Psycho-noir classic Leave Her to Heaven is the week’s must-see movie 

Drag Me to Hell

Drag Me to Hell

Leave Her to Heaven, made in 1945, occupies its own sick ward in the annals of psycho-noir. Noir was typically the province of dark shadows, dim city streets and stark black-and-white. Heaven, by contrast, is horn-honking Technicolor and super high gloss, a two-page Vanity Fair spread of pounding doom. Yet its fussy artificiality evokes a sense of derangement and entrapment that's somehow even clammier. The more the movie's characters seek some kind of peace in domestic interiors and wide-open spaces — including, in a scene that traumatized '40s audiences, an idyllic lake — the harder its unforgettable, insatiable femme fatale digs her nails into their throats.

Gene Tierney got an iconic role a year earlier as Otto Preminger's Laura, a woman idealized by a succession of men in love with her image. As Ellen Berent, an outwardly vivacious glamourpuss with a gnarled and murderous heart, she uses her severe good looks to show the psychic strain of living up to that image. In a dream home that resembles Caligari's cabinet as stocked by Good Housekeeping, she vows to be the perfect wife and housekeeper for her man (an alarmingly stiff Cornel Wilde). All she asks is that no one else get a scrap of his attention — not her goody-two-shoes cousin (Jeanne Crain), not his stricken kid brother (Darryl Hickman) ... not even the baby nestled in her womb.

The director, John M. Stahl, had worked in silents since the 1910s, and his command of this florid material is beyond fearless. With Leon Shamroy's Oscar-winning camerawork dousing the screen with cobwebbed shadows and bold scarlet slashes of color, you could watch the movie without sound and still follow its every stairstep down into depravity. (Incidentally, the movie's one of Martin Scorsese's favorites.) The melodrama dares you to laugh at every turn — not for nothing did Douglas Sirk remake two of Stahl's sturdiest weepers, Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession — but its treatment of rigidly upheld monogamy and motherhood as invitations to the loony bin is just as startling as it was to '40s viewers.

If you haven't seen it — or if you stumbled upon it late on TCM one night and watched it all the way through with widening eyes — it's likely a wonder to behold on the big screen. If nothing else, you won't want to be alone when Ellen figures out a horrifically simple solution to that whole baby problem — and the theater is lit by the Medea-like gleam in Tierney's shockingly eager eyes.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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