Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Letter (1940)

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Amidst the notable run of films that starred Bette Davis in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s - works that defined the sub-genre of female-centred melodrama - The Letter is a surprising beast, because it’s fundamentally a director’s film, rather than an actor’s showcase. This is confirmed by Davis’ relatively histrionic performance, as if she sensed she was not the centre of attention. Gale Sondergaard steals the film away from her without speaking a word of English, and James Stephenson’s morally conflicted lawyer Howard Joyce is just as close to the dramatic heart of the story, as he works against the better part of his conscience to save Davis’ icy murderess. But it’s William Wyler’s atmospheric, symbol-acute direction that turns it into a haunting work.
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Nonetheless, few film characters have an introduction as vivid as Davis has here, as Leslie Crosbie, who enters the film firing six bullets into a man, nor as darkly unsettling an exit, in her final moonlight-soaked march out to face the lurking demonic avenger. This last act is all she is left with after utterly breaking with her husband (Herbert Marshall), having laid everything to waste and crocheting madly all the time. She defeats the legal and domestic regimes with ease, but falls foul of her mirror image, the lethally offended Oriental woman, wife of her murder victim.
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The Letter is sourced in Maugham’s expose of the pretensions and failings of the British colonial mission, translated through Hollywood gloss as a darkly erotic and exotic tale of various forms of exploitation; it’s full of the drunks and philanderers Maugham saw so much of the Imperial mission as being leeched by. Leslie's outsized acts and deisres have to be observed with far more irony and detachment than the average Davis anti-heroine: she's not going to redeem herself, she's not sympathetic, she's not even a monster. She's merely a tawdry narcissist trapped in a tawdry world.
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The Letter works intuitvely as a spiritual prediction of the shattering of the Empire coming within a year, and Wyler’s moon-struck visuals perfectly evoke a somnolent threat drifting through the trees and in the shaded glow of the seemingly peaceful Malayan night. The days belong to sickly tangles of scheming, seen at its most uneasy when Joyce is carefully drawn into conspiracy and illegality by his clerk (a splendidly sleazy Victor Sen Yung), itself a kind of seduction.
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But night belongs to raw passion. We confront the moment when colonialist assumptions run onto the rocks, as Leslie’s rapacious desire hidden under a surface of bland civility, only to destroy a tenuous balance of east and west evoked by the unseen, but crucial marriage of her victim to Eurasian Mrs Hammond (Sondergaard), stirring a revenge that strikes out of the shadowed night as the very epitome of the repressed arising.
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Wyler charges the film with a glaze of eroticised mystery, and the most powerful scenes are virtually silent, as when Leslie and Joyce venture into Mrs Hammond’s world leading to a charged confrontation whose unspoken message, delivered instead entirely by looks, sees Davis, wrapped in virginal white veil evoking a medieval princess, demands she prostrate herself before the witchy Sondergaard – two loaded icons of feminine stereotypes that invoke hypocrisy and false innocence pinioned before a force of primal hate. The subsequent coup-de-grace, altered from Maugham's source play, is more apt.
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2 comments:

The Rush Blog said...

[The Letter is a surprising beast, because it’s fundamentally a director’s film, rather than an actor’s showcase. This is confirmed by Davis’ relatively histrionic performance, as if she sensed she was not the centre of attention.]


Bette Davis gave a histronic performance in "THE LETTER"?? Bette Davis in "THE LETTER" . . . was over-the-top? Seriously?

You know, I was inclined to make some catty remark in the actress' defense, but I found your comment too astounding to say anything else.

Roderick Heath said...

It could be worse. Some people regard all of Davis' performances as histrionic. I personally said "relatively", for I didn't find her quite as on target as she is in, say, Dark Victory. But, continue getting your knickers in a knot if you must.