In recent months I’ve been enjoying floating round in the grey area between classic noir & melodrama with a few Joan Crawford classics like Mildred Pierce and The Damned Don’t Cry. While I still have a few more titles to visit before I abandon that track (I particularly look forward to traveling down Flamingo Road), the Gene Tierney psych-thriller Leave Her to Heaven was an excellent detour on the journey. I don’t want to suggest that anyone but Tierney should’ve been cast in the film’s central, villainous role, but Leave Her To Heaven is the exact kind of sinister romantic obsession story that Crawford excelled at in the best of her melodramatic noirs. The difference is that Joan would’ve gobbled up the scenery with a fiery passion, hurling cocktail glasses at the wall and clawing at her victims like a wild animal. By contrast, Tierney is ice cold in her own femme fatale villainy – passionate in her romantic obsession, yet inhumanly ruthless in eliminating that romance’s minor obstacles. Her red Technicolor lipstick is louder than she ever raises her voice, yet she leaves behind a shocking trail of dead as she inevitably gets her way. It’s an entirely different mode of femme villainy than I’m used to from the genre’s more animated, expressive titans like Crawford & Stanwyck, but it’s just as stunning to watch.
A large part of Leave Her to Heaven‘s novelty within its genre is in seeing the femme fatale archetype interpreted as a Too-Dutiful Housewife, as opposed to a Sultry Seductress. Tierney’s major crime is that she wants to spend too much time with her husband. Well, that and the murders. Her main crime is probably the murders. The first act of the film is a slow-moving courtship ritual in which a bestselling author (Cornel Wilde) is allured by the charms of a fiercely independent socialite (Tierney) whose family is quietly terrified of her. The doomed author feels compelled to position himself as her macho protector, but it’s clear from her family’s unease with the courtship that he should be protecting himself. It isn’t until their inevitable marriage that the exact nature of that threat becomes clear. Ferociously possessive of her husband’s time and attention, Tierney takes her newfound role as a housewife far too seriously. She announces early on, “I have no intention of hiring a cook, or a housekeeper, or any other servants, ever. I don’t know want anyone else but me to do anything for you.” The husband finds this proclamation sweet, but she really means it. Any possible distraction to their alone time—whether family, visitors, his writing, or their baby—is in danger of being obliterated by her possessive jealousy. In becoming The Dream Wife, she’s a total fucking nightmare.
There’s a pervasive, harmful myth in modern Western culture that your romantic partner must be your Everything, that no other relationship matters once you make that all-encompassing monogamous commitment. Leave Her To Heaven turns that expectation into something incredibly sinister, thanks largely to Tierney’s ice-queen ruthlessness. Even when she suffers her unavoidable punishment for her transgressions under the dictums of The Hays Code, she still finds a way to weaponize that punishment and continue her campaign of preemptive revenge upon her marriage’s potential distractions. Between its Academy Ratio framing and lush Technicolor sheen (something that was especially eye-searing on my shiny new Criterion Blu-ray), Leave Her to Heaven is dressed up in some remarkably classy Old Hollywood packaging. Meanwhile, Tierney’s femme fatale housewife feels like she stepped out of a trashy novel from Ira Levin or Gillian Flynn. She’s one of cinema’s greatest, most delectable monsters, and she achieves that all-timer status by dutifully following the basic tenets of modern monogamy. As much of a sucker I am for Joan Crawford’s explosive fury in her own melodrama-noirs, I was totally won over by Tierney’s more reserved, slow-simmering resentment here. I need to make a point to watch more of her own 1940s crime melodramas once I’m done chasing down all of Joan’s.