This week and next I want, briefly, to examine two individuals who are undisputedly “A-list”, back even when that actually meant something. I’d like to honour their contribution to film noir, and to our collective understanding of star quality. Seventy years ago next month 20th Century Fox released Laura, a classic American noir story based on Vera Caspary’s 1943 novel of the same name. Directed by Otto Preminger it was nominated for a clutch of Academy Awards only to lose out in a star-studded awards line up to Gaslight and Going My Way. It featured a giant of the American stage and screen, Gene Tierney, a leading lady’s leading lady. She died in 1991 at the age of 70, and to celebrate what is perhaps her most famous performance, as Laura, reaching the same age I’d like to remind you of her life and work.
You get what you pay for when you indulge in film noir. Bizarre plots and random twists dot the landscape and provide a familiar backdrop. One of the very best examples is the film version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929) which was released three years prior to Laura, in 1941. Laura shows the genre in full swing and it deserves its place, for the music alone in my view, in any hall of fame. Whilst she was an established stage actress beforehand, Laura was the first major screen role for the 24-year-old Tierney. Her character, Laura Hunt, spends the whole film dead, appearing as a character only in flashback. Very David Lynch wouldn’t you say? Well, you would be correct. The character Laura Hunt was later to act as the inspiration for the character of Laura Palmer in the iconic Twin Peaks. When that production celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2011, many networks screened Laura in honour of the original inspiration. Laura contains arguably many more established film actors (Vincent Price for one) and more assured performances but it launched Gene Tierney and her glittering film career.
She teamed up with Vincent Price again in 1945 playing Ellen Berent Harland in Leave Her To Heaven, an adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel. Despite its poor reviews on release the deeply psychological novel went straight onto the bestseller lists and 20th Century Fox picked up the rights almost immediately. The film and Tierney’s performance as a classic femme fatale are pure noir. It won cinematographer Leon Shamroy an Academy Award and is filmed in glorious Technicolor. Martin Scorsese once referred to it as a film noir in colour and has spoken about how much it inspired him. It really is that good, as is Tierney’s performance. She appears on-screen about four minutes into the film. Her blue eyes sparkle and seduce immediately and it is impossible to tear your gaze away from her.
Between 1940 (The Return of Frank James) and 1964 (The Pleasure Seekers), she acted alongside the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey, Glenn Ford, Vincent Price, Rex Harrison, Humphrey Bogart and Dana Andrews. She played many different roles, portrayed many different characters but it is her performance as a jealous, deceitful and dangerously unstable society girl that defines her career. Her portrayal of Ellen Berent Harland is perhaps the most chilling thing I have ever seen. In a field that also contained Ingrid Berman, she missed out on the Academy Award to Joan Crawford’s portrayal of Mildred Pierce in an adaptation of a novel by James M. Cain (who also wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice). A truly golden age of writing, film-making and acting. “A-list” in every possible way.
Sadly though whilst Tierney lit up the screen, her role as a siren was far removed from her real life. She suffered from depression, was married several times and had a daughter who was severely mentally ill and in care for most of her life. Tierney contracted measles during the pregnancy, an event that proved the inspiration for one of the most famous crime fiction works by one of the world’s most famous writers. The parallels between Gene Tierney’s life and the plot of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962) by Agatha Christie are obvious once you know the real life tragedy that lay behind the inspiration.
Tierney and her life have been an inspiration for many. Physically immaculate, instantly alluring and class personified on-screen, she was tragically doomed off-screen. Her most famous portrayal set a benchmark for how to demonstrate a cold lack of compassion which is both frightening and compelling. It will redefine your view of what a femme fatale really is and will make you think twice about taking a holiday in Deer Lake, Maine. Her real-life, however, was full of sorrow. If you’ve never seen any of her films then you really should. And if you have you’ll be able to see those blue eyes, four minutes in to Leave Her To Heaven.
Gene Tierney. Few come close.