Film

On Femininity as a Prison in ‘Laura’ and ‘Leave Her to Heaven,’ a Great Noir Double Feature

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The images from 1940s film noir that stick with us so often exist in darkness. Rain-slick streets casually lit by street lamps. The shadows of street-smart men and women arching toward an inevitable downfall. But in Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945) — showing together this Sunday as part of Film Forum’s double-feature series — the most indelible images are in the light, focusing on the face of the same actress: Gene Tierney.

On the surface you couldn’t find two more different takes on noir than these films. Laura is a slick A-list production with shadows as rich as its budget. Leave Her to Heaven is a Technicolor masterpiece brimming with soft auburns, deep blues, and reds as striking as fresh wounds. But something deeper and more primal than that unites these films. Laura and Leave Her to Heaven are warped mirror images of each other, detailing how obsession can rule us — and the dangers of believing the mythology we project onto people

Watching them in 2016 can be a disconcerting experience. The films’ themes of projection, identity, and obsession remain potent and have even taken on greater urgency. We each exist in a multitude selves — online, at work, at home, among those we love and those we hate, all different versions of seemingly the same person. Any of whom can be extrapolated from, fantasized over, put on a pedestal. It’s easier than ever to project whole identities onto people, believe them to be true, and even fall in love with them. The stakes are especially high for women. When the image a man has of you doesn’t match up with the real you, violence remains an all-too-real possibility. Laura considers that potential violence.

Laura follows New York City detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) as he investigates the murder of ad executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). We see Laura in a portrait that hangs above her mantle, a painting that soon takes on haunting overtones. It seems that everyone who crosses its path is doomed to obsess over the woman it portrays. As McPherson investigates her murder, we learn about Laura through the flashbacks of the men who lust after her — the charismatic, obviously gay Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who operated as her mentor, and the conniving fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). The Laura they recall shifts slightly depending on who is telling the story. The more we learn about her, the less real she seems. She’s a woman constructed entirely of memory and fevered longing.

Noir is full of men defined by their weaknesses — the sadistic (In A Lonely Place, Kiss Me Deadly), the morally bereft (Sweet Smell of Success, Double Indemnity), the cold (Le Samourai). McPherson is definitely a pathetic figure. But Andrews plays the character with none of the complexity that the film itself hints at. He plays it straight and therefore bland — he’s a nonentity despite being as parasitic as Shelby — finding meaning in his life through a dead woman. Perhaps this is the failure of an studio system noir. The film seems to have polished off the edges of the genre to suit its dreamlike, well-crafted needs.

Today’s crime dramas and noirs are perhaps too obsessed with dead girls whose tragic ends kick off the plot — see Twin Peaks, True Detective, and The Night Of. These women are rarely given any interiority. But their bodies act as convenient props, the tabula rasae upon which detectives and coroners and lawyers can project anything they wish. Laura is the template, and her memory haunts the edges of these works.

Laura doesn’t fully interrogate what it means for all these men to fall in love with a clever construction of whatever they need — a woman who in real life isn’t actually all that interesting. Like many dead girls in noir, Laura is the perfect male fantasy — she can’t say no or talk back. She can be coquettish or outright seductive. She can be talkative or terse. Tierney’s face, masklike in its perfection, welcomes these readings. But there are shadings of real sadness and pain to that mask, and Laura doesn’t capitalize on these enough.

Fantasies can only last so long, of course. McPherson slowly falls in love with who he thinks Laura is, the Laura he’s carefully imagined while reading her letters, interviewing her friends, drinking the liquor in her apartment, and falling asleep under that painting. Then one night he’s woken up in her apartment by the real Laura. The film spins in a tantalizing new direction where these men have to reckon with the very real woman in front of them.

“Who really is Laura?” is a question that the film never answers, much to its detriment. The real thing turns out to be a pale substitute for the fantasy these men and even her loyal housekeeper have constructed. She’s beautiful, to be sure, and Tierney imbues her with a bit of snappy insolence. (When she was originally offered the role, Tierney allegedly said, “Who wants to play a painting?”) But beyond that she isn’t much of a person. In fact, if it wasn’t for her beauty I doubt her murder would loom so large in her admirers’ imaginations. In a film more willing to travel into the uneasy underbelly of male desire, that would be the point. Although maybe the same can be said for every dead girl that various noirs obsess over. There is a story to be a told about how the actual object of fascination matters less than the obsession itself, but Laura never quite tells it.

If Laura represents noir in the vein of the perfect, albeit disturbing, male fantasy, Leave Her to Heaven uses the genre to construct the ultimate male nightmare. I like to describe the film as what would happen if Laura stepped out of that painting and set her admirers on fire.

It opens with novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) coming home after two years in prison. Most of the film is told through extensive flashback, detailing Richard’s relationship with the beautiful socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney).

It subverts the genre at every turn. It’s Richard who is the object of obsession. But he’s so enamored with Ellen’s beauty he doesn’t see the warning signs that appear from the moment they meet on a train. In that encounter, she stares at him with rapt attention, her gaze scoring over every inch of him until he grows uncomfortable. When she finally snaps out of her daydream she tells him he looks like her dead father.

It doesn’t matter to Ellen who Richard actually is. Is he kind? What does he want in life? None of that concerns Ellen, who is troubled by some intense paternal relationship whose specifics director John M. Stahl and screenwriter Jo Swerling let us come up with answers to.

Leave Her to Heaven, unlike Laura, fully wrestles with the ways obsession can warp us. Every time you think Ellen has done the worst thing possible, she goes another step farther, so much so that in many ways Leave Her to Heaven is a proto–Gone Girl. Rosamund Pike may not realize it, but her performance owes a lot to Tierney’s. Her face is like a lake where the smallest ripples feel profound, and she understands that beauty can be both weapon and wound. Her radiance blinds Richard to her true nature as a jealous and dangerous woman who will do anything to have him all to herself.

One of the most striking scenes involves Ellen watching Richard’s younger, disabled brother drown. Another actress may have overplayed this, evoking the murderous thrill of it all as an echo of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. But Tierney understands the power of stillness. She doesn’t move a muscle. Her impassive face remains unreadable behind a pair of dark sunglasses as she watches the young man drown to death. It suggests a soullessness that other 1940s femmes fatales don’t come close to, charging the scene with its eerie power.

Martin Scorsese once said that Tierney was one of the more underrated actresses of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Leave Her to Heaven makes the case. Often though, directors seemed too blinded by her beauty to give her much to do. In Laura director Otto Preminger knows how to shoot her, but he misses that sense of beauty as a weapon, or what it means to be framed in the rigid constraints of other people’s desires. These films bring to mind something Margaret Atwood wrote, “Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out or else too weak to do anything about it.”

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