TV Noir (sort of): Part I

March 15, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Film noir was never exclusive to a single medium. The French critics coined the term for the gloomy, psychological thrillers made in postwar America, and the genre never fully dissipated or went out of vogue because it left a strong impression on young moviegoers and idiot box watchers, many of whom grew up and became writers, filmmakers and technicians.

Whenever a classic crime novel or crime film was remade, the genre continued to survive, and noir would’ve made its first penetration into TV in 1964 had NBC not rejected Don Siegel’s remake of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Killers due to some muttering about ‘excessive violence.’

I’ll get back to Siegel’ version in a later blog (avec a related review), but noir was certainly attractive to filmmakers working in TV, and a number of classics were in fact remade over the last 30 years – not a bevy bunch, but a measurable  handful.

The problem with these works is, good or bad, that besides airing in syndication after their original broadcast dates, few ever made it to home video, so they’ve disappeared from view.

Some might argue the inherent ineptitude or crapulence by hack directors to capture the allure of a vintage noir film with colour film and sets leftover from an old Columbo episode deserve to be ignored, but I think one can learn from mistakes, and in Part I of this series, we’ll begin with a doozey.

Film noir means black film in French, but the term isn’t exclusive to black & white films. I’ve tried to argue the point, but some purists don’t listen. It’s not about the lack of colour; noir is a simple term for a genre that includes moody cinematography, mentally warped characters, guilt, crimes, white lies, bad social behaviour, forbidden love, duplicitous love, murderous thoughts mistakenly uttered in public (‘If you say that again, why I’ll KILL YOU!!!’) in a fit of rage or lack of any judgment, etc., etc., etc.

It’s a bigger genre than you’d think, and noir movies filmed in colour qualify by virtue of sharing the same type of storylines, characters, gnashing music, and tough talk.

There’s noir in crazy Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), Allan Dwan’s deliciously sleazy The River’s Edge (1957), and John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven [M] (1946) – all colour flix.

Leave Her to Heaven is one of the films I’d want to have in my possession if I was stranded on an island with a perpetually functional DVD player and monitor (and electricity and cheesy poofs).

It’s got Gene Tierney still in love with her dead dad, nice guy Cornel Wilde almost destroyed by Tierney’s obsessive love (Bye-bye, little Danny Boy!), blazing Technicolor, gorgeous set designs, striking streamlined architecture, rustic locations, and Alfred Newman’s booming score that begins with a timpani pall of doom and gloom (and leaves little doubt Wilde is going to get screwed).

Two and a half weeks ago, Bell sponsored a free weekend of screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (TBL! Remember?) and among the classic movies being offered was Leave Her to Heaven – an actual print, splatted on the big screen in Cinema 3, which has great sound. (That’s where they also screened Jaws last fall, which sounded amazing in a simple surround sound scheme.)

The theatre was maybe a third full, but that’s because A) most of the world has yet to experience the pure evil of Gene Tierney’s luscious Ellen; and B) there were also plenty of Powell & Pressbuger films to catch, and some people needed to eat and have periodic breaks to go pee-pee.

I was impressed when I saw the film in my teens, courtesy of Elwy Yost’s TVO series Saturday Night at the Movies, but besides the performances, there was Alfred Newman’s memorable score (surprisingly sparse for a noir, if not a glossy Fox production), Leon Shamroy’s stunning cinematography (particularly Tierney’s ash scattering sequence on horseback), and the quotable dialogue, of which “There’s nothing the matter with Ellen. She just loves too much” is the ultimate character understatement made by a mother who knows the damage wrought by Ellen’s possessiveness and cruel demands on her father and adopted sister Ruth (quietly portrayed by Jeanne Crain).

Seen on the big screen, it’s surprising how well the film moves in spite of lengthy sequences where there’s very little music. Main Titles and ash scattering scenes aside, I can’t recall the specifics of any other cues, except perhaps brief connective music that add extra dramatic meat when there’s a switch to a new location.

Director Stahl relied on camera movement, crisp sound effects mixes, and the Technicolor palette to maintain a strong pace, but he also had a first-rate cast of stars and character actors.

Also of note are the impeccable costumes, designed to reflect the gradual shift in dominance between Ellen and sister (er, adopted cousin) Ruth.

An avid gardener, Ruth initially wears prissy, simple clothes with patterns and uninteresting colours, whereas glamorous Ellen is the stylish one, often custom draped in textiles dunked in colours flattered by the Technicolor film stock.

The filmmakers couldn’t show (or chose not to dramatize in separate scenes) the gradual and very illicit romance between Ruth and still-married Richard, so their relationship was inferred by Ruth’s clothing: smart blouses with shoulder pads and dramatic colours, and pigtail-free hair that reflect a woman instilled with the confidence to see Ellen for the bitch that she is, and stand up to her.

As a contrast, Ellen’s pregnancy mandates large robes, and the satin fabric makes her resemble a chintzy dolly instead of a powerful matron-in-waiting.

More striking is her confession scene with Richard. Standing with her arms looped in the sleeves of her brown, monk-like robe, her effort to seek contrition become even more heavy-handed when she kneels for forgiveness in a pose straight from a pious religious drama.

One could argue the costumes were designed purely for subtext, and create a bit of unmistakable symbolism, but Leave Her to Heaven isn’t a pious moral drama; it’s melodrama with stealth sleaze and forbidden behaviour accented with a twisted sense of humour. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, only a second viewing brings out the clever in-jokes.

Tierney’s monk robe reinforces her character’s phoniness, whereas the glamorous moo-moo she wears while pregnant illustrates the ridiculousness of a child-hating bitch carrying a wee one she will never love because she’s using her pregnancy as another weapon to maintain control on nice guy Richard.

Pauvre schmuck.

Jo Swerling’s dialogue sparkles with double-entendres not wholly about sex, but ill emotions, morbid obsessions, and portents of murderous deeds.

During the TBL screening, everyone got a few solid chuckles from Ellen and Richard’s repartee during their first meeting on a train, as well as a dinner scene at the ranch with Ellen’s family.




Also memorable was Ellen’s cruel rejection of her fiance, Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) – a scene that’s important because it pays off when Quinton vengefully bullies Richard and Ellen during questioning at the film’s closing murder trial.

Now, the actuality of an ex-lover allowed to be chief prosecutor in the death of his ex-fiancee is ridiculous, but Price sells it beautifully, beating the truth of illicit love from Ellen and Richard with exceptional ruthlessness.

Scorned in front of Ellen’s family, and forced to return home and face ridicule by his peers for not getting the girl, Quinton exerts payback like a bulldog, and breaks down the defendents until they implicate themselves: Ruth planning a rendezvous with Richard in Mexico while Ellen was at home, and Richard always suspecting his wife murdered his handicapped brother Danny.

The lack of a flashy editing style may be reflective of the period, but director Stahl trusted the audience to use their brains and tie together the burgeoning lover affair.

Case in point: Ellen, irate that Richard’s book is dedicated to Ruth (‘the gal with the hoe’), skims through the pages of the advance copy and starts to put two and two toegther, realizing the vacation Ruth is describing in idle chatter is a secret rendezvous. Ruth, in fact, couldn’t care less what Ellen suspects, because she knows Richard will leave the satin bitch.

Ellen’s realization, Ruth’s sly pride, and the book’s cover art alluding to the Mexican hot spot are covered in one long medium shot, and it works. Audiences are forced to listen to the dialogue, watch the actors’ reactions, and scan the shot themselves, picking up the humour on their own. Stahl’s direction may have been a bit sedate here; or maybe he knew that audiences would have a bit of fun discovering Ruth’s plans before Ellen – putting them on Ruth’s side without breaking the film’s ‘third wall.’




These are all very powerful components, and it’s morbidly fascinating to see how Leave Her to Heaven was compacted into a TV movie starring Patrick Duffy as Richard, Lonnie Anderson as Ellen, and Glynnis O’Connor as Ruth.

Retitled Too Good to be True [M], this 1988 production had a few plot modifications and several secondary characters were reconfigured, split up, or dumped, and none of it really worked.

This naturally begs the question: Why mess with a classic?

Because it’s a great story, and every producer thinks he / she can make it better.

Not so, and if you read the review of the Duffy-Anderson effort, you’ll know why.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor



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