Sunday, 7 July 2013

Leave Her to Heaven: A Technicolor Film Noir

Gene Tierney as Ellen Harland in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

I rewatched John M. Stahl's classic Leave Her to Heaven last night, and then realized I have never posted my essay on the film that I wrote for a Film Noir course a few years back. Here it is, for your reading pleasure! Please comment if you so desire! I am also almost done reading the original source novel, which I highly recommend for anyone wanting an even deeper understanding of the characters!

In John M. Stahl's haunting and memorable 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven, a dark noir atmosphere is unconventionally created in glorious Technicolor, while typical noir characters are evident with Ellen Harland as the psychologically unstable femme fatale, Dick Harland as the unsuspecting husband caught in his wife’s web, and Ruth Berent as the innocent young woman. The elements of the visual world of colour photography and character combine to produce one of the most unique film noirs ever made.
One of the most striking aspects of this film is the fact that the visual atmosphere is a complete juxtaposition to the typical black and white noir film we are accustomed to. For instance, the film lives largely in daytime and sunlight as opposed to the night and rain we are accustomed to in the black and white noir films. Also, the film takes advantage of its colour photography by setting the action in beautiful non-urban environments of cottages and lakes. Thus, inserting familiar noir characters into this setting puts us off balance and a truly unique noir world is created for Ellen to weave her web.
A key example of demonstrating Ellen’s femme fatale ways in an atypical atmosphere of bright colour and sunshine is the chilling scene where she lets Dick’s disabled brother Danny die and then pretends that it was an accident. She sits absolutely still as he drowns in the lake, in hopes that his death will lead to her husband Dick devoting all of his time to her. The drowning scene takes place on a gloriously sunny day; the sun even glistens on the water as Ellen sits in the rowboat and watches Danny swim to his death. It is an uncharacteristic visual setting in noir for such a dark event and it works to the film’s advantage. The atypical environment creates a distinctive and unexpected moment in the canon of noir.
Furthermore, instead of this scene showing a dark world in the external environment, Stahl shows us that the darkness comes from within Ellen herself. The setting of a sunny day represents the joy Ellen is feeling inside as she realizes that this beautiful natural world provides the perfect opportunity to get rid of Danny. As she puts on a pair of sunglasses while rowing the boat behind Danny, it becomes clear that the darkness comes from within her. The ominous atmosphere of this scene is not reflected in the external environment like it is in black and white noir, thereby making the evilness of Ellen’s character even more evident. Showing a physically glum world is not necessary, since Ellen is such a dark character itself. This scene is crucial in that it officially defines Ellen as the femme fatale of the film. She does not wanting anyone else to have her husband’s attention, even if it is a helpless and ill boy. The drowning scene in stark daylight chillingly presents Ellen’s horrible web that she is beginning to weave.
While Leave Her to Heaven is in Technicolor, the noir convention of using light and shadow to establishing character and atmosphere in black and white noir is still very much in evidence. However, the use of light and shadow is presented in a way that takes advantage of colour. A scene that exemplifies this unique use of light and shadow is the scene in which Ellen proposes to Dick. As Dick enters the room, he is immersed in a shadow in a room surrounded by a red glow. The red light symbolizes Ellen’s encompassing power and danger as a femme fatale, and the shadow that engulfs Dick is an indication that he is unwittingly succumbing to her dangerous ways. The orange-red aura that provides the visual backdrop as Ellen professes “I’ll never let you go” demonstrates her commanding influence over Dick, and his inability to resist her sexual, fiery spirit. The red light is a unique alternative to the black and white contrasts lighting in typical noir, and wonderfully outlines the uniquely strong command that this particular femme fatale possesses.  
The exploration of how noir conventions are fashioned in Technicolor is certainly fascinating in this film, but the most striking aspect of Leave Her to Heaven is how Leon Shamroy’s masterful Technicolor photography and keen eye for the Technicolor palette conveys the darkening emotional world of the film. The slowly darkening world occurs due to Ellen’s increasingly unhealthy jealousy for anyone who gets in the way of her relationship with Dick. To demonstrate this, Shamroy’s photography moves from a glorious, bright Technicolor at the beginning of the film, to a more muted Technicolor as Ellen’s actions produce negative consequences for the characters involved.
Vibrant Technicolor is seen at the beginning of the film in the scene where Ellen is first introduced to us through Dick’s smitten eye. As the camera introduces us to Ellen, we see the stunning face of Gene Tierney, with her hair and face glowing from the backdrop of sunlight creeping in from the outside world. Her bright green eyes pop out against a blue-green backdrop. The danger of Ellen is not yet known to Dick, and so he is completely enamoured by her striking beauty. Ellen is a gorgeous woman, and we understand Dick’s fascination in not being able to take his eyes off of this stunning Technicolor creature. To emphasize Dick’s feelings, the setting is complete sunlight; a perfect day is shown to us through bright Technicolor hues. Their encounter appears very normal; they are even wearing beige outfits to indicate that they are supposedly everyday people. But, the Technicolor also reveals that Ellen is wearing deep red lipstick-- a foreshadowing of the danger that Ellen possesses within her. In addition, Stahl incorporates the convention of noir of the outside world being shown through blinds. Therefore, even though it is sunny outside, and Dick being smitten with Ellen seems harmless, they are meeting in an enclosed world. This foreshadows that Dick will eventually become trapped in Ellen’s possessive web. But, in the sunny, vivid setting of their first encounter, Dick is not yet privy to Ellen’s dark side.
One of the first signs of the darkening world of the film as Ellen becomes increasingly obsessed with Dick occurs when Ellen and Dick, newly married, are in their cottage at Back of the Moon. We see the couple sleeping in their beds and the glowing orange sun is creeping in only to illuminate their sleeping bodies. Therefore, the sun seems to shine only for the newlywed lovers as they share an intimate moment to start the day. The dark and jealous feelings of Ellen begin to be shown visually, however, as she becomes aware of Danny’s presence in the cabin when he yells, “Good morning,” and interrupts the couple’s kiss. Upon hearing his voice, she stands up and steps into a dark shadow; she is no longer illuminated by the glowing sun. Therefore, we see the beginnings of Ellen’s obsession with Dick; she hates the idea of anyone else loving him or wanting to spend time with him. The use of shadow is very much like we would find in black and white noir, but the bright glow of the sun makes the contrast of the dark shadow all the more powerful in Technicolor, and the emerging anger of Ellen is explicitly clear.
This gradual descent into darkness continues in the following scene, as an increasingly manipulative and possessive Ellen starts inquiring to Leick Thorne about Enid Southern, one of Dick’s old girlfriends. Even though this scene is later in the morning than the scene that precedes it, therefore assuming that the sun would shine even brighter, the cabin is darker than the previous scene. Curtains prevent the sun from entering the cottage, and therefore, the inviting colours of the living room do not stand out. This visual storytelling informs us that the darker side of Ellen character is starting to emerge with greater intensity.
Furthermore, once Danny dies about halfway through the film, the vibrant world of Technicolor that, while slowly not being illuminated as intensely but still always present, largely disappears. Shamroy photographs the Technicolor in more muted tones in the scenes following Danny’s death. The season changes from the brilliant colours of summer to the muted tones of late autumn and the placid, green waters of Back of the Moon are replaced by the gray, choppy waves of Bar Harbor. This change of colour palette demonstrates that Ellen’s manipulative staging of Danny’s death has caused the vibrant Technicolor world to no longer exist. Furthermore, Danny’s death has not brought Dick and Ellen closer. He becomes withdrawn toward her and begins to spend time with Ellen’s virtuous cousin Ruth. This causes Ellen’s jealousy to be more severe than ever before, and she propels the world of the film into an even darker visual place.
The muted visual world becomes very clear when Ellen decides to purposely kill her unborn child in the hopes of Dick returning his attention toward her. We see muted gray tones and a windy world through her bedroom window as she prepares herself for a fall down the stairs to miscarry the baby. The dark side of her character is again represented with the colour red as she slowly and deliberately applies red lipstick. Therefore, even though her actions are making the world around her become gloomy, her evilness is as vibrant as ever. Also, shadows of the staircase on the wall reinforce the darkness of the act that she is about to commit. Finally, as she sticks her shoe under the carpet to make it look like she has tripped, we see her red toenail polish right as she is about to begin her descent. This confirms, then, that her power to weave a web of deceit comes solely from within.  
After Ellen loses the baby, Shamroy’s photography informs us that she has made the world irrevocably dark. While there was still a small element of sunlight peaking through the windows when she took the fall to kill her baby, when she emerges from gray wavy waters after a swim a few scenes later, the clouds are almost black. She has caused the elements of nature to no longer be sunny. The only strong colour that is evident in the scene is the deep red bathing suit she is wearing. Therefore, her brave choice of colour for a swimsuit in what is such a dark time for the other characters and her ear-to-ear grin informs us that she still believes her actions will result in Dick devoting himself to her.
However, in a scene occurring soon after, we see Dick finally confronting Ellen about Danny and the baby’s death. He is no longer the unassuming man caught in her web; he realizes the evil acts Ellen has committed. Their grim exchange of dialogue as Ellen confesses to her crimes and Dick listens, defeated, is set against a pale beige backdrop. Also, Dick is in a black suit, and even Ellen is dressed in a pale pastel robe; her signature red colour is no longer evident. Thus, the vibrancy of their first meeting is completely gone, and Ellen knows she has lost. As Dick leaves the house, signalling the end of their relationship, the camera reveals a room full of muted pastel pinks and greens. It is in this moment that Ellen realizes the only way to have control over Dick is to end her life and control him from the grave.
Finally, because Leave Her to Heaven lives in a Technicolor world, it uses the colour photography to its advantage to present an ending unlike one we are used to in noir films. While Ellen has tried to frame her death on Ruth and has caused Dick to have to do jail time, the film avoids the noir convention of presenting a pessimistic world so typical of black and white noir. The final scene of the film shows us that Dick intends to start a new life with the young, innocent Ruth. Shamroy’s Technicolor photography is dreamlike in the final scene. The soft colours at sunset show that a world without Ellen is attractive. With Ellen gone, the increasingly muted Technicolor is no more, and the beauty of the Technicolor is evident once again. As Dick paddles toward Ruth, the camera captures her image and the cottage as a perfectly composed Impressionist painting. Technicolor photography has never been more breathtaking than in this final scene. Furthermore, the virginal Ruth is illuminated by the setting sun behind her and as they finally embrace, the sun creeps through the sky. It seems that a new day is dawning for these two characters who have been victimized by the femme fatale. Happiness and beauty is achieved at last.
            Or is it? Stahl hints through the Technicolor in this scene at the possibility that Ellen will never be out of their lives, and will continue to weave her web from the grave. While Ruth is photographed with the glowing sun behind her, when Dick simultaneously approaches Ruth, it is cloudy and the colours are once again muted. So, will Ellen eternally be a presence (hinted at by the odd glow in the sky in the final frame) and never let Dick be happy with another woman? While Ruth and Dick have left Ellen to Heaven and intend to start anew, Ellen, among the clouds in the sky, will never leave them.


  1. I really enjoyed your essay -- you raise so many points that I never thought about. Intriguing stuff!

    1. I'm so glad you found it intriguing! Thanks for taking the time to comment! :)


  2. I found this a really interesting dissertation on an intriguing film genre. The insight you shared regarding the use of colour to enhance even the most subtle shades of the plot development really demonstrated your intuitive and passionate analytical skills in realizing the essence of a film's story line. I enjoyed this very much. Well done !

    1. Yay! I'm glad you enjoyed the read. I've always found the genre fascinating and find this film to be one of the most intriguing films of the film noir style!