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Magnificent Obsession

Gene Tierney is drop-dead gorgeous and completely off her gourd in this 1945 melodrama

Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney stare (and stare) into each other's eyes.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/7/2009

When the camera slowly dollies into a close-up shot of high heels held in a woman's hands, soon followed by a long overhead shot of a staircase, you know a tumble is in the works. But director John M. Stahl and cinematographer Leon Shamroy aren't merely being blunt. As in, those heels aren't just heels, they're powder blue platform wedges that perfectly match the gentle hue of the woman's luxurious nightgown and matching robe. The staircase is only one flight, but the swell of strings in the background lets you know that it's a perilous height should she fall. And don't forget, as you understand by this point in this deliciously absurd melodrama that--gasp!, raising the back of hand to mouth--the woman is pregnant!

If you haven't fainted yet, you're in for a genuine treat. The Charles' revival series brings in a recently restored 35-mm print of Stahl's 1945 Leave Her to Heaven this week, and the old saw about how they don't make 'em like this anymore, in this case, is a blatant fact. This feature uses Technicolor's three-strip process, which produces electric bright, saturated colors and was discontinued in 1974. Three-strip Technicolor was the process that enabled directors and cinematographers to turn actresses into ethereal beings whose beauty was not of this planet--think of Ava Gardner in Mogambo or Show Boat, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious. It was an expensive process, and was mostly used for big-ticket genres such as musicals and Westerns. And that's what makes its virtuosic use in Leave Her to Heaven so arresting.

Director Stahl primarily made traditional Hollywood women's pictures--he helmed versions of Imitation of Life (1934) and Magnificent Obsession (1935) some 20 years before Douglas Sirk, that benchmark of old-fashioned Hollywood moviemaking--and Heaven fits that bill on paper. Based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams (a writer frequently adapted in the 1920s and '30s), written for the screen by Jo Swerling (Blood and Sand, Pride of the Yankees), shot by Shamroy (a 20th Century Fox workhorse who was eventually Oscar-nominated 19 times), scored by Alfred Newman (another Hollywood icon, Oscar nominated every year from 1938-'57), produced by studio-system monolith Darryl F. Zanuck, and starring Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde, Heaven has the pedigree of Hollywood at its most studio overcooked.

And yet--well, something strange is afoot in this tale, and from the very beginning. It opens in a scene of awkward quietude, as some suited men ride in a boat up to a remote pier on a lake. Dick (Wilde) gets out, casually greets his lawyer and some others, and then gets into a canoe to row off by himself. His lawyer Glen Robie (Ray Collins) tells an onlooker that Dick has just finished serving two years in jail, and proceeds to recount the tale that landed him there. In fact, Robie feels partly responsible, because it was while visiting his New Mexico ranch that Dick, a novelist, first met Ellen Berent (Tierney), a brunette knockout who has been coming to the ranch with her father for years. She's traveling with her adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) and mother (Mary Philips), and from the moment Dick sees her in the club car, he's enrapt by her beauty.

And she's staring right back at him--only because he so strongly resembles her father. This passing observation becomes the flimsy psychoanalytic hook on which Heaven hangs it entire premise--Ellen loves Dick so strongly she's unwilling to share him with anybody--but it does so at full Hollywood tilt, complete with sumptuous photography, the beyond fabulous wardrobe, the breathtaking settings, the heaving-bodice dialog, and the sort of stilted acting that makes the entire cast looked hypnotized into staring gauzily first, acting later. Tierney alone does more stoned-face staring in this movie than the men adorning Mount Rushmore.

Only she does it with glacier-blue eyes and lips so red they looked freshly lined in blood. It's only when Ellen rows out onto the lake in a swimming robe worthy of Cleopatra and dark shades recalling the ones Barbara Stanwyck rocked in Double Indemnity that it dawns on you just what Leave Her to Heaven is: a noir from the classic era, only photographed in rococo color and draped in baroque melodrama. Yes, it teeters on the brink of camp time and time again--Vincent Price as Ellen's former fiancée is positively priceless--but Tierney's knee-knocking radiance doing feats of jaw-dropping batshittery pulls you in. The performance earned her a 1946 Oscar nomination, losing out to Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce in a field that included Jennifer Jones (Love Letters), Ingrid Bergman (The Bells of St. Mary's), and Greer Garson (The Valley Decision). Talk about competition.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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