The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, September 7-13

Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger’s LAURA (1944). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Sunday, September 11 with LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN.

Laura (1944)
Directed by Otto Preminger
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Directed by John M. Stahl

Their surfaces couldn’t be more different: Laura a chilly black-and-white mystery noir, Leave Her to Heaven a lurid Technicolor domestic melodrama. And yet, place both these films next to each other, and some fascinating convergences emerge beyond featuring the same leading lady. In Preminger’s film, Gene Tierney plays the titular object of three different men’s obsessions: detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). All fall for her and aim to possess her in their own ways, physically and/or psychologically—but Laura is a woman who refuses to be possessed, forever at the mercy of her shifting whims, ultimately impenetrable except as a reflection of what the men desire from her. Under Preminger’s cold, hard direction, however—with only David Raksin’s famously swooning score giving off any inkling of passion—there’s no easy moralizing toward this glamorously elusive figure. She is who she is, and perhaps knows not what she does to the men around her. The murder mystery might be solved at the end, but the mystery of Laura herself remains.

nyc repertory cinema-leave her to heaven

In Leave Her to Heaven, it’s Tierney herself who does the obsessing as central femme fatale Ellen Berent Harland—but that’s hardly Stahl’s only inversion of Preminger’s film. “Love is stronger than life,” opined Waldo at the end of Laura. That’s Ellen’s entire mantra in a nutshell in Leave Her to Heaven. She wants to possess more than just writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), but also Love itself in its most all-consuming form. It’s an obsession that has already cost her own father his life—but the film doesn’t explain the circumstances of her father’s death, just as it never fills in the details of what led her to become such a specimen of extreme clinginess. Ellen, in short, is as much a mystery as Laura is—but while Preminger delivered that mystery with precious little stylistic adornment, Stahl uses cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s voluptuous Technicolor palette and Alfred Newman’s operatic music to express its twisted main character’s impassioned psyche. If Leave Her to Heaven falls into the moralizing that Preminger unsettlingly refused in Laura, Stahl’s film at least still offers the chilling spectacle of the luminous Tierney hiding her steely gaze behind sunglasses as she heartlessly watches her husband’s beloved brother drown to his untimely death. Kenji Fujishima (September 11 at Film Forum’s “Return of the Double Feature,” with two-for-one admission throughout the day’s showtimes)

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