The Letter is a contender for Bette Davis’ greatest film and a brilliant example of classic Hollywood filmmaking at its best. The film begins with a fiercely purposeful Leslie Crosby (Bette Davis) shooting a man we only see from the back, where she shot him and shot him until she ran out of bullets. She defends herself to the police and to her too-loving husband (Herbert Marshall) claiming it was rape. But a letter appears, a letter that reveals otherwise.
By the time William Wyler got his hands on it, The Letter had already had over a decade’s workout as workhorse of a hit play for all the great lady stars of the day. Gladys Cooper (who plays Davis’ mother in Now, Voyager) produced and starred in the 1926 West-End production and turned it into a smash hit, the beginnings of a celebrated theatrical partnership with Somerset Maugham and a career milestone. Katherine Cornell also made a success of it on Broadway in 1927; and Jeanne Eagles gave a celebrated performance in the 1929 film for Paramount. It’s a perfectly structured play with a smashing central role – an adulterous murderess who loves her husband is falsely freed only to acquiesce to a greater justice — that requires a great star and an actress of enormous skill and range; and if that actress was Gladys Cooper in 1926 London, Katherine Cornell in 1927 Broadway and Jeanne Eagles in the movies of 1929, in 1940 the acknowledged great actress and biggest female box-office star of the screen was Bette Davis. She doesn’t disappoint.
The play has a climactic clincher of a line – ‘with all my heart, I still love the man I killed,’ and there was a time when an actress’ greatness was measured on how well they delivered it. Here we see Davis, just a moment after she’s so skilfully lied of her love for her husband while she still hankers for her lover, breaking down as she expresses her passion for one through her regret for another. It’s a moral decision to finally be truthful, to take the consequences that follow, one that leads to the famous finale where she goes into the darkness with the palm trees, the moon, and the clouds over the moon creating different plays of light and darkness, to submit to justice at the hands of the wife who’s husband she killed.
But if that line is what the whole film builds to, it is also preceded by a showcase scene that offers an actress the filmic equivalent of a great aria (see clip below). What interests me in the clip is not only the self-evident genius of Davis’ acting and the brilliance of Wyler’s long-take staging but also how well those lines she acts so richly not only evoke Leslie Crosbie’s desire and admit to her crime but also how well Maugham’s lines evoke a certain pre-Wolfenden Report gay sensibility:
‘Every time I met him, I hated myself. And yet I lived for the moment when I’d see him again. It was horrible. There was never an hour when I was at peace with myself, when I wasn’t reproaching myself. I was like a person who was sick with some loathsome disease but who doesn’t want to get well. Even my agony was a kind of joy.….I don’t deserve to live’
If the film rewards being read through a gay lens, it can also be seen as a dramatisation of colonial revenge for white privilege. Leslie Crosby can get away with murder because she’s a British white woman in Malaya: even her lawyer (an excellent performance from James Stephenson) lies to the point of criminality on her behalf and risks getting disbarred because…well because British Imperialists have to stick together. The film tells us that Chinese areas are dark and dangerous, the film shows us how they are mysterious and unknowable (all the Orientalist clichés are evident in the film, highlighted by Max Steiner’s music). The Eurasian Mrs. Hammond makes the white woman kneel for the letter that will save her life. But that’s not justice. The only justice Eurasians get in this movie is when they take it into their own hands…with a dagger.
It’s a beautifully structured work, bookended as it is by two deaths, the last rhyming with and responding to the first. It is also ingeniously directed, in long takes and with deep staging, in the ‘invisible’ style so prized by Hollywood. William Wyler’s choices are so classic, so subtle, they’re almost unremarkable. Yet, note the shift to a low angle when Mrs. Hammond appears through the beaded curtain to make Mrs. Crosbie beg (above). Note also how the party and court-room scenes are shown in long-shot and full of extras to highlight appearances and the importance of reputation to public life. See how sparing is his use of the close-up, here kept in reserve only for key accents, usually when he wants the film to highlight what Davis is thinking. See also how he’s unafraid of the symbolic, how the way Mrs Crosby tries to crochet her libido out of existence is underlined for us.
Tony Gaudio’s cinematography is essential to Wyler’s achievements. Note how Mrs. Crosby’s house is presented as a kind of prison, with the shutters creating bars all around. This is a film about moral and ethical dilemmas and these are sculpted out of light for us, made manifest as light and darkness through celluloid with extraordinary skill (see above). It’s very much worth seeing on the best quality print or DVD you can get. The story is of its time but its difficult to imagine a production better than this one or to imagine a performance better than Davis’ is here.
Orry Kelly designed a terrific wardrobe, completely in sync with and highlighting aspects of Leslie Crosby’s character, with the lace pashmina one of the many highlights.
The Letter was Davis’ second outing with William Wyler and is, along with Jezebel, an essential film for fans of both.