A twisted psychological film noir, Rage in Heaven is as obvious as a punch in the face. This 1941 motion picture is directed by the irregular trifecta of W.S. Van Dyke, Robert B. Sinclair and Richard Thorpe with a screenplay by Christopher Isherwood and Robert Thoeren.
Rage in Heaven is based on James Hilton’s novel of the same name and it does tinker rather well with the blaring elements of psychology. It is an exploration of extreme jealousy and the cast is game, with the lead Robert Montgomery reportedly forced into the role thanks to his contract at MGM. His apparent indifference works like a charm.
Montgomery is Phillip Monrell, a man on his way to his family home. He meets his former college roommate Ward Andrews (George Sanders) and insists that his pal comes along for the ride. They’re introduced to the luminous Stella (Ingrid Bergman), who has been working as a secretary for Phillip’s mother (Lucile Watson).
Both men are attracted to Stella, but she hitches her wagon to Phillip and they get married. He’s put in charge of the family steel mill. Jealousy enters the picture when he can’t shake the idea that his new bride is more attracted to Ward. Phillip begins an absurd campaign of cruelty as he psychologically tortures poor Stella.
The picture opens with a visit to a sanitarium as a “Ward Andrews” escapes custody. The audience is informed the escapee displays a “curious lack of emotion.” While the initial layering sets the characters on blatant footing, it does provide a gripping basis for Phillip’s relationship with Ward.
It is revealed in short order that the “Ward Andrews” of the asylum is not Sanders’ Ward Andrews. Phillip confirms that he uses his friend’s name when in need of what could best be described as a confidence boost. He claims the world is “full of Wards” and tells his fond wife that he’s not even half the man his friend is.
Phillip continues his path to insanity as he imposes his masculinity on Stella. He’s going to prove he’s the better man, even if he doesn’t have to. He has the love of a good woman, but it’s not enough. He hauls her up to his office and lectures his workers, leading to a resignation and an ensuing strike.
Montgomery’s aloofness provides a convincing underpinning to his floundering virility, while Sanders’ serenity makes him the perfect foil. Ward is spotless to the point he refuses to succumb to his feelings for Stella. And she, too, is saintly in all the ways only Bergman can be.
The goodness of Phillip’s fictional rivals lays out the psychological terror, as he’s willing to go to any length to harvest what he refers to as “obedience.” When Ward insists he ought to have the respect of his workers, Phillip snaps back that he requires their absolute submission.
The cinematography by Oliver T. Marsh and George J. Folsey is rather elementary for this sort of parlour pic, though some late scenes do spring to life as Phillip’s plot takes on a self-destructive bent. Rage in Heaven walks the characters nearly all the way to the gallows, with the sheer fury of the title outweighing all that is decent.
Strengthened by quality performances and a plot that keeps winding until it runs out of space, Rage in Heaven is an enjoyable noir. Montgomery’s trip through the understated paces of folly leads to an extensive unhinging and Sanders is the hero of the day. And of course, Bergman is predictably tremendous as the gentle flower at the centre of this masculine mass of madness.