Film Review: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Release Date: December 25th, 1945 (New York City & Chicago)
Directed by: John M. Stahl
Written by: Jo Swerling
Based on: Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price

Twentieth Century Fox, 110 Minutes

Review:

“When I looked at you, exotic words drifted across the mirror of my mind like clouds across the summer sky.” – Richard Harland

Man, this movie started out fairly sweet and even though I knew it was a noir picture, I wasn’t quite expecting for the dark side of the story to be so, well… dark.

I guess it’s hard to think of Gene Tierney capable of anything evil, as she’s pretty much lovable in everything that I’ve seen. But I guess that’s the point, as her character goes from sweet beauty to psychotic bitch. And frankly, it’s unsettling and heartbreaking to watch it all unfold, especially in the modern era where we understand mental illness more than we did in the 1940s.

This great performance by Tierney led to her getting an Academy Award nomination. Granted, she lost to Joan Crawford’s performance in Mildred Pierce but that is fantastic company to keep.

It isn’t just Tierney that carries this picture, however, as Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price give some breathtaking performances as well.

Side note: Vincent Price and Gene Tierney actually worked together four times and played off of each other so well, that I wish they had more films together. Other than this picture, they were together in 1941’s Hudson’s Bay, 1944’s Laura and 1946’s Dragonwyck, which is a pretty underrated gem.

What’s really unique about this motion picture is that it is considered film-noir but it is presented in color. That was pretty unusual at the time and it’s kind of strange seeing a noir styled film outside of the typical high contrast, black and white, chiaroscuro presentation. At first, I thought that the version I was watching might be one of those bastardized Ted Turner prints but it wasn’t. In a way, it’s interesting in color and it makes the film standout amongst its contemporaries but I feel like it actually shines too much light and life into the actual darkness of the movie.

However, I understand that the term “film-noir” didn’t even exist at the time and this was probably just Twentieth Century Fox trying to make a beautiful movie with a beautiful starlet. And, honestly, despite my preference for black and white in the noir style, I can’t deny that this is actually a very beautiful film. Especially in the first half, where it shows Cornel Wilde meeting the love of his life and living a sort of fantastical happy ending lifestyle.

The plot sees Wilde meet Tierney, they fall in love, they live in a fairly opulent and attractive world and everything seems perfect. After they are married, however, Tierney’s jealousy and psychotic nature comes out. She lets Wilde’s handicapped brother drown when she could have saved him, she becomes jealous of the baby she’s carrying and throws herself down the stairs and the she eventually commits suicide but not before framing her sister for poisoning her.

Leave Her to Heaven goes into damn dark territory and while that’s typical of noir, this is a different, more intimate type of darkness that carries more emotional weight than a heist gone bad or a femme fatale stabbing the male lead in the back.

In the end, this was a compelling motion picture that grabs you almost immediately and doesn’t let go until the final frame. It features one of Tierney’s top performances and also shows how good Vincent Price could be with straight drama.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other movies starring Gene Tierney: Laura, Dragonwyck, Hudson’s Bay, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Night and the City.

Film Review: Night and the City (1950)

Release Date: June 9th, 1950 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Based on: Night and the City by Gerald Kersh
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki

20th Century Fox, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Harry. Harry. You could have been anything. Anything. You had brains… ambition. You worked harder than any 10 men. But the wrong things. Always the wrong things… ” – Mary Bristol

I was glad that I got to catch this on a recent episode of TCM’s Noir Alley. I wasn’t really familiar with Jules Dassin’s work until recently, while delving deep into the vast ocean that is film-noir.

This film, among the seemingly endless noir-scape, stands out, stands strong and hell, it’s got professional wrestling in it: giving Mike Mazurki a character close to who he actually was and providing a great role for wrestling legend (and former world champion) Stanislaus Zbyszko of the famous Zbyszko wrestling family.

The film primarily stars Richard Widmark and man is he a friggin’ entertaining weasel in this. He is also accompanied by one of the queens of film-noir, Gene Tierney. Unfortunately, she isn’t in this film as much as I would have liked because she is truly an enchantress of the silver screen.

Night and the City follows Widmark’s Harry Fabian, a hustling con man type that is always looking for a way to get to the top, regardless of who he has to screw over in the process. Obviously, he’s a man in over his head, barking up all the wrong trees while digging his own eventual grave. When he starts a scheme involving professional wrestlers, he is in deeper water than he can even fathom.

The film takes place in London and was filmed there due to director Jules Dassin moving to the UK after being blacklisted over communist fears. His career still flourished, even if he had to escape Hollywood and Night and the City is a great example of how the director didn’t miss a beat, despite his misfortune during the McCarthy era witch hunts.

Widmark’s performance is tremendous as he traverses through all the twists and turns in the film’s plot. He has a charm and an insane enthusiasm that almost feels like the gangster version of the comic book Joker before he fell into that vat of acid. Hell, he could have been a great Jack Napier and Joker had they made a Batman film in the 1950s with a serious tone.

The highlight of this film for me was seeing the two wrestling legends square off: Mazurki and Zbyszko. Their physical fight in the film was pretty damn realistic and grueling as hell to witness. It was well shot, well executed and certainly effective.

The cinematography was handled by Max Greene, who had a lot of experience with his work on dozens of films before this. His visuals were accompanied by the great music of Franz Waxman. With Dassin’s direction, we had a Holy Trinity of cinematic masters combining their best efforts on a film that should probably be better remembered than it is, at least outside of film-noir fan circles.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Release Date: December 25th, 1941 (New York City)
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Josef von Sternberg, Geza Herczeg, Jules Furthman
Based on: The Shanghai Gesture play by John Colton
Music by: Richard Hageman
Cast: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson

Arnold Pressburger Films, United Artists, 99 Minutes

Review:

“The other places are like kindergardens compared with this. It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity like a half-remembered dream. Anything… could happen here… any moment…” – Poppy

The Shanghai Gesture is a very early film-noir, as it came out the same year the genre was considered to be born: 1941. The same year that the world got to experience Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for the first time. This isn’t as good as those motion pictures but it is still enjoyable enough.

Now a lot of critics and fans of noir hold this in pretty high regard. While I like the film, I don’t really think of it as a classic in the style.

It’s a slightly better than average romantic drama with some mystery and an exotic location thrown in. It also stars Gene Tierney, a few years before capturing the hearts of men in Laura. With Tierney in the forefront, there is a certain level of legitimacy added to this picture, due to her talent.

The technical side of this film is pretty impressive. The casino, where a big chunk of the film is set, was designed to resemble Dante’s Inferno – sort of mirroring the fall of man and in many cases with this film, the fall of woman. The other sets and the costumes also have a real opulence about them.

Additionally, the film is well shot. It doesn’t quite have the stark chiaroscuro cinematography that would become the norm in film-noir but it had a similar tone without strictly adhering to what most associate with the genre’s visual style.

Gene Tierney put in a solid performance as a young rich girl who arrives in Shanghai and quickly falls from grace thanks to becoming an alcoholic. She had help in her fall from Ona Munson’s “Mother” Gin Sling, who wanted to ruin the girl as part of a revenge plot against the girl’s father, an ex-lover.

Ultimately, this is a morality tale but what wasn’t back in the 1940s?

The Shanghai Gesture is a pretty picture and it has some good acting, a visual elegance and nice cinematography but I did find it to be fairly boring. It’s a good technical achievement for the time and it advanced the career of Tierney but I just didn’t find a lot to get excited about.

Rating: 6/10

Film Review: Laura (1944)

Release Date: October 11th, 1944
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt, Ring Lardner Jr. (uncredited)
Based on: Laura by Vera Caspary
Music by: David Raksin
Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

20th Century Fox, 88 Minutes

Review:

“I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.” – Waldo Lydecker

I was talking to my mum about noir pictures and she told me that this was one of her favorites. We actually came to talk about it while also discussing Vincent Price, a favorite actor of mine. Wanting to work my way through Otto Preminger’s films, this has been in my queue on the Criterion Channel for a bit. So I decided to check it out and because I also like the rest of the cast, especially Dana Andrews.

The fact that I hadn’t seen this yet, is surprising. Granted, my mum may have had it on when I was a kid and I was too busy killing Optimus Prime with my Megatron figure for the 142nd time.

Also, all I knew of Otto Preminger, back then, was that he was one of the three actors to play Mr. Freeze on the 1960s Batman television show. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he was an accomplished director and a real auteur.

Laura is quite exceptional and a great example of Preminger’s style. It has alluring camerawork and amazing tracking shots. It also utilizes some quick edits, such as a sweeping tracking shot going from one subject to another and then cutting right back to the first subject. While this isn’t a big deal by today’s standards, it was a pretty unique and nontraditional approach to shooting, at the time. But film-noirs were very experimental and tried a lot of new things, Preminger being one of the directors that really led the charge.

Like a typical noir, the film uses a high contrast but the lavish interiors of most of the sets keeps things less dark and gritty than many other pictures in the genre. Granted, the narrative and tone are dark but it exists in contrast to the opulence and elegance that lives on the screen and captures the saucy New Yorkers that populate this mystery tale.

The film also employs a small cast and everyone plays their part to perfection. It was really cool seeing a young Vincent Price in this but the film was really carried by the strong performances from Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb.

Andrews was the debonair and clever detective and I think he would’ve made a perfect Batman in the 1940s. Tierney really owned her role as the title character and did a fine job of luring in the males of the picture. Webb, however, was the real meat and potatoes of the picture. I loved his character and he was a real cantankerous fussy pot, for lack of a more fitting description.

This was a great film-noir with a lot of layers to it. It has a major shocking twist that really flipped the film on its head in the best way possible. Preminger created a visual and narrative treasure, a film that is a great monument to the noir style, even if the picture takes some of its own liberties that propel it away from a few specific genre tropes.

Rating: 9.25/10