The Rich Glare of Technicolor
Leon Shamroy’s Leave Her to Heaven
by Imogen Sara Smith

The lake is bottle-green, throwing off cold light under a flock of summer clouds. Pine trees bristle on the distant shores, a pristine backdrop for one of cinema’s most beautiful and frightening murders, which is also the most famous scene from Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Ellen (Gene Tierney) has taken her husband’s kid brother, Danny, who is paralyzed from polio, out in a rowboat. They laugh and tease one another affectionately as she rubs suntan oil on his back and encourages him to try swimming all the way to the shore. Once he is in the water, Ellen dons a pair of cat’s-eye sunglasses and slowly, silently rows after him. As the camera watches calmly, Danny swims vigorously but seems stuck in place, as in a nightmare. “You’re not making very much progress,” Ellen says, her voice chillingly flat. She sits perfectly still watching him flounder and sink, her impassive face glowing against her creamy white robe. Her full red lips, stonily set, are the only hot color in this cool watery scene.

This is the first, but not the only, shockingly beautiful murder in the film. When Ellen later decides to abort her unborn child, she first changes from a heavy tan bathrobe into a sheer, lacy, powder-blue negligee paired with satin high-heeled mules. Delicate golden sunlight dapples the room where she stands before a mirror applying lipstick and perfume. She goes out into the hall, where the lacy blue wallpaper matches her negligee, and stands at the top of the stairs, carefully positioning her impractical shoe to catch on the edge of the rug. We don’t see her fall, but there is a lovely shot from the top of the steps to her lying at the bottom, her body gracefully arranged. The next time she appears, she is running out of the surf in a red bathing suit that shimmers like wet nail polish, beaming with health and pleasure like some radioactive pin-up girl.

James Agee did not like Leave Her to Heaven, and in his review he blamed the cinematography: “The story’s central idea might be plausible enough in a dramatically lighted black-and-white picture or in a radio show with plenty of organ background. But in the rich glare of Technicolor, all its rental-library characteristics are doubly glaring.” Yet it is precisely the mismatch between the film’s gorgeous surface and its insidious cruelty that makes it, if not perhaps “plausible,” supremely disturbing and unforgettable. As she lies dying from swallowing arsenic—a scheme to frame her foster sister for her murder—Ellen’s face is bathed in white-gold light, a seraphic halo illuminating her final, diabolical crime.

Leon Shamroy won an Academy Award for best color cinematography for Leave Her to Heaven. With eighteen Oscar nominations and four wins, Shamroy was among the most celebrated cinematographers of the Hollywood studio era, admired for his meticulous craftsmanship, technical virtuosity, and especially for his mastery of color. He was the reigning Director of Photography at Twentieth-Century Fox for three decades; ironically, many of the popular, big-budget projects he worked on there are rarely revived and little discussed today. In the mid-1940s, it was still somewhat unusual for a contemporary drama to be filmed in Technicolor; the costly process was largely reserved for period epics, musicals, and swashbucklers. (Shamroy’s other Academy Award wins were for The Black Swan, Wilson, and Cleopatra.) The decision by Twentieth-Century Fox to make Leave Her to Heaven in color indicates the prestige of the source novel, a 1944 best-seller by Ben Ames Williams, and the studio’s desire to showcase Gene Tierney’s beauty.

The result was hugely profitable, Fox’s most successful film of the decade. But, like CinemaScope—which Shamroy would help pioneer with The Robe in 1953—and 3D, early color was sometimes viewed as an element of spectacle that detracted from narrative drama. (Orson Welles famously called black-and-white “the actor’s best friend.”) The heightened, saturated quality of Technicolor is as unlike real-life color as the 3D process is unlike ordinary stereo vision. Agee’s review pinpoints the way color and melodrama were both viewed dismissively as unreal, overheated, “glaring.” In the 1950s, with films like Magnificent Obsession and A Summer Place, the Technicolor melodrama would become a genre unto itself, a happy marriage of form and content.

Leave Her to Heaven is an early exemplar of that tradition, but it is also invariably cited as a specific anomaly: a film noir in color. Noir cinematography, as perfected by such DPs as Nicholas Musuraca and John Alton, generally used a high-contrast black-and-white palette, low lighting, prominent shadows, oblique angles, and dramatic cuts or camera movements to create a disorienting, sinister, expressionistic film world. This is the style Agee evidently felt would have suited a lurid melodrama such as Leave Her to Heaven. Instead, Shamroy gives the film a look that is in many ways the exact opposite. There are no strong shadows, odd angles, or obtrusive camera movements. Scenes are filled with warm, natural (or natural-looking) light, evenly diffused and softened with vague leafy shadows or watery reflections. Much of the film was shot outdoors, far from dark alleys and cramped apartments, in the spectacular scenery of Arizona and the Sierra Nevadas (standing in for New Mexico and Maine). Darryl Hickman, who plays Danny, recalled that Shamroy would make the director and the actors wait for the right cloud formations to begin shooting. Rather than the gaudy, pulsating hues often associated with Technicolor, the palette though luminous and rich is tastefully subdued: beige and sandstone and terra cotta, dark pine-greens, silvery blues, and peach-fuzz skin tones. The actors’ faces glow even in the shadows of their hats, and the matte flawlessness of their skin suggests the soft pink rubber of baby dolls.

Almost cloyingly luscious, the cinematography feels perversely complicit in Ellen’s monstrous crimes. It not only makes her inhumanly beautiful, but endorses her inhumane perfectionism by surrounding her with beauty that is unsettlingly perfect. (In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote of Tierney in the film, “Each frame of her seems to be hand-tinted, as if she had ordered it.”) It’s as though Shamroy and Ellen are in league together against the other characters, with their sensible, baffled ordinariness, and even against director John M. Stahl, whose gifts in melodrama were restraint and sincerity, a probing yet tactful focus on the emotional lives of his characters. Even when directing a contrived and over-the-top script such as Magnificent Obsession (1935), Stahl had a way of defusing bombast with his straightforward simplicity and light touch, a way of finding the natural and nuanced emotions within plot twists. Because three of the films Stahl directed at Universal were later remade by Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, in color (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, and When Tomorrow Comes, remade as Interlude), the two directors are often compared. Stahl’s understated approach, which treats the story with absolute seriousness, intimacy, and no visual distractions, makes a stark contrast to Sirk’s flamboyant stylization and the oblique critical stance that gives his films their distinctive overlay of cold on heat.

Leave Her to Heaven, the only color film Stahl directed, is markedly different from his earlier 1930s melodramas: there is something strange and perverse about it, because the most vivid character is monstrous, while the characters who should be sympathetic remain oddly remote and cool. In his commentary to the DVD, Richard Schickel complains that the acting in the film lacks passion, fire, and Method-style interiority; he wishes for a Sirkian edge of hysteria. “There’s something pretty and posed about this picture that one wishes Stahl and the actors could have got beyond,” he says, adding, “On the other hand, it’s a very beautiful film.”

It is true that much of the acting—aside from that of a hammy Vincent Price—is reserved to the point of woodenness; Cornel Wilde in particular, playing Ellen’s husband and the victim of her possessive love, is depthless. But if these people seem like mannequins, they are at home in their eerily immaculate surroundings. They might be living in a magazine spread, a vision of the supremely desirable midcentury American good life. Film noir, as the standard argument runs, revealed the dark underside of the era’s prosperity and oppressive materialism. While many noirs made this darkness visible in menacing shadows and seedy urban settings, Leave Her to Heaven crystallizes the dream itself in order to convey the ugliness of jealousy, the deadliness of controlling idealism, and the deceptiveness of feminine beauty. The uncanny quality that marks both the film and its antiheroine is a frozen fire, a beauty that numbs like poison and a love that suffocates and destroys. Ellen is “pretty and posed” like a carnivorous flower.

Tierney is the subject of all of the most striking shots in the movie. She rides through red-rock canyons in the wan light of early morning, flinging her father’s ashes in defiant handfuls, her face hard as stone. She appears as a vague golden blur under the turquoise water of a swimming pool, rising like a phosphorescent jellyfish and then popping out in a white bathing-cap and bright red lipstick, grinning, “How’s that for an entrance?” Ellen is far from a typical femme fatale, manipulating men to get money or serve her own ends. She is, instead, a terrifying caricature of the womanly ideal that would be enshrined in the postwar era, hyper-feminine and fanatically devoted to her wifely role. She wants to cook and clean and mend her husband’s clothes: “I don’t want anyone else to do anything for you but me.” She wakes him with kisses and teasingly tickles him while she delivers an ominous warning: “You can’t have any secrets from me!” Even after she is dead, he has to pull his hand from her vise-like grip. She is the dream girl revealed as a nightmare, jealous of anything that takes her husband’s attention: his writing, his brother, his unborn son.

Richard Harlan (Wilde), the color-blind writer of purple prose, is a ready-made victim for Ellen. He tells her that he gave up his ambition to be a painter when he discovered that artists in Paris went hungry and lived in squalid garrets. As the author of glossy best-sellers (no doubt full of exactly the “rental-library characteristics” that Agee found in the movie), Harlan lives a comfortable and placid existence. He is innocent and passive—it is Ellen who proposes, and who kisses him hungrily—and it is precisely his lack of passion that makes him take Ellen at face value, not noticing the troubling signs beneath her candy-sweet facade. Ellen herself is first attracted to Richard by his resemblance to her father, whom she loved with a similar obsessive fervor. Appearances, in this film, count for too much. “I don’t want him to see me like this,” the pregnant Ellen says, looking as exquisite and flawless as ever. (The censors of the Breen office warned the filmmakers against suggesting that Ellen decides to abort her pregnancy because she hates the way she looks, but the implication remains.)

The look of the film grows ever more deceptive and creepily incongruous. The way settings and lighting counterpoint or even contradict the emotional dynamics of scenes begins to feel like a sociopath’s immunity to empathy. Firelight flickers softly over a scene in which Ellen coldly dumps her fiancé (Price), seeming cruelly pleased by his distress. There is a pastel, confectionery look about the scenes in Warm Springs, Georgia, where Ellen’s hostility to the crippled Danny becomes apparent. “The whole house is full of hate,” sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) tells Ellen in a late scene, as she calmly arranges flowers in a vase; the house she refers to is homey and quaint, frilled with white chintz and steeped in syrupy apricot light. Agee complained of “stylish country interiors that make no particular point,” and New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who panned the film and especially its performances, wrote, “Only the sets are intriguing, being elaborate and gadgety.” Leave Her to Heaven also earned an Oscar nomination for the art direction-interior decoration by Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler, and Thomas Little. The costumes, by Kay Nelson, perfectly characterize Ellen with a feminine yet oddly antiseptic wardrobe of quilted satin pajamas, fitted lace nightgowns, monogrammed white pantsuits. Every visual element of the film feels calculated and polished, arranged by a colorist as scheming as Ellen. The shade of bottle-green that dominates the scene of Danny’s death recurs throughout: it’s in the train compartment where Ellen and Richard first meet, where it brings out the green of Tierney’s eyes, sparkling like the glass eyes of a doll under thick fringed lashes; and in the courtroom where Ruth is tried for murder, a spacious and tranquil room with squares of sunlight spreading across the wall.

That Leave Her to Heaven in black and white would be an entirely different movie seems to go without saying, but this simple observation points to the complexity of assigning single authorship to a film’s director. Who is most responsible for the effect of this movie, the peculiar subversiveness with which it implies a horrible void beneath the lives of people who appear to have everything? Leon Shamroy seems to have set out to make Leave Her to Heaven as good-looking as he could, as though following to the letter the instruction of the title (taken from a line in Hamlet spoken by the father’s ghost about Hamlet’s mother). His cinematography dominates the film, as Ellen dominates her world, with a beauty that hides intentions, a beauty that makes hell look just like heaven.

Leave Her to Heaven played November 22 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series Lonely Places: Film Noir and the American Landscape.