The notorious boat scene on the lake in Leave Her to Heaven (1946), directed by John Stahl, one of the most perturbing sequences in the history of Hollywood, is one impossible to forget once you’ve watched the movie. It’s Gene Tierney, of course, who makes it one to remember. She is a great femme fatale, truly exceptional, at her very best in the role of psychotic Ellen Berent, delivering a layered, riveting performance. Gene’s angelic beauty and her unblinking cruelty are a daunting combination.
A publicity still that could make for the perfect ad campaign, even nowadays.
Despite the dark plot, there is much beauty in Leave Her to Heaven. There are not many noir films shot in colour that leave this impression. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s masterful use of colour, brightly lit and edged with somber hues and shadows, has the same impact as the black and white that defines Hollywood film noir. The photography mirrors tempestuous Ellen, whose extreme beauty conceals her jealousy. In this same regard, the green of her eyes, which also matches part of her wardrobe, plays its own part. Everything in the film is about Gene Tierney. Her face is like a perfect composure, reinforced by all the beautiful settings, hiding deep emotions, as Martin Scorsese, whose Film Foundation has restored the film, well emphasizes.
Ellen’s costumes (ranging from sumptuous fur coats, sheath dresses and wide shouldered blouses, to wide-buttomed trousers and checked shirts), designed by Kay Nelson, embody the idea of 1940’s fashion. But the image that stands out for me, a very simple (as if channeling the same ease and simplicity with which Gene brings her image and face to what could have been considered an unlikely character for her to play), but most evocative for the style of the decade, is the boat look: those fabulous sunglasses, the perfect make-up finished off with red lipstick, of course, great hair style and padded shoulders. That’s 40’s glamour all right. As Vogue was stating back in the day, Hollywood was “certainly the most perfect visual medium of fashion propaganda that ever existed”.
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photos: movie stills | Twentieth Century Fox