Leave Her to Heaven: The Eyes of Ellen Berent
How do you talk about Leave Her to Heaven without talking about Gene Tierney’s face? You can’t. Because its planes and curves, its cunning expressions and its tantalizing opacity, are such a central piece of the movie itself. A series of glorious, almost blinding Technicolor close-ups brings up the high beams so intensely that her mysterious beauty nearly overwhelms the screen. It almost feels like witchcraft. As Anthony Lane has written, “Each frame of her seems to be hand-tinted, as if she had ordered it,” with lips “red as a witch’s apple.” But it is Tierney’s blue-green eyes that moviegoers are most likely to remember. With a Medusa-like power, they dominate the screen, shifting between seafoam cool and oceanic intensity. In the picture’s most famous scene, they are obscured behind dark sunglasses as Tierney’s character commits one of the wickedest acts in movie history. But even when they’re hidden from us, we feel them still.
By the time we reach that fateful scene in Leave Her to Heaven, we are keenly aware of the potency of those eyes, which gain in totemic force as the story unfolds. The doomed romance at the center of the movie is in fact launched by the bare, shameless gaze of Ellen Berent (Tierney), whose eyes land on our hero, the novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), seated across from her in a train’s club car. He has already been watching her for reasons of his own: she is reading his book, so in fact he has been staring not at her face but at his author photograph, in a delicious moment of narcissistic pleasure.
The scene begins with his gaze, but it is immediately superseded by hers. When he retrieves her fallen book, her eyes land on him, leading to a prolonged stare. We experience the moment from Richard’s point of view, and he cues us to read her look as penetrating, captivating. And a little too much. Always, with Ellen, everything is a little too much.
She explains away her stare, saying she was struck by his “remarkable resemblance” to her beloved father. But he’s drawn to her for the near-opposite reason: she doesn’t look like anyone he has ever met before. She calls to mind, in his novelist’s slightly purple prose (in fact, he’s quoting from his own novel), “tales of The Arabian Nights, of myrrh and frankincense.” He is familiar; she is exotic. Other.
In this battle of competing gazes, she wins, as Ellen will win everything for the first half of the movie. Within a few short scenes, she has dramatically scattered her father’s ashes in a symbolic act of farewell, ended an engagement, and announced her impending marriage to Richard, who—completely captivated—submits with breathless wonder, joking at her uncanny powers, “If you’d lived in Salem a hundred years ago, they’d have burned you.” Quickly, however, the very elements that drew them together in their first meeting lead to the relationship’s immolation: Ellen’s will to power, her possessiveness, her too-muchness, which threaten the marriage, their families, and, more largely, prevailing notions of femininity itself.
“Driven not by the material, even relatable motivations of most of film noir’s lethal women—money, security, escape—Ellen’s ‘sickness’ is more cryptic and upsetting.”
“Ellen’s unspeakable acts may have offered female viewers a cathartic relief from the era’s gender imperatives and an exorcism of their own forbidden feelings and longings.”
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