Monday, March 03, 2008

The Letter (1940)



Pauline Kael once broke up with a man because he loved West Side Story and she hated it. Twitted about this on a talk show years later, she said unapologetically, "well, taste IS the great divider." Most of us aren't quite that drastic, but it's distressing to have someone hold in high regard what you consider trash. It can be worse to have someone not share your love for a certain movie, like having a pet only you find lovable. But the third, and for the Siren the worst, category of dismay belongs to those who like something you like, but in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.

Which brings us to The Letter, which the Siren watched for probably the sixth or seventh time last week. Afterward she went to IMDB to browse the external reviews, and what she found there left her scratching her head. At least half the critics did not, in the Siren's considered opinion, get this movie at all, even some of the ones who claimed to like it. The swelling in the Siren's face has gone down somewhat, leaving her more like Renee Zellweger on a very bad red-carpet walk than De Niro as La Motta, so the Siren is feeling chirpier and she isn't out to pick a fight. But see here, gentlemen. This is not a mere melodrama, not just a Bette Davis vehicle, nor a dated back-number that's lost some of its juice. It's a masterpiece, with layer on layer of images and themes that touch on colonialism, marriage and the lives of women.

(Warning: the Siren is going to discuss the entire movie, including the end. Spoilers abound.)


We all know the brilliant tracking shot that opens The Letter--how it finally comes to rest on a cockatoo, which flies off, startled, at the sound of the first shot from Bette Davis's gun. Another shot, the workers stir, then the camera moves in toward the plantation house and shows a man who clutches himself as he staggers down the steps, Bette Davis in pursuit as she empties her revolver into him, her face an impassive executioner's mask that each viewer must spend the rest of the movie interpreting.

But that's the socko finale to the sequence. The meat comes earlier, establishing the symbolic vocabulary and the themes of the movie with incredible elegance and economy. It begins with the full moon, the ancient image of another world gazing dispassionately at us, from a distance. The camera moves to a tree and down to where the bark has been cut open and a shunt stabbed into the trunk, as the white rubber drip, drip, drips into a bucket--more than just sexually suggestive, the image tells us the life of the plantation is steady, monotonous, wearing away at the residents like the proverbial water torture. The sound of the dripping carries over the music played by the workers, then fades as the camera moves steadily to their open-sided hut. And the camera begins to ascend back toward the trees, showing the Malayan workers playing mah-jongg, talking quietly, sweat still gleaming on their bodies, their clothes still dirty from the day's labors. They try to sleep in their hammocks despite the mosquitos and the still, heavy air, a sense of suffocation that will echo throughout the film. Up to the thatched roof of the quarters, and only then back down, through the bamboo sides of the quarters and the latticework in the garden (the first of innumerable "cage" images) over to the bird. Then the gunshot, and a cut to the workers, then the owners' house, the white man dying in his proper jacket, Davis in correct at-home evening attire as she shoots him, again and again. And the workers running to the house, stopping and staring at the dead man, and then at Davis with mingled apprehension and revulsion. She drops the gun, the first of many shots that will connect the ground to death, either past or future. Finally, the camera moves in for a close-up on Davis, establishing the suspense for the audience, the whydunit.

We've just been given the whole movie right there--it's as complete as one of Shakespeare's prologues. The rest of The Letter will build on those images, one by one. The relentless monotony of colonial life; the English carrying every last one of their conventions to a place where their rituals are worse than useless; the Malayans, always given the dirty work, veiling contempt behind subservience; Leslie Crosbie's supernal calm, and what it masks in her life and marriage.

The answers to the plot's mystery can be taken simply and solely from Davis's famous confession: "With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!" Or, like all other great movies, you can look closer and find a great deal more. Almost the whole of Wyler's movie measures up to that justly famous beginning, the images locked together like the pattern in Leslie Crosbie's lacework, yet it isn't the least bit overbearing or didactic. The Letter entertains and involves as the plot winds closer and closer around Leslie Crosbie.

Any American movie from the 1940s is bound to have, at a minimum, complicated attitudes towards Asian characters. The Letter is striking, however, because while from one angle the Malayans fit neatly into the era's preconceptions, their point of view is present from the beginning, and it's shown in a way that undermines the racist notions held by the English characters. Take the "head boy" (as he's called) who runs to see who's shooting and speaks the first line of the movie, "That's Mr. Hammond!" The delivery of the actor, Tetsu Komai, is as close to a verbal accusation as the Malayan characters ever get. Leslie orders him to get the plantation workers out of the house, and he does so. She retreats to her bedroom, her quiet but agonized sobbing the first hint we get of her relationship with Hammond. Komai hears it too, as he picks up Leslie's lacework and looks at it for a moment, visibly shaken and also evidently deciding what to do. Komai is given, in a word, motivation, something other movies often presumed the "sinister Oriental" not to need.

Later we see him "run off," as the English note while eating a meal Leslie cooks before being taken to jail. "Out here one gets so lazy," she says, apologizing for her inexperience at cooking, "the boys take such good care of us." As the audience later infers, the "boy" was off informing Hammond's Eurasian widow of his death--an action that in the end will "take care" of Leslie for good. And when Leslie meets her fate, one of the last things she will see is Komai's face in the shadows, wearing an expression almost identical to the one he used when confronting her in the beginning. So on one level, The Letter gives us a stereotypical Asian, but he is also an instrument of justice, taking Leslie's casual sense of superiority and turning it into the last mistake she will ever make.

The Letter gives all of its major Asian characters motivations, as we shall see, which may not seem like saying much, but for 1940 Hollywood, it certainly was. And what's more, while the audience of the time certainly could (and probably did) sit back and think "ah, poor Bette Davis, at the mercy of these connivers," The Letter gives you a very clear bead on the Malayans' contempt for their foolish, deceitful, greedy "betters," and it gives you plenty of reasons to share their opinion, even as the British toss off insults: "Too bad rubber won't grow in a civilized climate." "One of those haphazard Chinese estates." "Where's the head boy?"



We see how the English continually underestimate the people they've colonized, as the attorney finds out when his own clerk tells him about the letter on which the entire plot turns. Dennis Grunes, whose splendid blog the Siren just discovered, describes the shot that tells you all you need to know about Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung, marvelous):

...the Crosbies, and by implication the British, simply don’t belong in this environment, which they have nevertheless quite taken over.

It is in this context that the contrast between Leslie’s English lawyer...and his Malayan assistant, Ong Chi Seng, is best understood. The former seems rock-solid, as smooth as silk; the latter is an unctuous schemer, out for his (and his people’s) own ends: a portrait of pure hatred seething almost invisibly beneath an accommodating smile. In the parking lot of the courthouse, Wyler scores a visual coup. We watch one lawyer leave in his big, magnificent, smooth-running automobile, thus revealing what it blocked from view: the Malayan lawyer’s rickety, noisy, tiny vehicle in which he, too, now leaves. This is cinema!

(Grunes also explains the real-life case behind the movie, so please, follow the link and read the whole thing.)

While James Stephenson as Leslie's lawyer and Herbert Marshall as her husband are both superb, it's Davis's movie, with everything hanging on this, one of the best performances she ever gave. The Letter should be required viewing for anyone who derides the actress as overly mannered, loud or abrasive. Davis is quiet, proper, there are no tics or obvious gestures to let you know what's seething underneath. It's all behind her eyes, not in her voice but in the pauses that seem to make her constant calculation visible. Andrew Sarris noted her best moments,


...her amazingly quiet, tense, sensitive scenes with James Stephenson's gently probing defense counsel, the scenes in which talk dribbles on and on until it is transmuted into the most ringing truth. There are also the sequences in which she does her needlework with such passionate devotion that we come to understand all the maddeningly quiet moments in the lives of women.

Here the Siren rises to a small point of order with Grunes and Sarris: it isn't needlepoint, nor yet just vague needlework, but lace-making, an important detail. There's the scene where lawyer Howard confronts Leslie with the letter's existence. He notes that her story hasn't varied in even the smallest detail, and says "It suggests either that you have an extraordinary memory...or you're telling the plain, unvarnished truth." "I'm afraid I have a terrible memory," says Leslie, pulling away at her lace hanky--reminding us that lace just happens to require a great deal of precision, concentration and memory, in order to keep track of the patterns. It's just one instance of Leslie lying even as the truth sits in front of her. Moments later she will do the same thing, saying "I swear to you, I did not write this letter."

Leslie works and works at the lace, it grows larger, but we never see it finished and we never learn what she's supposed to be making, either. It's busywork done to fill quiet hours, perhaps the same emptiness that brought Hammond into her life in the first place. In one of The Letter's most famous scenes, Davis wears a large white lace veil. But it's evident in the many close-ups that the lace couldn't have been made by Leslie. It's much finer and more delicate than anything we ever see her working on. Like Leslie herself, the lace-making ultimately fulfills no purpose.

That veil comes into play as Leslie and Howard go deep into Singapore to retrieve the letter that implored Hammond to come to the house. The Siren loves the small moment as Howard and Leslie wait to be escorted upstairs. They idle about a bit in the storefront, and then the man who admitted them, who must know the English are there on a secret errand, walks over, removes a cover and starts showing them the wares. When you have Anglos in a shop, no matter how sinister their errand, like all tourists they must want to rummage in the knickknacks. This is when Leslie unsheaths a dagger that will, of course, show up later. They're escorted upstairs finally, to the movie's major flaw.

What, you didn't think the Siren was going to admit the movie has flaws? Good as it is, it does. The Siren here appropriates Randall Jarrell's line, and describes a movie as a narrative film of some length with something wrong with it. Here's what's wrong with The Letter: Gale Sondergaard. A fine actress, she is ten different kinds of wrong in this scene. That she looks about Asian as the Siren does is just the start. (I know, I know, she's "Eurasian"--please. Her makeup is straight-up yellowface.) Sondergaard has no English lines and she overcompensates, with a body almost stiff with hatred, a mouth pulled down hard at the corners and eyes bulging more than Davis's ever did on her worst day. It's a Dragon Lady, all the more so because the other Asian characters in the movie are at such pains to put a veneer over their hatred. The moment when Davis must kneel to retrieve the letter is knocked out of kilter, because you are wondering if Sondergaard is actually going to kick her. The moment of reverse subservience is there, the tension is maintained, it's undeniably effective. But the Siren dislikes the way Sondergaard's stereotypical playing feeds right into the quietly devastating racism Leslie had expressed earlier: "Horrible. She was all covered with gold chains and bracelets and spangles, her face like a mask." Instead of highlighting how Leslie's prejudices played a part in her fury over being jilted, a point established so beautifully earlier, we get Leslie's bias confirmed, in spades. Given Wyler's famed obsession with his actors, it seems likely that this was his choice as well as Sondergaard's, and it just doesn't work. It even makes the Code-mandated ending worse, by raising the question of why, if Hammond's widow hated Leslie this much, she would wait until after an acquittal to murder her.



Ah well, it's just one scene, and if it throws the thematic symmetry off, it does keep the dramatic momentum going. And Sondergaard's last scene does a great deal to make up for it. Leslie has retreated to her room during her "victory" party, after having confessed to her husband that she still loves Hammond. She goes to the French doors that open onto the garden, and Davis was never more beautiful than she is here as she looks at the moon, a full moon exactly like that of the beginning, the pearls around her neck glowing like echoes of it. It seems almost to pull her out of the room and across the garden, the camera following her shadow on the ground. And when she meets Sondergaard, as we knew she would, Sondergaard looks far more at ease wielding the dagger than she did selling the letter.

Hammond's widow and the "head boy" start to move off, when they are stopped by a Malayan policeman. While the conversation isn't in English, he is evidently taking them off. He gives no indication that he saw Davis's body, but we can presume either they're being arrested, or told to move along, for being in the area without permission. It seems inevitable that when Leslie's body is found, the incident will be remembered and the murder unraveled. Order is being restored--by the natives.

And now we close, as we opened, with a tracking shot. We move to Davis's body, crumpled out of sight beside the wall. Up goes the camera over the wall that was separating the English from Singapore, gliding along to show us the party still in swing. A dissolve back to Davis's bedroom, with the light coming in through the slats and the breeze stirring the still-unfinished lace, then across the floor and back out to the moon, still observing as the English play out their dramas in a place that carried on fine before them and will carry on fine after they leave.

43 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

A brilliant analysis and dissection of the film. So complete in fact that I have nothing to add except that it is a movie that I hold in very high regard but now, perhaps, more.

I would also like to comment that I sometimes go to IMDB just to see the insane comments and "reviews" left there. No movie is immune. Pick any well-regarded masterpiece of cinema and you'll find at least half the commenters telling you why it's the worst movie ever made. When not enormously frustrating it can be quite amusing.

And now I must follow the links you provide to Dennis Grunes for more. Thanks.

surlyh said...

I was moved to watch The Letter again after reading David Thomsom's
citation of James Stephenson's role and performance. I'm not sure that I had detected that particularly subtle love story when I first saw the film at a much younger age. And I'm not sure that I would have fully understood the commentary on colonialism that you describe. Reading your perceptive comments I want to see it yet again.

I would only add that the romantic symbolism of the moon adds another dimension to those scenes in the garden, and the theme of thwarted, suppressed and destructive passion.

Southamptoner said...

An excellent post. I've always thought this was a well-done film, and Davis is very good in it.

I can't help but still think that the title is really dull.
There's so much drama, in an exotic locale,- murder in the tropics!- and they call it, "The Letter".

I know it's a plot point, but it's a piece of paper!
Not very exciting as titles go. My minor petty quibble, lol.

StinkyLulu said...

Excellent work. I muddled through Sondergaard's performance last year and would have greatly benefited from this elegant analysis.

Campaspe said...

Jonathan, to tell you the truth I could have (and at some point may) go on for a great deal longer because I barely touched on Marshall (who breaks your heart) and Stephenson. I could have gone on for quite a bit longer, which is either the mark of a very great film or a very garrulous film lover. Take your pick. :) Usually the external reviews are pretty good but occasionally there is a "dear god" moment. The only one of those I got was a critic (and a good one) who seemed to be calling Davis hammy. I wanted to link him to your discussion on that topic since evidently he had no idea.

Hazel said...

William Wyler knew how to dampen down Bette Davis’s tendency for histrionics and make her smoulder. She seethes in this and The Little Foxes and they are two of my favourite performances by anybody ever.

I love your take on films and this analysis of The Letter is the business. When I first saw the film in my less aware days I thought Gale Sondergaard was simply awesome as the widow but now I wince at the “ten different kinds of wrong” she is.

Campaspe said...

surly, which romance are we referring to? the feelings of the lawyer can be read in a number of highly intriguing ways ... another reason I may need to top off this post. The images and characters aren't just one-way, they all have layers, like the moon as you point out. It's a symbol of high, cold observation, as I read it here. It's also a symbol of illicit passions, as you point out, and still again the full moon is supposed to be a time when people go a little bit mad, even buttoned-up English people. I know you aren't a huge Wyler fan but I think that visually this is his richest, most multi-dimensional film.

Campaspe said...

Southhamptoner, welcome! The title is Somerset Maugham's and while it doesn't begin to suggest everything that's in the movie, I do think it works better than the many titles the Warner's title factor might have come up with. The studios would test certain titles with the public and unwary (or uncaring) directors might find themselves stuck with a premarketed title. I wrote about one such recently but damned if I can remember it ... it will come back to me. I hope.

Stinkylulu, I hope everyone follows the link, especially Hazel, because while Sondergaard is wrong for the movie that doesn't mean she isn't hugely enjoyable. I had read that Sondergaard piece and I think you do a better job of conveying that. I mean, just the way she draws the letter out of her sleeve, it could be a dagger and for a moment you think maybe it is. And there's also the moment in the courtroom, which I didn't even mention. See, this post of mine is simultaneously too long and not long enough.

Hazel, Davis always said Wyler was her best director. Mercurial as she was, she always knew real talent when she encountered it. I think she's this good in a handful of non-Wylers (The Old Maid, Now Voyager, Mr. Skeffington) but she was never better than with him at the helm.

surlyh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
surlyh said...

I like The Letter, and partly because it works as a melodrama, even without the layering.

I was referring to Stephenson's lawyer almost imperceptibly falling in love with Leslie Crosbie.

Campaspe said...

Absolutely, it's incredibly entertaining, and I hope my picking away at the underlying stuff doesn't drain all that out of it. Yes, I do think Stephenson is playing it as something more than fascination with Leslie. And Davis plays it up too, giving a definite sexual spin when she suggests that he jeopardize his career by getting the letter.

It's an interesting question too, as to how much we do or are supposed to sympathize with Leslie, the creation of a writer not known for liking women much. In all the times I have seen the movie I have never really rooted for Leslie, just sat back and admired her sheer undiluted chutzpah. Stephenson is the one who draws my sympathy. What a loss that he died just as his career took off.

General question to all readers: anyone seen the 29 version with Jeanne Eagels?

surlyh said...

Don't worry, you are far from some starchy film studies academic. You only enrich our enjoyment and appreciation of the films. While I prefer to first see films cold and not read too much beforehand, a second viewing is always enhanced by "study", especially with a teacher as gifted as the Siren.

goatdog said...

I have nothing to add except that you've made me even more eager to watch this again--it's been forever, and we're showing it in May. I think I have the '29 version around on a tape somewhere, but I haven't watched it yet.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Love the analysis of the subtle and not-so-subtle racist attitudes in English relationships with Malays. Reminds me a bit of Nevil Shute's "A Town Like Alice" where at the beginning, the young English woman Jean is viewed somewhat condescendeningly by the matrons of the English colony in Malaya because she has learned to speak Malay. One dowager says to her her something like, "I speak Malay, too. Well, enough to make the servants mind. Which is all one needs."

To see this condescension translated so effortlessly (and perhaps subconsciously) in a film not just about the 1940s but made in the 1940s is interesting.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I haven't seen the 29 version but a clip was shown just last night on TCM's Thou Shalt Not Sin documentary about the Pre-Code Era. It was brief but intriguing.

And this line from Goatdog, I think I have the '29 version around on a tape somewhere is classic cinephilia and made me smile. I still have boxes of old tapes of movies that aren't available on DVD or Tape anymore. Many were recorded from PBS decades ago.

Exiled in NJ said...

My lord, you hit on my favorite melodrama. The thought that Marshall played the Stephenson role in the earlier version blows my mind, but is very conceivable.

I just watched it again last week for perhaps the tenth time, and every time I think what I wrote on IMDB over two years ago:

"Wyler,the screenwriters, and Leslie Crosbie manage to wreck three lives in an amazing 98 minutes."

I always prefer Davis in the roles where she is tossed about on the sea, not the ones where she plays a great ocean liner, and to me this is her career performance.

But to me, the fascination is watching Stephenson, realizing the ground is slipping from under him. He seems to be the only Westerner who realizes that he and his crowd do not belong, witness his comment about Victor Sen Yung taking his clients. The British refer to the Chinese quarter, and I believe there is that subtle difference between the Chinese, who were also in Malaya as 'strangers' and the Malayans.

One more thing: there is a similarity in the opening credits of The Letter and Jezebel, Steiner's music playing over moonlight scenes.

Campaspe said...

M., this movie gains in stature for me every time I see it, so I'll be interested to hear if that holds for you as well.

JTL, I didn't read A Town Like Alice but I was absolutely glued to the Masterpiece Theater series some years back. Ah, Bryan Brown, what a yummy man he was then. Hmm, what were you saying? Oh yes, racism. I do remember they had a casually bad attitude toward the Malayans but I don't know if that fabulous line made it into the script. My favorite line came when Jean was in Alice Springs swatting at flies and she loses her temper, shouting at a local, "Haven't you people ever heard of DDT?"

Jonathan, Mr. C got wrapped up in Death Wish on AMC last night (what a weird form of nostalgia that movie offers these days!) so I missed the doc but the set is in my Netflix queue. God, you are so right about the "tape around here somewhere" syndrome, and I have even sworn off buying more DVDs until I see all the ones I have. Which may be sometime around Halloween at the rate I'm going.

Exiled, every time I see you in my comments my day gets a bit brighter. Marshall played the lover in the original, I'm told, and having that man as a character must have given it a whole different spin.

"But to me, the fascination is watching Stephenson, realizing the ground is slipping from under him. He seems to be the only Westerner who realizes that he and his crowd do not belong, witness his comment about Victor Sen Yung taking his clients."
Here you hit on the certain elegiac quality to the movie as well; it's the British colonial way of life dying. You see why it will and why it should, but there's some regret for a lost world in there, despite all the undercurrents I mentioned, and it is definitely tied to Stephenson and, to a lesser extent, Marshall.

Southamptoner said...

Thank you for the kind welcome, Campapse!
I enjoy your site immensely, great work (Wolcott sent me, lol).

As Jonathan Lapper noted, last night's TCM documentary shows clips of the original, pre-code version, noting that the "Davis" character gets away with her crime; then to the 1940 version and Davis getting the shiv from the Dragon lady- it's sort of funny that this murder scene was mandated by the Hayes/Breen office, if you think about it..

Campaspe said...

Davis always said she hated the ending, wanted things to end right after her confession. But I think this ending fits well, in terms of theme and where the movie was going. My main quibble is logic -- seriously, why go through that rigamarole with the letter and the acquittal just to endanger your own life by killing her? especially killing a white woman in a British territory--you KNOW that was bad, bad news. Did Mrs. Hammond want the money? did she just change her mind? but the way the ending plays is so beautiful and haunting that the logical stuff can be jettisoned by the viewer, I think.

I have read that Eagels' portrayal is a lot more overtly sexual too. That plus the actress's legendary status make me definitely want to see it. People were hoping it might be an extra in the recent Davis box set, but no such luck.

Dan Callahan said...

Eagels is like a house on fire in the '29 version; she couldn't be more different than Davis. She seemingly has no control, no technique...it's all crazed, messy emotion. When other characters mention her calm and calculation, it seems unintentionally comic. Her last scene is a real scorcher.

The treatment of the Asian characters in the '29 version is very offensive. The only reason to watch it is Eagels, and that's reason enough. I have an almost unwatchable video of it...saw a pristine clip of it last night on the pre-Code TCM doc, so hopefully it will be released sometime (maybe by Kino?)

One note on the Davis version: the Max Steiner "moon" theme has been playing in my head now for at least a half hour, and that's fine with me.

Campaspe said...

I would love to see her on screen. Stills show a woman who ranges from delicately gorgeous to a bit plain. I admit to morbid curiosity, considering she was dead the same year she made the picture. Since I haven't read the Maugham story, I wonder which version is closer to his view of Asians?

I think the music is gorgeous and don't understand complaints about it. To me, an opulent score is a bonus for an old movie, it's one of the "don't make them that way anymore" treats.

BTW Dan, I was just over at Slant and reading your review of Street Angel. Mr. C and I liked it more than you did -- although O Sole Mio did pall by about two-thirds through. (And to make it worse the tune then became "It's Now or Never" stuck in my head, far from my favorite Elvis song.) Anyway, the print on that DVD release was tragically bad, especially in the last scene which all three of us thought was the best part.

Dan Callahan said...

It's pretty clear that Eagels is on something in "The Letter." It's like watching a candle burning itself out. But what a glow! Her most distinctive feature is her smoky voice, which sounds like Tallulah Bankhead crossed with Davis, very clipped.

It's been a while since I read the original Maugham story. I think that the Eagels version was closer to the stage play, which I believe starred Gladys Cooper, Bette's mother in "Now, Voyager." So the worst of the Asian caricatures might not originate with Maugham.

I love a lush score, especially by Korngold. Just watched Milestone's "The Red Pony," a very touching, underrated movie, and it boasts a beautiful Aaron Copland score. Still, I have to admit that many a 30's/40's film was ruined by an over-zealous "Mickey-Mousing" score, underlining everything.

I loved writing that Borzage feature, and would happily watch all of them again. Especially "Seventh Heaven." "Til We Meet Again" is a really stunning, obscure Borzage. As is "No Greater Glory." Where'd you find a DVD of "Street Angel"?

Campaspe said...

On Netflix! I guess it was released recently? I didn't notice the company, the DVD just had the title on it. In general Borzage's lack of presence on DVD is a disgrace.

camorrista said...

Thank you for this.

I've always thought "The Letter" a masterpiece, but I'm not surprised at the oddity of some of the notices. Without knowing the gender breakdown, I'd bet that most of the reviews (back then, and later) were by men.

From what I've seen, many male critics neither like, nor admire, nor =get= Davis. They don't see what she's doing in "The Letter" any more than they see what she's doing in "The Little Foxes," or "Jezebel," or "Mr. Skeffingon," or, "Dark Victory," or, especially, "All About Eve."

In her movies--especially her great ones--Davis loses. She struggles mightily, volcanically, sometimes comes within a hair of winning, but she loses; and I can't think of another actress who's captured so vividly--and so humanly--what it's like for a woman to fight to the bitter, bitter end.

If I recall rightly, Kael said that "The Letter" was a great cinematic portrait of female hypocrisy, but I'd add that it's a great portrait of female impotence--which, I think, is always the subtext in Davis's best performances.

Anyway, thanks for the analysis.

Campaspe said...

Camorrista, great insight as always. I think Davis on screen frightens a lot of men, as apparently she did in life. She was so raw and authentic, the epitome of hard to handle. Right now Davis is just a touch less in fashion but god I love her. Just wait until I get a chance to see Mr. Skeffington again. And this new box set, with The Great Lie -- I can't wait.

camorrista said...

Campaspe, I've always believed the title "Dark Victory" was the perfect metaphorical description of Davis's career and her life, with "Dangerous" running a close second.

Contemporaneous reviews of Davis never mentioned her sexuality (those were the good old days) but I suspect it's one the things about her--along with her intensity, her intelligence and her indifference to opinion--that made her scary. Does any woman in today's films offer that combination? Nobody springs to mind.

Gloria said...

Campaspe: I have not read the whole article for, in the middle of it I said to myself "I must see this film!" (yes I haven't seen it yet. So I'll end reading this piece when I get the DVD ;p


Taste is the great divider, indeed. An ex-boyfriend of mine, who felt jealous about my favourite actor, used to refer to Laughton as "that disgusting fatso"...

... Notice I said EX-boyfriend

Exiled in NJ said...

Taste! My wife and I were both widowed when we met, and we both love film but similarity ends 85% of the way there. One night, she was watching the overheated Duel in the Sun, which she insists is a great film. I sat down with a magazine and was half-listening when I heard that voice coming from a speaker. Could it be Herbert Marshall out West? There he was as Scott Chavez. Thankfully for Herbert, they killed him off early so he did not have to participate in the overblown madness.

Sometimes in my love for old film, I forget how inappropriate casting could be then: Sidney Greenstreet playing a General Winfield Scott in 'died with their boots on' or Bogart and Cagney out west.

I wanted to say to Pam: "Herbert, get back to the tropics."

Flickhead said...

Exiled: Don't forget the mirage of a marriage of Lana Turner and, uh, Cecil Kellaway in Postman!

Exiled in NJ said...

I haven't read Cain in ten years, but I don't think the Nick of the book is that different from Calloway, except his name was Greek if I recall, Papadakis?

Then Leon Ames, from Indiana, puts on this Scotch burr, calling everyone "Laddie" in the same film.

James Cain mined the Ruth Snyder - Judd Gray case for all it was worth, with Postman and Double Indemnity.

Dan Leo said...

Exiled, a nice thing about Bette was that she was one of the few big actors of that era who would actually adapt her normal accent (and her looks) for a role, as she does quite well in The Letter. Hardly anyone else really seemed to bother too much.

But, Siren, did you see the "alternate ending" of "The Letter" on the recent DVD? I hesitate to describe it, because I don't want to "spoil" it for someone who loves the film so much. I will say that it does what it does mostly by excision -- particularly the cutting of an entire famous scene -- although one tiny scene is added entirely, and two or three other bits are re-shot. The over-all effect is that the ending is much less melodramatic and much less on-the-nose. Unfortunatley the DVD tells us nothing about this alternatete ending, such as, Did Wyler prefer it and was he overruled? Did he shoot it both ways and decide to go with the ending we now have? I'd love to know...

Cinebeats said...

I recently watched that interesting TCM special about pre-code cinema, which happened to show clips from The Letter as well as the original film and I'd like to see both versions now. Your review of the Davis version made it sound amazing!

Lastly, I love the chat above about the way Davis frightens some men and it shows up in criticism of her films. That's fascinating to contemplate. I'd like to see that as a blogathon topic - "Actresses who ate their male costars alive." I tend to gravitate towards actresses that seem to scare a lot of men like Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and Davis.

On a side note - one of my favorite Hammer horror films staring Davis (The Nanny) is getting released on DVD soon and I'm looking forward to that! I hope to review it when I get a copy.

Brian said...

Oh dear: the Nanny. That movie scared me SO MUCH when I was a little kid. Probably didn't help that the circumstance under which I watched it was under the care of a movie buff babysitter while my parents were out for the evening.

Campaspe, thank you for this truly terrific piece. I've only seen the Letter once, and it was years ago, but it struck me as an incredible film as well. Reading your analysis brought its merits back so vividly! And of course there are many details you noticed that I never would have- the significance of the lace being one notable example.

Have you read Phoebe Shih Chao's essay on the way the Malays are portrayed in the film vs. the novel? It's found in a book called Visions of the East, which I unfortunately have stored in some box somewhere right now, otherwise I'd revisit it right now.

mndean said...

I recently saw The Letter and was very impressed with it, but it's one of those films that I didn't put down my thoughts on. I am one who's not particularly bothered by strong women in film, although I do have trouble at times with Davis and Crawford. I think with Davis, she indeed was better when she got some actor's control, but I still saw times even then when her judgment went to hell, like in Beyond The Forest (one of the King Vidor Sweaty Specials of the era, along with The Fountainhead and Lust in the...Duel in the Sun) . With Crawford, as much as I could enjoy her in silents and the '30s, I just as much dislike most of her output after that period - it was one of the things in which I was in total agreement with Kael.

Herbert Marshall seems really an underrated actor who doesn't appear to get much love nowadays. In Trouble In Paradise, Blonde Venus, and The Good Fairy I became quite impressed with him.

surlyh said...

Beyond The Forest is one of Vidor's over-the-top melos, and over-the-top acting isn't out of place in it. This is a film where Davis was set aginst flames shooting up outside her bedroom window, and where she races after that big black train. Was she supposed to act demure?

Campaspe said...

Gloria, by all means watch the movie before you finish it. It's a whydunit and suspense isn't the key factor but like any other movie its great moments are best savored unspooling before you and not written up. (disgusting fatso? oh dear. But poor Charles was never disgusting, despite his insecurity, and at times in his career he wasn't even fat.)

Exiled, last night I was dividing my own taste with Mr. C. as we watched A Fistful of Dollars and I amused myself by pointing all the various points that Kurosawa did better. To Mr. C's credit he was very good-humored about it. Marshall was a graceful presence in every film, but I do have to agree. We mock casting now but in the golden age it could be truly inscrutable. I say this as someone who really like Errol Flynn's Westerns, mind you, although he was the most refined-sounding gunslinger ever.

I don't remember much about the Cain novel but in the Postman movie you really do wonder about Kellaway, who was always a bit effete on screen, and Turner...was her husband THAT much older in the novel?

Campaspe said...

Dan, the alternate ending you describe must be the one that Sikov describes in his Davis bio, which I refer to briefly above. Wyler essentially got cold feet and reshot some of the ending, but Davis personally dissuaded him from changing as much as he had planned. I think this was one instance where a Code-mandated ending actually worked out all right, thematically, although it does lack some logic. In "Postman," by way of contrast, we get this long and utterly daffy scene about how even though Garfield is about to be executed for the murder he didn't commit, it's okay because of the one he did. The fact that this works at all is a tribute to Garfield's incredible power as an actor.

K- "Actresses Who Ate Costars Alive." I am so there -- although with Davis, half the time she's up against George Brent which is like putting Clay Aiken in the ring with Samuel Peter.

Brian, I haven't read that essay but I bet the whole book is fascinating. With a great movie different things strike you each time you see it -- this viewing for some reason the race, class and colonial issues smacked me in the face. The first couple of times I saw it I was more in tune with the feminist angle.

Mndean, there's no question that I love earlier Crawford and Davis best but Crawford's work in the 1940s is better than it's portrayed, I think. I just saw "A Woman's Face" which was two-thirds of an excellent movie, it just falls to pieces in the third act. (Crawford shows up at this Scandinavian hoedown in some kind of Swedish folk dirndl catastrophe and from there on out the movie just craters. It's maddening.) But Crawford is wonderful in many parts of it. I'm with you on Marshall, he deserves a lot more credit as an actor, he was quietly excellent in a number of films.

I'm a bit more with Surlyh on Beyond the Forest, however, which I consider to have its own kind of crazy overblown merits, much as Davis herself disliked the movie. But then I like Vidor a lot, so much so that one of the post ideas I've had percolating for ages is "Why Vidor's War and Peace Is Actually a Pretty Good Movie."

Karen said...

I say this as someone who really like Errol Flynn's Westerns, mind you, although he was the most refined-sounding gunslinger ever.

THANK you. Recently there was an article in, I think, the New York Times, that talked about James McAvoy (whom I adore) and commenting that he could have a pretty big Hollywood career if he could only perfect an American accent. And Errol Flynn's westerns were the first things I thought of as I contemplated the many, many ways in which that statement disturbed me (and insulted American audiences).

Bette Davis and George Brent: and thank you AGAIN. They made 13--13!!!--films together, and for years I could not for the life of me understand why. It wasn't until I started seeing some of his very earliest films that I started to get that he had once had a lot of charisma and, well, personality. I would love to know what happened to him in the late '30s to turn him into such a boring, stolid presence. I've always been curious as to whether he had a big fan base during the bulk of his career--did women respond to him in some way that we no longer get?

Herbert Marshall--now there's someone I love, and not least because he was a successful romantic lead while sporting a wooden leg. Not likely to happen these days, when leading men need to disrobe on a regular basis. He is so delicious in Trouble in Paradise, I would follow him to the ends of the earth.

Neve Rendell said...

I'm so glad I found this post - The Letter has been one of my favorite Davis films - and favorite old films - for quite a few years, but I could never find anyone who seemed to share my appreciation.

Davis's performance is stunning - and I'm entranced at the amount of screen time given to the non-romance between her and her lawyer. I entirely don't agree with another commenter who says he is falling in love with her - I think the power of the relationship is precisely that he *isn't*. It makes the movie quite brave and rare and also quite modern, that it dares to allow a non-romantic male/female relationship to virtually dominate the plot - and indeed that there is no version of heroic love on display anywhere. Even her devoted husband is portrayed quite starkly as a fool and a loser. How many films of this period handled relationships with that much downbeat realism?

Clark Alicia said...

The 1929 version of "The Letter" can be ordered through the Warner Bros. Archive Collection. The fastest and most intense 60 min you will ever see. No wonder Davis was so impressed with Eagels' performance.

Miguel said...

Wonderful review. It's one of my favourite films, but I think you made me see a couple of new things in it. Thanks.

d clark said...

Just a small point. Anyone notice the costume change Leslie makes between shooting her lover dead nad reappearing when her husband arrives? Before, long romantic negligee, after, sensible blouse, shirt and shoes. Was this a director decision to telegraph ahead of time Leslie's duplicitousness? I wonder how long her story would have held up if she was known to have received a unexpected male visitor in such attire? I think clothes were more of a signal of behavior then then now.

The Siren said...

I did notice it, but never thought about the significance before ... an excellent point! I am quite sure Wyler & Davis thought it out, they were very meticulous individually, and together they were terrifyingly detail-oriented.