Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Leave Her to Heaven: Film Forum, through March 12, 2009

John M. Stahl's 1945 Leave Her to Heaven is an extraordinary film, but I'm thinking at the moment about what could be called one of its limitations: that it was made at a time when American commercial cinema was beginning to show interest in psychology but had not yet overhauled its genres and conventions to accommodate psychology fully.

Gene Tierney's Ellen Berent is a psychological conception, in the sense that the film makes an effort to motivate her actions by revealing her particular psychology. At various times in the film, she describes her desires, her past, even her dreams to the other characters; and all this background information helps us understand why she does what she does.

One couldn't describe any of the other characters in the film as psychological conceptions. More generally: any character that performs a familiar narrative function that gratifies the fantasies of the audience can't be described as psychological. Cornel Wilde's Richard Harland is a traditional romantic hero, steady in his convictions and conventional in his desires. He runs into an unexpected narrative barrier when he discovers that he has married an unacceptable woman; but the filmmakers do not connect the confusion and passivity that befalls him with any of his personal traits. His inability to fulfill his narrative destiny is due to structural, not psychological obstacles.

In life as in art, the roles that are created for the fulfillment of our social ideals do not permit the exercise of psychology. To the extent that we embody these roles successfully, our motivations are not particular to us.

Hollywood's interest in psychoanalysis was burgeoning at the time when Leave Her to Heaven was made. Films of the period like Spellbound (1944) and The Secret Beyond the Door (1948), experiments in adapting the Freudian therapeutic narrative to a fictional context, seem to indicate that psychology was knocking on Hollywood's door. A generation of Stanislavskian actors lay in wait to reap the benefits of psychology's ascendance.

Leave Her to Heaven was not an experiment like the films I named above. It was a mainstream melodrama made from a best seller, and a major hit for Fox. It's slightly surprising that a character like Ellen Berent could occupy the center of a big commercial genre film; probably it wouldn't have happened a few years earlier. But it's not surprising that said commercial film didn't turn experimental in an attempt to assimilate her.

The makers of Leave Her to Heaven seem to know that psychological characters were a threat to the Hollywood structures they were using. Within the world of the film, Ellen Berent must be a villain: her psychology makes her unpredictable, hostile to genre forms, impossible to assimilate. In this context, all psychology must be abnormal psychology.

What's striking to modern audiences, more conditioned to tolerate psychology, is how real and normal Ellen Berent seems. She acts like people we know: she strikes the wrong tone in gatherings, gets too upset to hide her emotions, is impatient with social constraints, tries to confide in people about her inner conflicts.

I certainly do not believe that the filmmakers (director Stahl and screenwriter Jo Swerling, working from Ben Ames Williams' novel) covertly support Ellen and condemn the socially sanctioned values that the story affirms. But they show enough sensitivity and honesty to take Ellen seriously as a human being, even when humanizing her raises questions about the film's assumptions. Time and time again, we see Ellen trying to speak frankly about her unacceptable desires to a representative of society, who instinctively identifies her as a threat and withdraws into coldness. In each of these scenes, Stahl makes the social representative impassive and judgmental, sometimes using lighting to give him or her a formal, unfriendly mien (i.e., Chill Wills' Thome listening to Ellen describe her dreams). Stahl seems to understand that it is a strain for us to exclude Ellen, that it makes us hard and impassive to cast her away.

No one else in the film is or can be remotely as interesting as Ellen, and the filmmakers deserve credit for making her as sympathetic and familiar as they do, even if they cannot make the leap to accepting her as one of us.


Mark W said...

I would disagree with the comment in the article about the male lead (Cornel Wilde playing Richard Harland): "... the filmmakers do not connect the confusion and passivity that befalls him with any of his personal traits. "

In fact they do. The screenplay and the movie spends a fair amount of time trying to psychologically provide a backstory for him to explain just that, going so far as to describe in detail his past choices (when she recounts to him (and us) the bio information on his book's dustcover) as well as him telling her the story of going on the freighter adventure to Europe on a whim, for the simple reason that he saw the ship and "she looked good and she smelled good." Here they explain how he can get swept up and go on a journey without much thought or planning or the consideration of consequences.

Dan Sallitt said...

I can't remember the details of the dust cover scene. But: I really don't think the "looked good and smelled good" bit can function to characterize Harland. Nearly every love story since the dawn of time has adopted the fictional convention of love at first sight, of impulsive behavior as a desirable norm, of the triumph of chemistry over common sense. Harland is talking exactly like the heroes of nearly every Hollywood film. For a movie to criticize such an overpowering convention, it would have to be much more explicit and careful about setting up its critique: otherwise the relevant lines just vanish into the societal noise level. Note also that Harland doesn't have reform to earn the love of "the girl with the hoe": she seems ready whenever he is.

Mark W said...

Of course the "looked good and smelled good" bit characterises Harland otherwise it wouldn't be in the screenplay. Do you think writers write stuff for no reason? Every line in this film is there for a reason and there's excellent subtext throughout, including the art direction (the green train) for starters.

The whole looked good and smelt good scene characterises how he takes adventures on a whim, very clearly characterises him as such, he says he took this big adventure without planning, on the spur of the moment, the subtext of the freighter looking good and smelling good directly relates to a woman, and she talks about hunting turkeys -- i.e., she's the hunter and he's the hunted. She says, "they're clumsy and awkward and they hate to take flight." All of this is extensive exposition on Harland's character serving to explain how he might get caught up and swept along with this woman.

If it was purely love at first sight the screenwriter could have saved a lot of time and effort and skipped all that, and then your original quote would be correct about there being no understanding or connection with his passivity.

The dust jacket scene is also extensive and just one thing it sets up is that he may also be lured by the prospect of being secure financially, which she being wealthy obviously offers since he wanted to be a painter but was put-off by meeting French artists battling to even eat.

We'll have to agree to disagree but for you to say that there is no connection with the confusion and passivity that befalls him with any of his personal traits seems incorrect to me because of the clear abundance of personal traits and history that the screenwriter exposes. (Just some of which I've provided as evidence.)

Dan Sallitt said...

Presumably everything in a screenplay is there for a reason, but that reason is not necessarily to show character psychology. The central idea of this blog post is that some characters perform functions within the fiction that depend on the absence of psychology.

Assuming that Harland is essentially not a psychological conception, one would nonetheless expect that his encounter with a psychological character, Ellen, would warp the space around him and create some, shall we say, artifacts of psychology.