A Century of Movies at the Alamo: Leave Her to Heaven (1945) June 19 at 6pm

Submitted by abertin

What would you do for love? No, seriously, how far would you go? What are the limits? Those are the central questions in the film Leave Her to Heaven. When socialite Ellen Berent meets novelist Richard Harland during a train trip to New Mexico she immediately falls for him – hard. Despite her engagement to another man, Ellen and Richard soon decide to marry and thus begins their idyllic life together. Well, not quite. Richard seems to have a few distractions that prevent him from completely devoting himself to their idyllic life together, but no worries because Ellen is there to help him focus. I won’t say anything else about the plot because I don’t want to spoil the ride for you; but oh, the lengths she goes to. It’s awe-inspiring to watch.

Before I go any further, I have to acknowledge how excited I am that we are bringing this wonderful, little-known film to the Alamo Theatre. I have a feeling I have been annoying my co-workers (who had never heard of this film before I mentioned it) for months with my unabashed excitement about this screening. I genuinely cannot wait to sit in the theatre with all of you as we share in the journey this film takes us on and to hear all of your thoughts about it afterwards. So please, come up to me afterwards and tell me what you thought. Without further ado, I’m going to tell you a little bit about why I like Leave Her to Heaven so much and, hopefully, why you will like it as well.

I first saw this film at the Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY just last year. If you had asked me anything about Leave Her to Heaven before that screening, I wouldn’t have had anything to tell you because I had never heard of it (much like my co-workers). That being said, after watching it, I was completely blown away by pretty much everything about it – the cinematography, the color, the taboo themes in the plot, Gene Tierney, and THAT lipstick. It was by far my favorite film from a packed, truly incredible festival (that included such films as Casablanca and Black Narcissus). This film so captured by interest that I spent the rest of the festival chatting with David Weiss, NHF’s co-founder and former executive director, about how much we both enjoyed it, how great it was to find a film set in Maine that we didn’t already know about, and how much we would love to share it with all of you.

So what makes Leave Her to Heaven so special? For me it’s a few things. First, as I just mentioned, the vast majority of the film is set in Maine and who doesn’t love a film set in their own backyard? It’s really fun to see how studio-era Hollywood perceived of us Mainers. Some elements are more realistic than others, but, it’s based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams (On sale now at BookStacks! Get your copy today!), so the filmmakers had a really great starting place. Second, it’s absolutely gorgeous. How could it not be when it’s set in Maine, right? The colors are sumptuous and the settings are breathtaking. Everyone knows Maine is the most beautiful state and this film definitely capitalizes on that.

Third (and this is where my film nerdiness comes out), I’m a huge fan of Douglas Sirk. (If you aren’t familiar with Sirk, he’s an incredible director from the studio era and I highly recommend you go watch one of his films right now. To name a few of his masterpieces: All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, and Magnificent Obsession.) Sirk has absolutely no connection to Leave Her to Heaven, but the attitude this film captures and the way it is shot reminds me of Sirk. The color in Sirk films is so lush, so concentrated, it is almost over saturated, almost too perfect and this is intentional. His films all present a perfect, idyllic veneer and slowly, very gradually, this perfection begins to show very subtle – blink and you’ll miss it – cracks until at the very end, the audience is in a completely different ideological space than they were at the beginning, playing by very different rules. His films, like all great art, are a critique of the rules by which the society he lives in conducts itself. He challenges the audience to question themselves, their assumptions, and how they treat each other. Leave Her to Heaven gives me this vibe as well. It’s a film noir with all of the trademarks that go along with that – the femme fatale, the flashbacks, unbalanced compositions, crime as central to the plot, jealousy, and so forth – but it’s a film noir imbued with Sirkian notes. While standard film noir simply presents a pessimistic view of society, Leave Her to Heaven goes farther and begins to subtly critique that society, which brings me to the fourth reason I find Leave Her to Heaven so fascinating – it offers a feminist critique. Well, about as feminist as a film can get when it is made within the constraints of the Hollywood Studio System and the Hayes Code.

Typically, in films from this period and even in some of the films released today, when a woman transgresses societal rules, she must be punished. In Leave Her to Heaven, I’m not so sure this happens. Something happens, but I don’t know if I would necessary characterize it as a “punishment”. I’m being intentionally vague here because I don’t want to ruin a major plot point for you. Let’s just say I am completely intrigued by the events that occur in the last 15-20 minutes of the film, the way they are handled, how this could all be interpreted as a subtle feminist critique, and we’ll discuss it further after you have seen the film. Anyway, even before these events, our femme fatale is consistently fighting. Whether you agree with her methods or not and even whether you agree with what she is fighting for or not, she is fighting with everything that she’s got to get what she wants, something that is extremely rare to see when it comes to female characters in this era. If we are honest, it’s rare even within newly released films. You might disagree with me after you see the film, but ultimately what it comes down to is that to me, Gene Tierney’s character is a feminist anti-hero from a time before the terms “feminist” and “anti-hero” even existed. I love Gene Tierney’s character in this film. I love her because she rages against everything that she is supposed to be or supposed to want. She is powerfully in control of her own destiny and she is unabashedly motivated by fulfilling her own happiness. I’ve got to respect any female character who fulfills those characteristics, especially one from 1945.

I probably shouldn’t say this because all the films we are showing are fantastic and you should see them all, but of all the films we are showing in this series, this one is my favorite. This is the one I, personally, am the most excited to see. We are going to tell you that you need to see every single one of the films in this series, but seriously, just between me and you, you HAVE to see this one. Do not miss it. It is way too good to miss. All your friends are going to be talking about afterwards and you are going to be so mad at yourself if you didn’t see it.

Leave Her to Heaven. 6pm. Sunday, June 19th at the Alamo Theatre. $5 or Free for Members and Century Donors. Be there. Bring your dad. Support a local business and buy a copy of the novel from BookStacks as well.