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 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 themes with incredible elegance and economy. The movie 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, giving 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 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 Leslie'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 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 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.