Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Joan bis: A Woman's Face




What we have here is two-thirds of a good movie. A Woman's Face starts out wonderfully, continues well through the midpoint and just when you are thinking, "Hooray! I love this!" Joan Crawford shows up at a dance in some kind of Swedish peasant dirndl-drag and it's all over.

For the first 70 minutes or so, Crawford is so good you almost can't believe it. She liked to say her Oscar was as much for A Woman's Face as Mildred Pierce, a notion Patrick McGilligan scoffed at in his George Cukor biography: "She and Cukor liked to kid themselves about the quality of their work together." But now that the Siren has seen this movie, which was hard to find for a while, she can say Crawford was right. The actress gives an excellent performance and it's really the script that lets her down. McGilligan also goes on to say that usually when critics praise lesser Cukor works, what they are really talking about is "the lighting and camera work, the pictorial embroidery of studio craftsmen," in this case cameraman Robert Planck. But the Siren agrees more with Karli Lukas over at Senses of Cinema:

In his published conversation with Gavin Lambert, Cukor is openly embarrassed by the film's disappointing spiral into conventionality; in part blaming the traditions and studio pressures of the time. However, he also attributes its failure to something much more interesting--his inability to curb Joan Crawford's star persona. Cukor revealed that while her character is physically scarred "she's really a complete character, not the actress who's playing it. Then, when she becomes pretty, she becomes Joan Crawford"...

But upon repeated viewing A Woman's Face makes you appreciate the value of Cukor's subtle orchestrations. There are many great scenes in this film that beg for its redemption. Cukor exhibits a great ability to reveal the turning points of character through his use of seemingly understated, but in fact very clever mise-en-scene. I love the way that he has directed Crawford to dance amongst pools of light and shadow to heighten suspense (and show off her great facial structure).


The film fuses a Warner Brothers plot with an MGM aesthetic. The opening scene is a courtroom, with Crawford's character being escorted in, and the court is spacious and the prison corridor is wide and elegant and beautifully lit. Everything is beautifully lit. Even the velvety shadows on that face in the title give off a certain glow. That's MGM for you, there wasn't a single dark corner of the human psyche that couldn't be gussied up with a nice fill light or two.

Against all odds, the studio's tendency to make everything gorgeous usually works just fine for this movie, which isn't really an early noir (though it's sometimes described as such) but rather a fairy tale. A flashback takes us to a "roadhouse" where people go after hours to drink and slum and where, we later learn, a gang of ruthless blackmailers is operating. Given these parameters Cedric Gibbons designed a beautiful whitewashed tavern with diamond-paned windows, set back in a lovely manicured forest.

The camera glides into the outdoor cafe, where a bunch of society types are amusing themselves. A bunch of the characters are established here, including Conrad Veidt, who signals he is up to no good merely by being Conrad Veidt, and Osa Massen as a feather-brained straying wife. A kerfuffle over the bill lands Veidt in the back room with the roadhouse owner, and it's Anna (Crawford). At first she is showing only one side of her face, but when she wants to intimidate Veidt and make a point, she looks at him and we see her scar for the first time. (It's bad, but this is 1941 so it isn't that bad.) And Veidt doesn't blanch, indeed his face barely reacts, and he continues to treat Crawford's character with courtly deference. Her expression tells you this is an extraordinary thing, perhaps even a first for this mutilated woman, and it's clear she is already beginning to fall in love with him. We sense from the beginning that Veidt is concealing his true nature, and so it is no surprise that he alone sees past Anna's face in the beginning. It's so well played--melodrama yes, but believable melodrama.

Later we learn that Anna's face was injured in a childhood accident. Just as in fairy tales, Anna's physical ugliness is mirrored on the inside, but just as in all women's pictures, she is a woman and therefore yearning for love. She begins to buy better clothes, her partners in crime cruelly mocking her when she shows up with a new hat. The Siren spent about five days recently with a seriously messed-up face, and she can tell you that Crawford nails it here. You try to avoid notice, not by actually hiding but by a sort of mental exercise--you are constantly thinking yourself into invisibility. When the notice comes anyway, you look at a stranger with an expression that says "don't you dare ask, buddy." The Siren found herself nodding as Crawford walked in and pulled the hat down on the scarred side of her face, fiddling with the veil as she tried to maintain her hardened poise and the upper hand in the conversation.

Crawford's gang tries to blackmail Osa Massen, who just happens to be married to brilliant plastic surgeon Melvyn Douglas. The scene where Crawford goes to collect from Massen is played to the hilt, the heartless tramp wife trying to get the jump on Crawford by shining a light on her disfigurement. But then both women are surprised by Douglas's return. Despite this inauspicious introduction to Anna he decides to repair her face. The surgery is successful, and Crawford's repaired face is exquisitely shot by Cukor, her makeup relatively subtle for possibly the last time in her career. Before and after the surgery, he gives us those amazing bones from angle after angle, often in profile, teasing us with our desire to see the whole face.

Some critics think it's all downhill once Anna goes in for surgery, but one of the Siren's favorite scenes occurs after the new face is revealed. Anna exits the hospital and goes to the park. A small boy chases his ball over to her. She looks down at him and starts the old gesture of tugging at her hat, and the boy smiles up at her with artless pleasure. Realization hits, and Joan pulls off the hat and walks away, the sun and breeze in her hair. As rendered by Cukor and Crawford, this rather hokey scene becomes a little bit of liberation, a woman throwing off oppression and walking away free.

She's done all this for Veidt, but Veidt wants to use Crawford for no good end. He sends her to his family's castle with instructions to murder the four-year-old boy standing between him and the family fortune. When Joan showed up and the little boy was Richard Nichols, the Siren's heart sank. Nichols had the face of an angel but every time he shows up things get syrupy. And it was pretty much downhill from there, despite a brilliantly suspenseful sequence on a cable car.

By far the worst is the dance at the castle, when Crawford shows up in the aforementioned dirndl. The guests are doing a traditional Swedish dance (or so we're told, possibly MGM made the whole thing up) and the old man who owns the castle says to Crawford, "come and try it! it isn't hard!" No, not hard at all. You just have to jump in the air, swing your partner, join hands and galop down a row of similarly attired partygoers, twirl in a foursome, join hands again and do a "London Bridge" formation and then start all over again with Conrad Veidt as your partner. For the duration of the dance poor Joan's performance goes stone-dead. Anyone who's ever seen her Charlestoning up a storm in one of her Jazz Baby roles realizes right away that Joan is really, really hating this "Lonely Goatherd" shit.

Almost as bad is Conrad Veidt's mad scene toward the end where he all but yells "UND ZEN I SHALL RUUUUULE THE WORLD!" or maybe he does, the Siren was so appalled she lost track. What on earth is this scene about? Until this point Veidt's cold pathology has been so understated. Crawford's character is already mostly out of love with Veidt so the motivation isn't needed. Veidt of course would be Major Strasser the very next year so at first the Siren thought this was war metaphor, but the movie is set in Sweden and absolutely nothing else suggests politics of any sort. Surely it wasn't Code-mandated. You could be just plain evil under the Code, you didn't have to combine it with crazy, as long as you didn't Triumph in the End and nobody could mistake your actions as good. Maybe that unmistakable evil bit was the problem. Maybe plotting to kill a toddler for his inheritance just wasn't obvious enough, they had to throw into a spot of megalomania as well. The Siren hasn't a clue.

All in all, despite the hamfisted final third, the movie is well worth viewing, and an absolute must for Crawford fans. But you've been warned about that Swedish dance.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Joan



Can it be that after 30 years of having one book following a few paces behind any discussion of Joan Crawford, it is finally time for a revival?

A real revival, as an actress and screen presence, and not as some embalmed artifact of camp?

Could be, could be. Witness this new boxed set, with some movies that had been hard to see for a while. Check out this cogent piece by Dave Kehr, who treats her acting and persona with respect. And finally there's this new book, Not the Girl Next Door, Charlotte Chandler's rebuttal to Mommie Dearest that contains a lengthy conversation with Cathy, one of Joan's adopted daughters, who has never been particularly accessible to the press. The Siren hasn't read the book although she did devour the Vanity Fair excerpt. And now here we are, at the 100th anniversary of Crawford's birth.

Oops, maybe not. 1908 is the date on her headstone, but almost no one believes it. Crawford was always said to be lopping two years off her actual age. Never mind, the Siren grew up in Alabama, where a lady never revealed her true age, and if she leaned across her walker and adjusted her hearing aid to tell you, with an air of flirtatious secrecy, that she was "frankly forty" you faked astonishment that she was a day over 35. So the Siren smiles and says to the shade of Miss Crawford, "You know, I'd have said 1928, myself."

Anyway, this renewed interest is good news for those of us who love Joan, who find great pleasure in her movies and don't want to hear about the goddamn wire hangers anymore. The Siren believes the book alone probably wouldn't have permanently altered Crawford's image to the extent that it has. It was the movie, with Faye Dunaway playing Crawford as a cross between Maleficent and Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil, that really did the extensive damage. Thank god nobody ever filmed the atrocious My Mother's Keeper or we'd have to go through the same routine every time we wanted to talk about Jezebel. The Siren already discussed the image. Let's discuss a movie or two.


You'd have to watch the way she came in...If Joan was wearing a pair of slacks, that meant you'd go over and slap her right on the ass and say 'Hiya kid. You getting much?' In turn she'd be as raucous as Billie Cassin from Texas at that moment and you'd have an absolute ball. She could come back the next day wearing black sables and incredible sapphires, and by Jesus, you'd better be on your feet and click your heels, kiss her hand, and talk with the best British accent you had, but never in any way indicate she was different in any respect from the way she was yesterday, because the following day she'd come in in a dirndl or a pinafore and you'd be on the floor playing jacks with her. I loved it. You had to be an actor and be adaptive to what she was playing, though the moment she left my office, I went back to what I was before she came in.
--Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who had an affair with Crawford), quoted in Kenneth L. Geist, Pictures Will Talk

The Siren ordinarily does not venture into drive-by psychoanalysis, but the way Joan Crawford worked all her life to improve, educate, refine and otherwise alter herself is striking indeed. One facile observation often made about actors has to do with innate insecurity--they don't like themselves inside and so they venture into other personas. The Siren doesn't find this particularly true or even logical. Anyone who has watched a child try on one character after another knows that an active, expanding intelligence and the magic of imagination have at least as much or more to do with the drive to act. But that is on-screen, not off. Crawford, who claimed she never originally wanted to be an actress, carried on her constant self-alterations in real life, as Mankiewicz tells us.

And so it isn't surprising, considering Crawford's almost complete lack of formal technique, that her most memorable roles were also women scrambling to better themselves, usually through sex. Jean Harlow, to whom Crawford lost several roles, played a lot of lower-class women on the make, but sex is a romp to Harlow's characters. Sex is serious business to Crawford, the one thing that will either be her lifeline or her undoing, and not infrequently both in the same movie.

Take her role as Flaemmchen, Grand Hotel's big-eyed stenographer, longing to break into movies but meanwhile trying to get what she can out of the Wallace Beerys of the world. The Siren loves Crawford in this movie. The star was never more magically beautiful and she gives a startlingly subtle performance, conveying at every turn Flaemmchen's determination to get all she can out of her looks and men, and the price she pays for doing so.

Look at her exchange with Beery's character, Preysing, when the wolfish businessman wants to get on a first-name basis. Some of the Siren's other 1930s tough-tootsie favorites might have played it broader, but Crawford's delivery is very matter-of-fact, funnier and several times more stingingly accurate: "Suppose I met you next year and said, 'How do you do, Mr. Preysing?' And you said, 'That's the young lady who was my secretary in Manchester.' That's all quite proper. But supposing I saw you and yelled 'Hi baby. Remember Manchester?'" When Beery laughs, she continues imperturbably, "Yeah, and you were with your wife. How would you like that?"

Crawford lets us see the stenographer's distaste for Preysing, but you also see that she loathes poverty much, much more. She doesn't play Flaemmchen as a stereotypical "bad" girl--she's just trying to get by, like everyone else in the movie. (She's helped, of course, by a Pre-Code script that doesn't force her character to get an attack of conscience or die saving a baby from a fire or something.) Instead you get scenes like the one Goatdog describes in his review, where Flaemmchen and Preysing are clearly negotiating her price as his escort. No one but Crawford could do quite as superbly in the moment while she stops, smokes and considers her "up-front" expenses for an interlude in England. Her expression is equal parts avarice, gambler's calculation, and resignation to the gross physical fact of Preysing.

She was very much the star. I think that's a very important to thing to remember about her, that she was in command of what she did. Now, if she was not that confident herself, she certainly gave a damned good performance of somebody that was!

--Rosalind Russell, quoted in Movie Talk



As the Joan Crawford Encyclopedia points out, the idea that she played a lot of shopgirls in the 1930s isn't borne out by her filmography. In fact, during the decade she only played three. It's probably more accurate to say, as one British critic did, that she was the shopgirl's delight. Her ascent to the upper classes, or her presence there from the movie's beginning, is sweet revenge if you're trying to alter your own lot in life. And lord knows there were plenty of people desperate to do that in the 1930s.

But Crawford closed out the decade with a shopgirl role, perhaps the shopgirl role of all time, Crystal Allen in The Women. Playing a woman who's supposed to be as hard and transparent as her name, Crawford still compels--well, sympathy is the wrong word. Admiration, of a kind, and fascination. Oh my yes, she fascinates from the second she appears. The woman is such an operator; as Virginia Grey puts it, "Holy mackerel, what a line."

A few posts back we were all agreeing that Mary Astor's perm in The Maltese Falcon did nothing for her. Mary's hair had nothing on Joan's in The Women. She was stuck with this frizzy mess because MGM's head hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff had to spend all his time of a morning putting together Norma Shearer's hair, which is also pretty horrendous to modern eyes, but let it pass. (Guilaroff had Rosalind Russell wear a lot of hats.) At this point Irving Thalberg was dead and Shearer's star was waning, but she still had the power to make Crawford grind her teeth. Forget the overhyped Bette Davis feud. Everything the Siren has read suggests it was Shearer whom Crawford loathed above all others. One of the few amusing moments in Mommie Dearest comes when Christina finally realizes that when her mother compares her to Shearer, it isn't a compliment.

Crawford spent years losing part after part to Shearer. Some of them, like The Barretts of Wimpole Street, were less than ideal for our Joan but others, like Idiot's Delight, might have been good indeed. "What chance have I got," Crawford snapped to her friends. "She sleeps with the boss." Less famous, but even funnier, was Crawford's response upon losing the lead in Idiot's Delight. Writer Shaun Considine says Mayer himself told Crawford that Thalberg had left Norma all his voting stock, enabling her to cause a great deal of trouble if displeased. "Christ," said Joan, "she really rode through this studio on his balls, didn't she?"

During The Women, while George Cukor was filming Shearer, Crawford sat on the sidelines knitting an afghan with the biggest, loudest needles available, until Shearer pointed out the distraction to her director and Cukor ordered Crawford back to her trailer. Shearer, impeccably ladylike in public, still was not immune to pettiness herself, having Crawford's trailer re-aligned when it protruded one foot past hers.

Since the Siren has never much cared for Shearer she's firmly on Crawford's side, and that's the charm of The Women. Joan just wipes the floor with her rival. In their big confrontation scene Joan bites off her lines like gunpowder cartridges. "What have you got to kick about?" she asks Shearer. "You've got the name, the position, the money..." Shearer replies that her husband's love means more. Crawford's response pretty much sums up the Siren's feeling about Shearer's character: "Can the sob stuff, sister. You noble wives and mothers bore the brains out of me." Shearer does get more interesting later on, when she starts to fight instead of posing and preaching, but round one goes to Crystal, and how. Next to her, Shearer looks dumpy and overbred. Even later, when Crawford says "I guess it's back to the perfume counter with me," she says it in a way that tells the audience the ladies haven't heard the last of Crystal.

"It's a classic film, really, and I'm proud to have appeared in it, but I don't think Crystal wormed her way into the public's heart," Crawford said later. The Siren hates to contradict a lady on her birthday, but Joan couldn't have been more wrong.

P.S. The Siren has been avoiding all mention of the remake that's in postproduction, but she decided to look up who's playing Crystal and oh dear, not good. (You have no idea how hard I had to look to find a picture of this woman that was safe for work.)
(updated 3/24)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Credit Where Credits Are Due

There's an amusing clip travelling the Internet, of Star Wars credits as rendered by Saul Bass. It's well done, even if Bass would have cleaned up the spelling, but it reminded the Siren of something she misses in current Hollywood movies, along with great character actors, intertitles that tell her things like "meanwhile, as the lava approached the little fishing village" and editing that lets her actually focus on a beautiful shot for a moment: credits.



A good credit sequence puts your head in the right place, whether it's the great "wooooooo" of wind at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz or the man on crutches, steadily advancing toward us at the beginning of Double Indemnity. For a while there our contemporary directors were jettisoning the whole notion of credits. You'd maybe get a title card and then THUMP, in media res. The Siren likes this approach to movies about as much as she does to romance. Lately we are edging back toward real credit sequences but there's still a desultory quality to a lot of them. Put some pizazz in it, fellas.

So, the Siren finally figured out this embedding wheeze. To celebrate, she's sharing two of her all-time favorite credit sequences. The first, by Wayne Fitzgerald, sets the mood perfectly for one of the great movies of the 1950s, a movie the Siren worships, along with a (perhaps) surprisingly large number of women her age and younger.


video

And, just as a bonus, the Siren's favorite Saul Bass credit sequence. She even prefers these credits to Vertigo. If you go on Youtube you can watch the scene where the great Brook Benton sings the lyrics to the title song. Take that, Mr. Reed.

video

Postscript: Only fair to add precisely what it is the Siren likes about these sequences.

When you walk in off the street and sit down in a movie theater, and the lights go down (at least, we hope they go down, as the Siren also detests the modern tendency to leave the lights on during the previews so you can go get those Milk Duds) you need a mental adjustment. Then or now, you've been sitting through a bunch of other stuff on screen. At the start of the golden age it would have been a cartoon, a newsreel, a lower-bill feature; later, maybe a cartoon and trailers; still later, commercials (ugh) and trailers. Afterward you need to get your brain in gear for the Big Picture.

A good credit sequence functions as an aperitif. It gets your viewing palate ready. It should be long enough to ease you into the right mindset, but not so long you're thinking "enough already," which mars the occasional Bond credits, good as they usually are. The credits shouldn't tip the movie's entire hand, as with Austin Powers or Down With Love, two movies that employed retro credits but like kids at an ice cream parlor, piled on scoop after scoop until the rest of the movie just became a slightly more elaborate version of the start.

The first sequence above is nearly perfect, in the Siren's view. It prefaces a movie that has the surface of a glossy melodrama, the plotlines of a tragedy and the theme of the most divisive, perpetually unresolved American conflict of all, race. None of this is explicit, but the credits prepare you for it. There's the slightly smoky voice of Earl Grant singing a smooth but melancholy song, and a waterfall of white, imitation jewels flashing colored light against a jet-black background. Grant's singing sounds so much like Nat King Cole that you get an added layer of "imitation," whether intentional or not.

The second credit sequence is so good that reportedly viewers would go into the theater, sit through the credits, then leave because the rest of the movie was all downhill. In a sense they were right, as this Edward Dmytryk movie isn't one of his best, although the Siren finds it better than its reputation. The film is marred chiefly by one of the worst performances Laurence Harvey ever gave. But what's good in the movie is there in the opening--the sexy strut of supporting player Jane Fonda, the quietly prowling visuals, and Barbara Stanwyck being fiercely territorial. And what's phony is there too, as the cat is strolling through some of the cleanest alleys you ever saw.

Do follow Goatdog's example in the comments and link us up to any favorite credit sequences of your own. If you post them on your blog and give the Siren a heads-up, she'll link 'em right here.

Friday, March 07, 2008

In Which the Siren Reads an Anecdote That Ties Up All of the Past Two Weeks


The day after posting about The Letter the Siren took Heavy Baby to the library story hour and on the way out spied Dark Victory, film writer Ed Sikov's new biography of Bette Davis. The Siren believes that she has read enough, perhaps even too much, about Davis but she admired Sikov's careful research and deft writing in his Billy Wilder biography, so she picked it up. And it is well done, although still somehow not the book the Siren truly wants about Davis--the one that focuses almost entirely on the work, and primarily on what she did up to the year she left Warner Brothers, 1949. Yes, that eliminates All About Eve, but that movie has also probably been chronicled enough and the Siren would rather just watch it.

Sikov is a real writer, not a sensationalist, so although he does have some gossipy bits (and truly, with a subject as rich as Davis it would take someone as self-denying as Teresa of Avila to resist those) he gives her artistry and methods enough attention to keep things interesting. He spends a lot of time on her peculiar line delivery, how that works in her good movies and grates in her bad. He points out how her overflowing energy could result in too much movement in early performances, and chronicles how she brought it under control, performance by performance, aided by her best directors. ("Do you want me to put a chain around your neck?" snapped William Wyler, tired of Davis's head motions during the filming of Jezebel.) Sikov begins the book by warning readers that they may wind up disliking Davis, and him for revealing her flaws, but in fact he is pretty fair-minded.

He has a fine chapter on The Letter, although he does make one observation about the opening that the Siren obviously doesn't agree with: "For reasons that aren't clear, Wyler cuts to some startled but irrelevant plantation workers..." There's a great discussion of the scene where Herbert Marshall discovers the amount of the blackmail payment, though. And the Siren didn't know that Wyler second-guessed his own work and wanted to reshoot the end to make Leslie more sympathetic. Davis arranged to screen the first cut and talked him out of major changes, although they did reshoot the final bedroom scene with Marshall.

But here's the payoff, the Sikov passage that, for reasons which will become clear to her readers, made the Siren double over with laughter. It isn't often that you get the sort of synchronicity that ties together everything you've posted on your blog for a couple of weeks. Sikov discusses how Davis's character endures a beating at the hands of Humphrey Bogart's goons in Marked Woman.


On the day she filmed the scene, Bette decided that she'd had enough of the type of glamorous beating she'd endured under Michael Curtiz's timorous eye in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. From Bette's perspective, a new year had turned. It was 1937, and Warners' executives, producers, directors, and makeup artists still didn't get it. She alone did. The script called for Mary to be thrashed and knifed and scarred for life, but as Bette later described herself after she came out of makeup that morning, "I don't think I ever looked so attractive. Lilly Dache herself could have created that creamy puff of gauze at the peak of her inspiration. It was an absolute gem of millinery." According to Davis, she "smiled sweetly" and left the studio, supposedly for lunch.

She went instead to her physician, Dr. F. Le Grand Noyes, to whom whom she explained the plot turn and who she asked to bandage her as though she had, in fact, been kicked hard, punched repeatedly, and knife-gashed in the cheek.

Bette may have added a few contusions of her own before showing up at Hal Wallis's office, where Wallis greeted her at the door, saw her swollen eyes, outrageously broken nose, brown abrasions, and acres of bloody gauze, and burst into laughter. 'Okay, you get your way,' the producer told her--'all except that broken nose. You can't have that.'

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.