Monday, June 1, 2020

A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956)

United Artists, 94m 47s


The American economic boom that followed World War II allowed many to prosper while others felt left behind. Beneath the surface layer of shiny new cars and suburban homes lurked the frustration of those who did not feel a sense of belonging. The most thematically valuable film noirs commonly reflect social problems associated with class separation. There is evidence of this dynamic from the classic noir era of the mid-to-late 1940s into the 1950s.

By the 1950s, the noir film was notable for its sociopathic and psychopathic characters. Where that type of presence usually was relegated to a supporting role in the 1940s, by the 1950s the menace to society was featured in a prominent role, often the lead protagonist. Consider the armed robber Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in GUN CRAZY (1950), the edgy cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) from ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), the sharpshooter Edward Miller (Arthur Franz) who terrorizes the urban scene in THE SNIPER (1952), the deceptive Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) who marries money in SUDDEN FEAR (1952), anarchic Emmett Myers (William Talman) who is THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) and Leon Poole (Wendell Corey), the bullied person turned bully in THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956). That is quite a lineup of characters who pose significant danger to decent men and women. Each malcontent in his or her own way feels disconnected from society and its norms of behavior. Another individual who belongs in this group is Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner), the scheming lead protagonist of director Gerd Oswald's A KISS BEFORE DYING. Handsome but deadly, Corliss is one of the genre's most pernicious homme fatales, one of the worst men a good woman could meet. He adorns a cloak of benevolence but is motivated only by materialism.



As the narrative opens, Corliss learns his girlfriend Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) is in month two of an unplanned pregnancy. She wishes only to marry the father of her child, despite the fact such an arrangement would put her at odds with her wealthy industrialist father Leo Kingship (George Macready), who might disinherit her. She makes it clear Corliss means more to her than her father's money, while Corliss remains focused on the fact her father is a copper mining magnate. Now the marriage he once viewed as a stairway to upper class empowerment looks like a dead end. When a tumble down a set of bleachers does not induce a miscarriage, Corliss looks into a toxicological solution! That plan fails too, leaving Corliss looking bug-eyed at his impregnated problem. Eventually his determination wins out, which leaves Dorothy's sister Ellen Kingship (Virginia Leith) as an alternate path to the Kingship family fortune.

Like so many film noir permutations, A KISS BEFORE DYING questions the viability of the American family. Corliss is the son of an ordinary woman (Mary Astor). His father is not in the picture. Corliss looks down on his well-meaning mother and the simple life she represents, an idea well established when he scolds her for wearing a cheap blouse to the lavish Kingship estate.  Also of note is the Kingship family patriarch's resistance to the notion that a scoundrel is about to marry into his family. The crazed Corliss contributes nothing of value to his own family, and certainly constitutes a step in the wrong direction for either Kingship daughter. Interestingly, the thoughtless gesture that brings about the comeuppance of Corliss has nothing to do with his skilled hand at crafting suicide notes, but everything to do with his flawed personality. Buried in that minor transgression that leads to his undoing is an appropriate life lesson:  one cannot lead a consistently disrespectful existence and think nobody will take notice.

Lawrence Roman's screenplay was based upon Ira Levin's best-selling 1953 novel of the same title. Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck purchased the film rights as a vehicle for his young star Robert Wagner. In 1955 Zanuck farmed out the project to Crown Productions and his son-in-law, producer Robert L. Jacks. Distribution was handled by United Artists. A KISS BEFORE DYING marks the directorial debut of Gerd Oswald, whose first feature film is noteworthy for its escalating discomfort in mood, especially for a film released in 1956. He would go on to helm the film noirs CRIME OF PASSION (1956) and SCREAMING MIMI (1958). Cinematographer Lucien Ballard shot in CinemaScope and made effective use of locations in Tucson, Arizona. Ballard was no stranger to the noir form, with contributions and credits that include MOONTIDE (1942), LAURA (1944), BERLIN EXPRESS (1948), THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951), THE KILLER IS LOOSE (another Crown Productions feature), THE KILLING (1956) and CITY OF FEAR (1959).

One of the few color film noirs, A KISS BEFORE DYING is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, or be prepared next time it airs on Turner Classic Movies. It would make an excellent double feature with LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), the color film noir that probably has inspired the most critical assessment. Another good co-feature prospect would be director Edward Dmytryk's THE MOUNTAIN (1956), in which Wagner again plays against type. A KISS BEFORE DYING was remade in 1991, with Matt Dillon in the role as Corliss.



Monday, May 25, 2020

HOLLYWOOD STORY (1951) and NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED (1955)

HOLLYWOOD STORY (1951)
Universal Pictures, 76m 41s

NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED (1955)
Columbia Pictures, 75m 2s

This "Classic Crime Double Feature" from Mill Creek Entertainment combines a couple of non-horror offerings directed by William Castle, best known as “The King of Gimmicks” responsible for HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), THE TINGLER (1959) and 13 GHOSTS (1960). Based on this sampling, I tend to favor Castle's interactive horror works, but noir completists should find some points of interest in this 2-disc Blu-ray set.


The first disc presents HOLLYWOOD STORY, which gets off on the right foot with a pristine-looking opening credits sequence that speaks to the quality of the transfer and the above average condition of the source material, save for the occasional scratches here and there. The Universal International Pictures production is narrated by Mitch Davis (Jim Backus), who welcomes his old friend Larry O'Brien (top-billed Richard Conte) to Los Angeles by way of New York. The experienced producer Larry has set his sights on Hollywood film production and plans to make use of the shuttered National Artists Studio, a location once famous for churning out silent films. Larry quickly becomes fascinated with the 1929 murder of accomplished movie director Franklin Ferrara. The agent Mitch is not on board with the idea of digging into the unsolved crime, but Larry is determined to move forward with an all-in mentality.





With the tenacity of a disciplined historian, Larry dives headfirst into his research of the 22-year-old homicide. Essentially he assumes the role of hardboiled detective in a swamp of disparate people once connected with the long departed silent filmmaker. Erstwhile screenwriter Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull), who often collaborated with Ferrara, now lives in what appears to be an abandoned seaside shack. Sally Rousseau (Julie Adams), daughter of the silent star Amanda Rousseau, would prefer Larry to walk away from the project. Even more dismissive of Larry's true story concept is his longtime business partner Sam Collyer (Fred Clark). The desperate Charles Rodale (Peter Brocco) obviously knows something crucial if he can survive long enough to communicate it. While Larry tirelessly works to simplify the complexities of the cold case, Police Lieutenant Bud Lennox (Richard Egan in an irritating performance) eyes an open-and-shut solution that seems too obvious to be true. One would hope Lieutenant Lennox is a cut above the law enforcement officials who failed to make any significant progress on the murder at the time of its discovery. How investigators could have missed the physical evidence uncovered by Larry is tough to fathom.





This B movie's structure feels overly prefabricated until Larry visits the seedy Ajax Hotel, where the proceedings finally enter film noir territory in earnest. A great wisecrack from quirky hotel resident Sylvester (Joseph Mell) seals the deal ("This is the first killing we've had this year!"). Such eccentrics are regulars in the film noir, where society's castaways have a voice. But most of this programmer's qualifications as a noir film rest in the strong work of Richard Conte in the lead. His Larry O'Brien has a LAURA-like obsession with hanging around the bungalow once occupied by the fallen filmmaker Franklin Ferrara. That tendency allows Larry to solve the cold case, all while the police prepare to lock up the wrong man. Larry may not be Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but he is consistently a step ahead of the smug Lieutenant Lennox. In fact Larry must directly take over for the wounded Lennox in pursuit of Ferrara's killer, who has no choice but to attempt another disappearing act. The endgame chase through a movie prop warehouse is foolproof noir, even if the climactic sequence is all over and done with too rapidly.




HOLLYWOOD STORY is based on the case of director William Desmond Taylor (1872–1922), whose murder remains unsolved. Writers Frederick Kohner and Frederick Brady also owe a debt to Paramount's SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), the quintessential reflection upon the film industry's painful transition from the silent era to sound. Both films suggest that adjustment was more difficult for some than others. In an overt nod to the Wilder film, HOLLYWOOD STORY includes some actual stars of the silent era:  Francis X. Bushman, Betty Blythe, William Farnum and Helen Gibson. Surface similarities aside, Castle's film hardly compares to the Billy Wilder noir classic, but if nothing else HOLLYWOOD STORY keeps the viewer wondering which character will be caught without a chair to sit on when the music ends. Cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie worked on an assortment of other film noirs of the 1950s, such as BACKFIRE (1950), CAGED (1950), HIGHWAY 301 (1950) and HELL BOUND (1957). Guthrie would reunite with Castle to lens MACABRE (1958) and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.


Next up is the more dynamic film of the two, the noir docudrama NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED, produced by the eclectic Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures. The featured protagonist is portrayed by Arthur Franz, who anchored director Edward Dmytryk's disturbing film noir THE SNIPER (1952) as the unbalanced killer Edward Miller. This time out Franz is locked in as Dan Corbett, a stand-up-guy with his eye on a Landing Ship Medium fixer-upper he intends to use as a timber transport vessel on the Mississippi River. To make that plan a reality, the former Navy man accepts work on the docks of New Orleans, the second-largest port in the country after New York. According to the voice of the narrator, somehow New Orleans has avoided the corruption associated with New York. Unsurprisingly, it seems the same brand of crookedness that plagues the Big Apple has found its way to the Big Easy.

Dan becomes friendly with blonde temptress Alma Mae (Helene Stanton), a woman with ties to Floyd "Zero" Saxon (Michael Ansara), an organized crime figure who heads what seems to be a legitimate freight business. Dan's flirtatious connection with Alma leads him to Joe Reilly (William Henry), his wife Marie Reilly (Beverly Garland) and her brother Scrappy Durant (Stacy Harris), a former prizefighter. Dan accepts a job as a longshoreman under Joe's supervision.

Realism injection




Marie understands nice guys like Dan can get tangled up in their own ambitions. She knowingly cautions Dan when she summarizes, "We're living on the top of the waterfront. Anything can happen." That sense of unpredictability, especially in terms of sudden violence, is precisely what defines the noir city. Marie underscores the film's Marxist agenda when she expresses her disdain for the endless greed that characterizes American businessmen. Her sentiments are preceded by the murder of her husband, who attempted in vain to break away from the grasp of Zero. Joe Reilly's death by gunfire cruelly validates his wife Marie's concerns about free-market capitalism. Apparently one cannot demand a bigger share at the table without making an enemy out of someone on the other side.

Bon appétit


Dan fits the bill nicely as the sympathetic noir tough guy with sufficient gumption for an undercover assignment. He is also ready to let his fists fly when the occasion calls for such behavior (it is his punching power that gets him noticed in the first place). What makes him a particularly interesting noir protagonist is his connection with pain. When he is on the receiving end of pain, he absorbs repeated left hooks to the liver. That area is a soft spot for anybody, even a tough-as-nails guy like Dan. When he reluctantly dishes out pain, he accidentally kills someone he considers a friend! That death occurs in a boxing gym, a location that never seems out of bounds for a noir story; the shadiness and savagery of pugilism always mesh well with the noir universe. This example of the genre even includes cameo appearances by former bantamweight world champion Pete Herman and future junior middleweight champ Ralph Dupas. Notable noir miscreant and professional wrestler Mike Mazurki has a more prominent role as one of Zero's problem solvers. The mere presence of Mazurki adds a certain level of credibility to any film noir. For evidence, witness his turns in MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), I WALK ALONE (1947) and NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950). Location footage assembled by cinematographer Henry Freulich adds authenticity in the form of Pontchartrain Beach (and its perfectly noirish carnival element), Diamond Jim Moran's Food For Kings, The Roosevelt New Orleans hotel, Adam Comeaux's Lounge & Bar and The Court Of Two Sisters.



Like HOLLYWOOD STORY, NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED shares some common ground with a famous predecessor. With its waterfront corruption and boxing subtext devised by screenwriters Orville H. Hampton and Lewis Meltzer, any viewing of NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED will cause director Elia Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) to leap to mind. And like Larry O'Brien of HOLLYWOOD STORY, Dan Corbett steps up to the plate to bring down an elusive criminal; neither Castle film conveys much faith in the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies. Also as occurs in HOLLYWOOD STORY, the chase sequence does not punctuate the final act the way it should, but NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED is definitely the more exciting production of the two. It is also the most noir thanks in part to the oppressive environment. Through his characters, Castle emphasizes the enervating heat of New Orleans, where tempers flare easily. It is an unforgiving urban maze in which an escape route leads to a padlocked gate. Where Castle falters is the scenes that feature the heavies, which I consider missed opportunities. Castle's coverage of Zero and his crew is indifferent at best, and scenes driven by dialog sometimes exude a one-take shooting schedule.



HOLLYWOOD STORY is framed at 1.36:1, a close approximation of the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (the packaging inaccurately claims 1.33:1). NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED comes in at 1.85:1, as correctly advertised. Neither disc offers any supplemental material.




Tuesday, April 28, 2020

BLACK ANGEL (1946)

Universal Pictures, 80m 32s


On paper, precious few film noirs convey potential commensurate with this one. Roy Chanslor's screenplay is based upon the 1943 Cornell Woolrich novel THE BLACK ANGEL, an amalgamation of two of Woolrich's short stories:  MURDER IN WAX and FACE WORK. Woolrich crime stories inspired such expressive go-to film noirs as PHANTOM LADY (1944), THE CHASE (1946) and THE WINDOW (1949). The cast includes two undisputed greats in Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre, as well as accomplished supporting players such as Broderick Crawford and Wallace Ford. BLACK ANGEL would be the final film directed by Roy William Neill, a talented filmmaker best known for helming Universal's popular Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

From start to finish, most of the expected genre trimmings fall into place, but BLACK ANGEL is not mentioned alongside the most beloved film noirs of the mid-1940s for a reason. Though a production that sports little flab, it hobbles along pro forma in comparison with Universal's similarly structured, Woolrich-inspired PHANTOM LADY, which harbors another indefatigable woman at its center. The "wrong man" mechanics of BLACK ANGEL also got a workout in THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946), released by Paramount Pictures earlier the same year. Mostly bereft of the noir visual style that characterized other genre offerings of 1946, BLACK ANGEL lacks the certitude of purpose that darkly drives THE BIG SLEEP, THE DARK CORNER, GILDA, THE KILLERS, THE LOCKET and NOTORIOUS. The dismaying absence of a sense of dread probably best explains why BLACK ANGEL pales next to its more famous contemporaries.

When the curtain goes up, we meet a blackmailing woman whose time is coming to an end. Soon the strangled remains of Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling is quite a looker) are discovered as her own recording plays on her turntable. The song that spins was written by her ex Marty Blair (Dan Duryea), who would be an obvious suspect were he not locked in his own room after another of his patented evenings of excessive drinking at the time of the murder. Though he is shown only to have discovered her lifeless body, Mavis's boyfriend Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of her murder and sentenced to death. His incredulous wife Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) forms an alliance with Marty in search of the real killer. In an effort to see if there is any dirt on Mavis's former employer Marko (the scene-stealing Peter Lorre), Catherine and Marty create the musical team Carver and Martin and accept regular work at Marko's nightclub Rio's.





Even if its parts are not assembled in such a way to amount to a compelling whole, BLACK ANGEL honors genre conventions. Film noir credentials begin with a Los Angeles setting that houses an irredeemable femme fatale. Many other signals of noir authenticity leap out as the narrative chugs along, i.e. the framed, idealized photos that suggest the power of characters who are not present, a potentially dangerous stairway that leads to a mysterious lair, oblique camera angles that reflect the shifting sensibilities of a disoriented protagonist and a determined woman who seems not only convinced of her husband's innocence of criminal wrongdoing, but obsessed with it. A homoerotic subtext seems to exist between Marko and his sturdy-looking, discourteous manservant Lucky (former middleweight champ Freddie Steele), especially when the two monitor auditions for club entertainment. What might be the "most noir" of any genre example must be left to viewer subjectivity, but for me it has to be the manner in which cigarette smoking comments on the major male characters. When Marty strikes a match on his apartment wall to light a smoke, the marred wall provides evidence of how many times he has made that crude method a practice. We sense he is nearing rock bottom, or maybe has landed there already. And with a cigarette just barely hanging from his mouth, nobody looks anything like Peter Lorre, the embodiment of lackadaisical yet sinister authority. A classic movie moment is registered when Lorre blows out the flame that ignited his cigarette without removing the cig from his mouth.



The major aftereffect derived from BLACK ANGEL is its formal indictment of alcoholism and related ruination of the chronically lovesick composer Marty. So dire is Marty's affliction that he must be confined to his tenement building after each night's pub crawl to prevent him from harming himself or others. When he writes a song for Catherine, he really seems like a glutton for punishment. Still faithful to the husband who maneuvered behind her back, Catherine rejects Marty's mawkish advances, which prompts the piano pounding drunkard to stand before a fire hose of alcohol. The lesson buried in all this is a familiar one to the noir form:  once you fall in too deep, it is all but impossible to claw your way out. This theme is supported by Marty's failed attempts to act responsibly, as when Dr. Courtney (Junius Matthews) does not believe Marty knows who really killed Mavis. A short time later, alcohol consumption prevents Marty from receiving a call that could rescue an innocent man from the gas chamber.






Woolrich thoroughly disliked his novel's adaptation, which minimizes lessons learned by the female protagonist of the source material. No doubt some of the concessions made for the sake of the Production Code lessened what could have been. Nonetheless this film noir boasts some excellent lines, for instance:

"Some guys are never satisfied."
"You've just gotta play detective, don't you? Do I go around playing the piano?"
"Let her cry it out."

A Blu-ray edition of BLACK ANGEL was issued earlier this year by Arrow Academy. Newly restored from an original nitrate combined 35mm fine grain positive and dupe negative scanned in 2K, the feature film is framed at 1.33:1 with uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM as the main audio option (the disc's packaging incorrectly indicates an aspect ratio of 1.37:1). No matter, this dual-layered Blu-ray rendition presents superior contrast and more detail at the top and bottom of the frame versus the Universal Pictures Home Entertainment DVD released in 2004:

Arrow Academy Blu-ray

Universal DVD

When it comes to audio commentary tracks, nobody shows up better prepared than film scholar and frequent film festival host Alan K. Rode, who always goes the extra mile for the most detailed production background information possible. Rode discusses the major contributors as one might expect, but also assigns credit to a number of the bit players. The 35-day production schedule began April 8th, 1946 on a $600K budget, a hefty amount for Universal at the time. The completed film was released theatrically in the US on August 2nd, 1946. This is a rare occasion when the major players performed their own musical numbers (Duryea at the piano with Vincent on the mic). In fact Vincent actually sang all three of the film's songs. Despite his off-camera reputation as a happily married fellow who walked a straight line, Duryea could not resist flirting with his blonde co-star during filming according to Vincent. Ava Gardner originally was to be loaned out for the role of Catherine Bennett, but Gardner quickly declined.

One of Rode's best stories about the cast involves Peter Lorre, who once was greeted by FBI agents at his doorstep. When the Feds pressed Lorre to reveal the names of any communist sympathizers he knew, Lorre proceeded to list everyone in Hollywood with whom he was acquainted, including notable studio bosses! The frustrated agents soon departed. Another interesting piece of information from Rode is in regard to film censor Joseph Breen, who was invited to the set to witness the black dress worn by June Vincent during one of the night club sequences. The filmmakers were concerned the Production Code Administration enforcer might consider Vincent's attire to be too revealing unless he saw it in person. As part of his Code approval process, Breen frequently employed the boilerplate message, "De-emphasizing the female figure, particularly breasts."

"A Fitting End:  Neil Sinyard on BLACK ANGEL” (2019, 20m 53s) collects the thoughts of the accomplished author Sinyard, emeritus professor of film studies at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom. He communicates a lot of information about the life of novelist Cornell Woolrich, who died from a stroke in 1968 at the age of 64. The character portrayed by Dan Duryea is about as close to a self-portrait of Woolrich as anyone is likely to see according to Sinyard. If that is basically correct, perhaps that observation is the reason why Woolrich did not have nice things to say regarding this adaptation of his work. The remaining supplemental material includes a theatrical trailer (1m 32s), a whopping 95 production stills as well as 17 posters and lobby cards, along with an illustrated booklet with an essay by Philip Kemp.

Another impressive product released by Arrow Academy, this is one of those cases when the great effort that went into the restoration work and supplemental material succeeded in making the product more collectible than it otherwise might have been.








Reversible artwork always is appreciated

Monday, March 30, 2020

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)

Twentieth Century Fox, 110m 14s


"You know if you'd lived in Salem a hundred years ago they'd have burned you."

Technicolor noir? Well, sort of. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN probably is best described as a noir-stained melodrama. Though the majority of the action unfolds in flashback form, a trustworthy film noir blueprint, its opening sequence only hints at some of the surprising directions the storytelling will take. On board a train bound for New Mexico, 30-year-old author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) is struck by the flawless beauty of wealthy socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney, who earned a Best Actress Academy Award nomination), and she seems similarly enamored with him. She is stunned to note Richard's resemblance to her departed father, and also surprised to learn she has met the author of the book she has been reading. Both are destined for Rancho Jacinto, where Ellen plans to spread her father's ashes in the area mountains. While at the ranch, Ellen continues to see Richard as a tower of strength that recalls her father. She whimsically dumps her floored fiancé Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) in favor of Richard, who learns rather suddenly he is about to get hitched (she proposes to him!). It is Ellen's enthusiasm about the idea that prompts Richard to snap into life-changing action, with minimal reluctance on his part.

The second act relocates the recently married couple to Warm Springs, Georgia, where Richard's younger brother Danny Harland (Darryl Hickman) deals with paralysis from the waist down. This is Ellen's first encounter with Danny, for whom Richard maintains great affection. Danny accompanies the newlyweds to the Back of the Moon Lodge in Deer Lake, Maine, Richard's isolated lakefront location, where his old pal Leick Thome (Chill Wills) serves as the resident caretaker. Ellen senses she has forfeited her honeymoon so Richard can spend time with Leick and Danny whenever writing is not a priority. In a key sequence to what is to follow, Danny unwittingly interrupts Ellen's attempt to get frisky with her husband. Already frustrated with the living arrangements at the lodge, the setting deteriorates further for Ellen when she notices the arrival of her mother Margaret Berent (Mary Philips) and adopted half-sister Ruth Berent (Jeanne Crain) by boat. "I love you so I can't bear to share you with anybody," Ellen confesses to Richard. Little does he suspect how serious she is.



LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN is a production of considerable dramatic force and a veritable showcase for the talents of Tierney, who absolutely proves she is more than just a pretty face in this outing, her first in Technicolor. Various film noir motifs ripple outward for those with trained eyes; for instance, Ellen's obsession with her father and the presence of his idealized, framed image, the likening of Richard to a dead man, a lack of marital fulfillment, an emphasis on nocturnal settings and shadows, various mirrors that imply a woman's duplicitous nature, imagery that suggests entrapment, and one of the obvious examples of a dangerous noir staircase. Those noir trimmings notwithstanding, much of the case for LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN as film noir is grounded in Ellen's remarkable transformation from harmless-looking bookworm to insanely jealous, dangerously disturbed wife. There are hints of her otherness in the early going, but nothing beyond that. Ellen's neurosis is revealed only gradually.

Most likely Ellen suffers from the Electra complex, as outlined by Carl Jung. The more she speaks of her dead father and Richard's striking similarity to him, the more one questions whether the relationship she had with her father when he was alive was healthy for everyone concerned. How odd that fiancé #1 Russell assumed he and Ellen would be married only after the death of her father, which implies the bond between Ellen and her father was unnatural. Once married to Richard, Ellen is plagued by her jealousy of anyone who demands even the smallest increment of her husband's time. Her thoughts become progressively more irrational, to the point she literally will do anything to have Richard to herself. In the film's most infamous scene, the strong swimmer Ellen heartlessly allows Danny to drown, and then pretends to heroically dive to his rescue as Richard arrives on the scene. Later at Bar Harbor, after Ellen has become pregnant with Richard's child, she openly wishes the child were dead, a wish she makes a reality. Thus the selfish femme fatale of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN kills both of the male figures closest to Richard. "Ellen always wins," Richard’s attorney Glen Robie (Ray Collins) opines at the ranch, long before the extreme danger embodied by Ellen is made evident. In respect to Glen's observation, her eventual flameout threatens to destroy both Richard and Ruth. Even after her death, Ellen manages to maintain a tight grip on those she (wrongly) believed betrayed her. Like the despicable Katharine “Kitty” March (Joan Bennett) in the same year's SCARLET STREET, Ellen causes ruin from the grave.




Though Ellen's pathological behavior is not defensible, she is not entirely unsympathetic, and Richard is not without culpability. He probably lights her fuse without having any idea when he jokes with his little brother Danny that if the boy does not approve of Ellen, she can be discarded easily enough. Later at the Back of the Moon retreat Richard invites his wife's mother and sister to the lodge without consulting Ellen, who already was upset about everyone present other than her husband. Wouldn't any woman want a proper honeymoon, without being surrounded by the distractions engineered by Richard? In another instance of not including Ellen in his decisions, Richard converts Ellen's beloved father's study into a nursery, a questionable move at best. And though his mother-in-law wisely cautions Richard to dedicate all his future novels to his wife, in an especially curious move, he dedicates his latest book to Ruth, which predictably sends Ellen over the deep end. Ellen certainly is the wrong woman for Richard, but less obviously, he is the wrong man for her.

At the time of its original theatrical release, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN shrugged off a lukewarm greeting from critics to become the highest grossing film of the decade for Twentieth Century Fox. In retrospect critics now consider it one of the great prestige dramas to emerge from the studio system. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck acquired the film rights for the 1944 source novel of the same title by Ben Ames Williams. After the bidding war that erupted, the price was $100,000, quite a large sum for what was at the time an unpublished work. The dexterous screenplay was adapted by Jo Swerling. Experienced director of photography Leon Shamroy was known for color spectacles such as DAVID AND BATHSHEBA (1951), THE ROBE (1953) and CLEOPATRA (1963), not to mention the cult classic THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT (1956). The various exterior settings in Sedona, Arizona, Bass Lake, California and Warm Springs, Georgia, among others, are well handled and the processed shots are infrequent enough to seem unobtrusive to the overall presentation. But as always seems to be the case for films of all decades, scenes shot day-for-night are not very convincing, and any matte painting clearly is exactly that. No matter, Shamroy was honored with a much-deserved Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color. During the span of his career, Shamroy received 18 Academy Award nominations for Cinematography and claimed four statues. Director John M. Stahl was one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His credits as director include MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935), IMITATION OF LIFE (1934) and THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (1944). The impeccably assembled cast of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN was well chosen, especially Vincent Price as the jilted lover, who disappears long enough to make his commanding return all the more startling. Price was built from the ground up for energetic courtroom drama.




The United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress selected LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN for preservation in 2018. Restorative work was completed by Twentieth Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation. The Criterion Collection's newly released dual-layered Blu-ray edition features a 2K digital scan from a 35mm color reversal internegative, framed at 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Judge for yourself in comparison with the 1.33:1 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD version released in 2004:

Criterion Blu-ray

Fox DVD

Criterion's supplemental material is surprisingly light for a film this revered. The only major extra is an interview with Imogen Sara Smith, the author of IN LONELY PLACES: FILM NOIR BEYOND THE CITY (2011). The interview was filmed in November of 2019 and entitled "Imogen Sara Smith on John M. Stahl's LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN" (26m 34s). Smith builds a sturdy case for Stahl as an influential but underappreciated filmmaker, in part because so many of his feature films have not been readily available for viewing, especially his efforts from the silent era. She points to SEED (1931), BACK STREET (1932) and ONLY YESTERDAY (1933) as Stahl's crucial works of the early 1930s. He was on the side of his central female figures, women who received little in return for their commitment to others. Stahl also possessed a command for the tone of his productions that allowed him to smoothly blend comedy and drama. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN was a departure from everything he had done previously, and the only movie he made that could be discussed in film noir terms. Smith delivers some excellent insights about the characters of the film, especially in relation to color schemes. Given the elaborate attention to background color and wardrobe choices, it is telling that Richard is color-blind; he cannot see his wife for what she truly is. Another good observation from Smith is her take on Ellen, who is not the usual scheming noir temptress, but rather a "monstrous version of the perfect post-war wife." The disc's only other supplement is a theatrical trailer (2m 13s). The packaging includes an essay by novelist Megan Abbott.


Despite this welcome upgrade from Criterion, fans of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN would be well advised to hang on to the old FOX DVD (or the Twilight Time Blu-ray edition released in 2013), which includes one of my all-time favorite commentary tracks. It features TIME magazine film critic Richard Schickel and Darryl Hickman, the actor who portrayed Danny Harland. Schickel covers a fair amount of historical data about the film's production, but as someone who worked on the film, Hickman's comments are solid gold and the reason to listen. A child actor named after Darryl F. Zanuck by a mother who always wanted to be an actress, Hickman worked in the film industry for many years, both in front of and behind the camera. As an acting coach in later life, he encounters many mothers who have high hopes for their children. His message for each mother is consistent:  wait until your kid is 18. Hickman learned firsthand that a child actor cannot possibly experience a normal childhood. In the course of filming LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, he learned an actor must become accountable for his own performance since a director may not be helpful with the encouragement of actors, or even understand what actors are trying to do. It proved to be the most difficult assignment of his already extensive list of film appearances. His memory of director John M. Stahl is almost entirely negative, and Hickman credits cinematographer Leon Shamroy for the rich, textured look and overall quality of the Technicolor product. But according to Hickman, Shamroy was not the easiest guy to like either, and star Gene Tierney gave nothing of herself to Hickman or co-star Cornel Wilde. Whatever was going on with Tierney, Hickman assures us she got no support from Stahl! Looking back on the film, Hickman believes Tierney felt inadequate as an actress and shut herself down emotionally to others.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN was remade as TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE (1988), a made-for-TV film that starred Loni Anderson as Ellen Berent and Patrick Duffy as Richard Harland.