Leave Her to Heaven: Noir, or Not?
Recently on Twitter, I was asked if classic film noir can be in color. I answered, definitively, that it can. For me, noir is more about tone and mood than any other characteristics common to films of the era. Some of the color features from the classic noir period include Niagara (1953), House of Bamboo (1955), Slightly Scarlet (1956), and Party Girl (1958).
And then there’s my favorite: Leave Her to Heaven. But is it noir? Let’s look at the facts. Urban setting? Nope. Black and white? Nah. Hard-boiled detectives, petty criminals, crooked cops? Nary a one.
But yes, I contend that Leave Her to Heaven is film noir. Here are the reasons why:
At its core, Leave Her to Heaven offers the murderous Ellen Berent, who lets nothing – not her baby’s life, that of her brother-in-law, or even her own – daunt her obsession for her husband, Richard (Cornel Wilde). It has been argued that Ellen is not a true femme fatale because her actions are driven by her mental illness. And I concede that Ellen might be a trifle more unbalanced that your garden variety fatal femme – but aren’t they all a little bit left of center? (Look at some of the classic femme fatales – Phyllis Diedrichson in Double Indemnity, Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past, Kitty Collins in The Killers, Anna Dundee in Criss Cross. Talk about twisted sisters – they definitely weren’t playing with a full deck of sanity cards.) So your lead femme in Leave Her to Heaven is a beautiful woman willing and able to use her brains as well as her beauty to accomplish a single-minded, far-from-noble goal. Sounds pretty noirish to me.
Also driving the film’s noir factor is Ellen’s hapless spouse. Despite clues that continually point him in another direction and endeavor to illuminate the truth about Ellen, Richard allows himself to be blissfully dragged along a path to ultimate tragedy. All because he is blinded by Ellen’s beauty and beguiled by her adoration. Hmm. A male who is deceived and led astray by a gorgeous woman. Noirish? I’d say so.
The feeling of film noir is woven throughout Leave Her to Heaven as well. From nearly the first frame, the sensation exists that something is going to go wrong, that all is not as it seems, that circumstances are already spiraling out of control. The film’s score, the behavior of Ellen’s mother and sister, the references to her father, the actions of her jilted fiancé, all add to this sensation – even the beautiful settings are less idyllic refuges than oppressive prisons – breeding grounds for anxiety, suspicion, and paranoia. Very noir.
For me, the major detraction to this film’s noirishness is its ending. Had the credits rolled after Richard was found guilty, it would have been the perfect conclusion. But the embrace between Richard and his good-girl sister-in-law? Not so much. Still, this is only one blip in an otherwise smooth noir sailing. From start to (almost) finish, Leave Her to Heaven comes out far darker than its colorful appearance would imply.
It’s noir, I tell you!