A review requested by Julia, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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In the "movies that unnecessarily fall flat on their asses thanks to just one single massive flaw" hall of fame, there must be an entire wing dedicated to Leave Her to Heaven. The film has some of the finest Technicolor cinematography of the 1940s, one of the greatest lead performances of the 1940s, some of the most complicated psychological maneuvering in service to one of the trickiest characters of the 1940s, and here I am, writing a 4.5-star review that's not a 4-star review only because I feel like people would try to shame me otherwise. And that's all done to one gaping story problem, which is that at a certain point, the movie decides to go where so many excellent melodramas and thrillers (and many not-at-all-excellent ones) of classical Hollywood went to die: about 20 minutes from the end, it up and decides to become a courtroom drama. And at the same time, it up and decides to sideline the aforementioned great lead performance, and so what we have is a practically perfect masterpiece that just cannot put a single foot right for its entire last act. If I can forgive the movie at all, it is solely because it was adapted from a bestselling novel by Ben Ames Williams, and a movie in 1945 was never going to chuck out major plot points from a bestselling novel.

Anyway, before it gets to that point, hoo boy is this one an all-timer. It starts out as pure romantic melodrama: novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) is traveling on a train through New Mexico, where he meets a woman named Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney). He takes an instant liking to her, and she doesn't seem entirely unsympathetic to his attentions, despite the engagement ring on her finger. They flirt like mad at the ranch where they were both heading - where Ellen is scattering her father's ashes no less, the same father whose uncanny resemblance to Richard is clearly a major factor in her attraction to him - and are married in hardly any time. They travel together to Back of the Moon, Richard's cabin in Maine, where he and his disabled teenage brother Danny (Daryl Hickman) are living while Richard tries to finish his current book and Danny is convalescing. And here is where we all find out together that Ellen really doesn't like sharing the man she loves, not even with his doe-eyed little wisp of a brother. That impression is confirmed when Ellen's mother (Mary Philips) and cousin Ruth (Jeanne Crain) come to visit, and spend the whole time openly side-eyeing every bit of her behavior.

That covers the first half; the second half is where melodrama takes a turn towards psychological thriller, and even darker places. Leave Her to Heaven has many points of interest in its favor, but one thing that always seems to come up is that it's routinely described as a film noir, despite the apparently automatic disqualification of being shot in well-lit Technicolor. I have my private doubts whether noir is the right descriptor for that and other reasons (it never sets foot in a city, it's dominated by daytime exteriors), but it's easy enough to figure out where that comes from. Ellen is a quintessential femme fatale, a woman of overwhelming sexual potency who completely swamps the personality of the dopey male nobody with the misfortune to fall in love with her. And the places the film goes once it starts to reveal Ellen's obsessive need to possess Richard is nihilistic to a degree startling even for noir, and miles beyond even the nastiest twists and turns of the decade's other prestigious literary adaptations.

As ridiculous as it is to fret about spoiling a 74-year old canonised classic, I'll refrain from going into exactly what is so particularly nihilistic; suffice it to say that the film's most important and powerful scene focuses on Tierney's ice old facial expressions, stripped bare of all affect by the astonishing choice to include not a single not of musical score - this is a very music-light movie, in fact, a signature move by director John M. Stahl, whose films are characterised by their emotional austerity and rejection of the usual Hollywood manipulation. It works like gangbusters: the big scene in the middle of Leave Her to Heaven is as confrontational as it gets, unsparingly staring at Tierney's implacable face and the object of her glare, a terribly empty frame, and letting us choke on the complete absence of a cathartic outlet.

As that maybe suggests, the other best thing about the movie, besides Stahl's excellent directing, is Tierney's performance. It's a showpiece for 20th Century Fox's rising star, who had knocked everybody dead in 1943 in Heaven Can Wait and then again in 1944 with Laura; one suspects that the studio had calculated that this was exactly the right moment to give her a role that needed her to do a little bit of everything. The calculation was right: while the previous two films were hits, Leave Her to Heaven was a behemoth, ending up as one of the highest-grossing films of 1946 (it was released at the tail end of '45), the busiest year for cinema attendance in American history, as well as becoming Fox's biggest hit of the entire decade. And it was right aesthetically, as well: Tierney handles every curve the film throws at her and makes it look easy. First she needs to be an aloof woman of mysterious privilege, which she achieves with the help of some terrific lighting and manipulation of color by cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who makes her green eyes glow like a jungle cat in the dark of night; then she needs to be a free-spirited impetuous romantic, quick to love and easy to love in return. She then needs to allow herself to emerge as someone driven by unspoken inner demons, while laying that into enough of her reaction shots and line deliveries that it doesn't come from nowhere. And then she needs to complete the turn into pure sociopathic menace, encouraging us to believe in her as someone totally bereft of a moral center.

And if that wasn't all enough of a workout, she also keeps us on her side the whole time. I don't know if that's an actual goal of the film or not, but I have my suspicions. Even with the increasing conservatism of American pop culture in the mid-'40s, I have a hard time believing that the filmmakers really expected us to sympathise with Richard over Ellen. Cornel Wilde is a perfectly capable actor, but he doesn't have an excess of personality. Tierney on her worst day was a more captivating screen presence, and Leave Her to Heaven is decidedly not her worst day. To be blunt about it, she wipes the floor with her co-stars - Crain as well, who emerges as the "good girl" alternative - and I can't imagine anyone at any period in history thinking that she's not the most compelling, dynamic, and full human in the movie. When she's confused and frustrated by Richard's actions, it's hard not to understand her perspective, even as we're invited to be shocked and horrified by how she lets that frustration manifest. Richard, meanwhile is just a whole lot of nobody; what drives him, who he is, what's going on in his head at any point, these are not issues the film bothers itself with. The whole movie is all about Ellen, and Tierney's exquisitely nuanced portrayal of her villainy as fundamentally human, recognisable through all its horrors. Even more than the annoyance of the turn to courtroom drama, it's Ellen's minimal role in the last chunk of the movie that really knocks all the stuffing out of the movie in the end run.

Tierney's performance and Stahl's directorial restraint provide an excellent framework for the whole film to operate in. It's a muted-looking film; Shamroy was one of the most reliable Technicolor cinematographers of the '40s, and this is his masterpiece, a movie that dampens color to an unusually naturalistic register for most of its running time - a lot of greyish green forests against greyish blue water under greyish white skies - so that the handful of moments where it pings can stand out. A lot of these involve Tierney, unsurprisingly: her green eyes and red lipstick are both particularly notable sources of color. But there are other places where the color pops out like a nuclear bomb, such as a bright blue car or the glowing teal walls of Back of the Moon. All spaces in some ways inflected by Ellen's presence, one must add.

In short, the film is pointedly cool and standoffish, the better to mirror the coldness of its astounding central figure. Ellen dominates Leave Her to Heaven as thoroughly as any character has dominated a movie; even the characters openly comment on this fact. The result is one of the '40s greatest character studies, a snapshot of desperation and frustration that curdles into unfathomable viciousness - but never in a melodramatic sense, despite the movie's early embrace of melodrama. No, this is pure modernism hiding in the guise of a classical Hollywood potboiler, a perfect cinematic embodiment of the loss and despair of the post-war moment. I mean, as perfect as something with such a shitty ending can be, but I'm sure you take my point.