sister-cousins, their matching red lipstick paired with eyes innocently wide and cruelly narrow. My, what sharp teeth you have!

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