Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Letter (1940): A Lie Is As Good As the Truth...

Just in time for a Turner Classic Movies' broadcast of The Letter (1940) early Sunday morning at 12:00 AM (ET) on January 22nd, 2012, a guest contributor to this blog has come along to rekindle our fascination with this compelling W. Somerset Maugham story of the power of obsessive love, duplicitous motives, and racism in colonial Malaysia during British control of the region.

The guest author, CineMaven aka Theresa Brown, is a filmmaker and a longtime member of the TCM Message Boards (and a striking figure in one of TCM's distinctive interstitials called "My Retrospective: A Fan's Memories"). In the paean below, she shares her thoughts about one of her all-time favorite films, the 1940 Warner Brothers classic, The Letter, directed by William Wyler. The second American version of the Maugham story was adapted by Howard Koch, and the movie received seven nominations for Academy Awards.* It won none of them, but has earned a spot in the heart of every classic film aficionado for its marvelous synthesis of mood, story, performance, and craftsmanship that still lingers in our collective memory, no matter how familiar it has become.  In 2009, Theresa even had the opportunity to introduce this W. Somerset Maugham adaptation on-air, with Turner Classic Movie's Robert Osborne, when she was chosen as one of fifteen guest programmers to celebrate the 15th Anniversary of TCM.

Regardless of whether you have seen The Letter (1940) only once or many times, I think that Theresa's passionate, amusing and observant insights into this movie may make you a fan of her unique voice as well as this cherished product of the studio era. I hope that regular readers enjoy this personal take on a fine film, and thank you so much, Cine! ~ Moira


by Guest Blogger, CineMaven

“THE LETTER.” I’ve had many viewings of this classic film since I was a teenager. But there was something about seeing it this time, that made me see the movie differently. The Letter (1940) keeps me bone-straight in my seat as I watch the slow peeling of a woman scorned; from the cry of release of the confession. Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie is layered and peeled like an onion. But don’t cry for her. It’s a movie about watching a murderer. Is there any need for a spoiler alert here? I’m pretty sure EVERYONE has (or SHOULD have) seen this great classic.

In this movie, Leslie is fawned over during her plight after being arrested for the murder of a man who’s tried to rape her. The colonial cop (Bruce Lester) who questions her is enamored, her husband (Herbert Marshall, naturally) is protective; even the jail matron says: “It’s a different place since Mrs. Crosbie’s been’s a shame she has to stay here atoll.” Uh....she murdered someone folks, albeit in self-defense. Western Caucasian privilege??? I daresay. During Leslie’s statement of events, she (Bette Davis) does sound veddy veddy stiff-upper-lipped and actressy (guess that’s why I luv her); she uses pregnant pauses for effect. The only person NOT falling all over himself for her is her lawyer. He is attorney Howard Joyce, played by James Stephenson. He has a rather cold, and hard look; like a handsome, taller version of Ronald Colman. Here’s a leading man worthy of acting opposite the Warner Queen. He stands toe-to-toe with her. As her lawyer, Joyce asks questions that casts doubt on the veracity of her story. He talks to the arresting officer and asks him if attacking a woman sounds like the dead man’s m.o. since he seemed to be a ladies’ man.

Joyce even says to Leslie: “When I was looking at Hammond’s seemed to me that some of the shots were fired after he was lying on the ground.” There’s just enough questioning to give us pause. There’s no doubt that the privilege of race & class gets you perks. A car’s headlights and Max Steiner’s music introduces us to Mrs. Hammond (played by the great Gale Sondergaard), the dead man’s Eurasian wife.
Above: Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond

She’s dressed in black...somber, stately, handsome, elegant. You get a whiff of what the plantation crowd thought of the inter-racial marriage between one of their own (Hammond) and Sondergaard’s character when you hear Leslie’s lawyer say: “Strange that Hammond was able to keep his life so hidden; that gambling house he owned and especially the Eurasian woman. I think it was finding out about her that turned opinion so completely against him.” Leslie’s description of Mrs. Hammond is none too flattering: “Horrible! She was all covered with gold chains and bracelets and spangles. Her face like a mask.” But that’s to be expected. After all, what mistress compliments the wifely rival?

William Wyler gives Sondergaard the close-up camera shot of her career, (IMHO). Wyler has his cinematographer Tony Gaudio place his camera below, looking up at her as she closes her dark eyes brimming with tears at seeing her husband’s dead body. And Max Steiner’s music for her is great...heart-aching, quite sympathetic.’s the 1940’s folks and in case you need a little help knowing how to feel, Maxie’s here to help us. And I LOVE IT.
Above: Victor Sen-Yung as Ong Chi Seng

How are Asians treated in this film? Aaaah...if only it were 2012 and NOT seventy odd years ago. The Asian clark , Ong (portrayed by Victor Sen-Yung who, if I’m not mistaken played Hop Sing on tv’s “Bonanza”) plays his role in a bit of a subservient manner (ever-smiling, walking in small, quick mincing steps to keep up with the big Lawyer Man). I love that Ong KNOWS he’s holding ALL the cards. He is soft -spoken while sticking the dagger in oh so gently and deferentially into his boss' guts. I’m wondering something. I wonder what the role would’ve looked like had Keye Luke played it. I always thought he was much more of a hepcat, i.e. his role in the Charlie Chan/Dr. Kildare series. I also muse about what the great Anna May Wong would have brought to the role of Mrs. Hammond. I wondered what the film would feel like if Hollywood had allowed an Asian actor to just play the role like their normal selves. There’s a slight touch of comic relief exhibited by character actor Willie Fung. Boy, does he ever have a cackling laugh. He could rival Dracula’s Renfield. Truth be told, he’s not really comic relief. In fact, it is he who is laughing at the crazy Westerners, and his laughing releases just a smidgen of tension in the letter exchange scene. But who am I’s Bette Davis who owns this film.

It’s Bette Davis whose performance is riveting and makes me watch this over and over and over again. At first, her Leslie comes off veddy arch, veddy proper and wounded; veddy mannered and actress-y. But slowly she reveals her true self and the truth of events. She acts a bit coquettish during her visit with her lawyer. Being in jail has been a bit of a vacation for her, she says. (HUH??) She fiddles with a flower on her blouse as she speaks to her attorney. She has a self-assured answer for everything until her lawyer brings up...this...letter. It’s all in those Bette Davis eyes. She needs time to remember (read lie). She unflinchingly, unwaveringly says: “Howard I swear to you, I did not write this letter.” Well...a lie is as good as the truth if you can get someone to believe it. She makes total eye contact, defiantly; she needs him to believe her. She squeezes her handkerchief for subtle emphasis. If anything, this movie teaches you one thing: you can lie to your can lie to your Priest/Pastor/ Minister or Rabbi. But you’d BETTER NOT lie to your lawyer. Her lawyer reads the letter. Steiner’s music underscores the words Leslie has written:
 “Robert will be away for the night. I absolutely MUST see you. I’m desperate and if you don’t come I won’t answer for the consequences. Don’t drive up.”

Below: The confrontation between client (Bette Davis) and counsel (James Stephenson):

So? On the face of it...big deal. When Joyce starts hammering at her about how the trial can go against her favor, she falls into a dead faint; the typical ploy of a movie heroine trying to avoid the truth and stall for time. Look at the tactics Leslie uses to wheedle out of this: she mentions how all of this will affect her husband. After her faint, she’s laying on the prison hospital table; we don’t see her face at all. The camera's behind her. But her hand leans against the wall...and it’s her hand that does the acting. Funny how I never noticed that the first twenty years I’ve seen this film:

Leslie: “I’m afraid I’ve made rather a mess of things.”
Howard: “I’m sorry.”
Leslie: “For Robert, not for me. You’ve distrusted me from the
Howard: “It’s neither here nor there, Leslie.”
Leslie: “Who’s got the letter?”
Howard: “Hammond’s wife.”
Leslie: “Oh.”


Leslie: “Are you going to let them hang me?”
Howard: “What do you mean by that Leslie?”
Leslie: “You could get the letter.”

I tell you, watch her hands...listen to the music...soft & seductive. The music stops and starts. She starts to spin the web to ensnare her lawyer. Since she can’t out and out seduce him, she plays on his sense of loyalty; uses the “Husband-Card.” She also uses a good dose of guilt: “Poor Robert, he doesn’t deserve it. He’s never hurt anyone in his life. He’s so good and simple and kind and he trusts me so. I mean everything, EVERYTHING in the world to him. This will ruin his life.”

The lawyer decides to betray himself because he DOES have feelings for Leslie...subtle and unspoken. But Leslie needs to stick the knife into his ethics just that much more. Why. Because this is what lethal ladies do: “You won’t have to show Bob the letter, will you? And after the trial?...but if he loses his trust in me, he loses everything.” She ups the ante. And I think he knows he’s being had but good. She’s leaning against the wall, looks so vulnerable. She’s baited the hook with his friendship for Bob (Herbert Marshall) and landed a whale of a fish.  “I don’t want you to tell me anything but what’s needed to save your neck,” he says a touch contemptuously. The Lawyer sells the Hubby on the idea of paying for this incriminating letter.
He’s cool, calm and collected; very matter-of-fact in his approach. Joyce has sold his ethics and his friend down the river in one fell swoop. And when Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) buys the letter (and the lie) Joyce wipes his brow--WHEW!! in silent relief.
Above: "I don't think it's right...but I think it's expedient," Attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) tells his client's concerned husband (Herbert Marshall) as he convinces him to buy "the letter" from Hammond's Asian widow. 

I love the moment where the Lawyer and the bartender talk at crosspurposes. “Too bad rubber won’t grow in a civilized climate,” says the bartender, thinking it’s the heat that’s making the lawyer sweat. FADE OUT. We know why Joyce is sweating. He’s got a secret from his friend. And he’s broken the law, somberly jeopardizing his career for Leslie. The guilt is torturing him. He looks snazzy in his white dinner jacket, his gaze at her is cold and hard in their forever interrupted “moments.” Leslie spins her web as intricate as her lace needlepoint work.

Oh goody, THE BIG SCENE: where Wife and Mistress meet. Aaah, that’s always good for fireworks a la “The Women”. Leslie in white lace, looks positively virginal as she goes before the Altar of the Wife. The chimes start...the proprietor smokes his hash. Leslie, Joyce and Ong wait with baited breath as though waiting for “The Thing” to burst through the door. Howard takes a deep breath. Leslie looks innocent. Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) walks up to the beaded curtain. The camera dollies towards the curtains that the Widow stands behind. She hesitates and then parts the beaded curtain and walks through. Wonderfully dramatic. There’s the soft tinkle of chimes prevalent throughout the scene. The camera again is in the position of looking up at her. (Great camera movement).

Below: Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) confronts Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis):

She towers over the camera and looks down. She looks down at us. I’m telling you, Sondergaard does-not-blink! Wyler’s camera sets up Sondergaard in a very powerful position. The music echoes the chimes. The store proprietor giggles. Mrs. Hammond makes Leslie walk over to her to GET the letter. Mrs. Hammond pulls out the Letter and Leslie steps forward (into her key light, of course). Mrs. Hammond drops the Letter to the floor. She's the only person who's ever made Bette Davis drop to her knees. (...And I’m not counting “Jezebel”). When Leslie bends down and picks up the letter, the camera drops down with Leslie...we drop down with Leslie and humble ourselves before the black widow. She’s probably suffered racist slings and arrows from ‘the ruling class.’ Now it’s she who makes them crawl. When Bette bends down to retrieve the letter, Mrs. Hammond takes a deliberate step back. So much is said with that one step; Leslie is not worth Mrs. Hammond wiping her shoes on her. It is my favorite scene of all the movies I’ve ever seen. The music is a combination of both ladies’ themes (all the while Steiner’s musical chimes under-score everything) intermingling everything.

And listen, Leslie does not back down either. She, too, is unblinking. And she will do WHATEVER it takes to get back this incriminating piece of evidence. She is a survivor. She faces the wife of the man she had been having a torrid affair with AND killed. Could YOU do it? I couldn't. And ONLY Bette Davis can take her medicine like a man! (Wait...let me include Stanwyck in that too).

At the trial, Joyce’s summation about truth and justice sticks in his craw like a dagger. (And he’s got so many daggers in him, already). He pushes through, but has lost a bit of his soul in defense of his client. But any good lawyer worth his salt defends his client...even when he KNOWS she is guilty; even if he’s falling in love with her. The verdict: Not Guilty, of course.

The plot ups its ante a bit more. Robert, the Husband, wants to put this all behind them. And what man wouldn’t. D’ya think he thinks about packing it all in and going back to the States to get a desk job? Nooooooooooo. He wants to work another plantation with his money. Only thing is, their lawyer used up Robert’s entire funds for Leslie’s defense. And that crafty wily Mrs. Hammond picked the exact amount of money for that letter, that would deplete Robert’s bank account. When it’s revealed what his money was spent for, Davis hides no more. She’s It’s her one honest moment in the film. Steiner’s music is a low bass somber drum beat: “I was in love with Jeff Hammond. Been in love for years. We use to meet each other constantly once or twice a week. Not a soul had the smallest suspicion. Every time I met him I hated myself and yet I lived for the moment when I’d see him again. It was horrible. Never an hour when I was at peace, when I wasn’t reproaching myself. I was like a person who was sick with some loath-some disease and doesn’t want to get well. Even my agony was a kind of joy...Then I heard about that, that native woman. I couldn’t believe it, I wouldn’t believe it. At last I saw her. Saw her walking in the village with those hideous spangles, that chalky painted face, those eyes like a cobra’s eyes. But I couldn’t give him up...At last he turned on me. He told me he was sick and tired of me. That it was true about that other woman. That she was the only one that had ever meant anything to him. That he was glad that I knew because now I’d leave him alone. When he got up to go and I knew if he’d left I’d never see him again, so I seized the revolver and fired...there’s no excuse for me. I don’t deserve  to live.”

To say the girl had it baaaad, might be an understatement! Her confession serves as a release/relief for her and a salvo to Robert’s ego...his idea of her...his idea of his life WITH her. Where do you go from there? She’s laid herself bare. He is stripped of any illusions of her. And what about Joyce? Her lawyer has feelings for her too. This couldn’t have been easy for him to hear either.

JOYCE: “He’s going to forgive you.”
LESLIE: “Yes. He’s going to forgive me.”

Friends come out to celebrate Leslie’s acquittal and perhaps even celebrate their own acquittal for being justified in their racism. It won’t work between Leslie and Robert. Part of the reason it won’t work is the Production Code could not let an adultering murderer live. And also, I think part of it is, being forgiven is probably the worst sin of all for Leslie. I’m thinking: how can she do honor to the memory of her lover by having her husband’s forgiveness and this ALL put under the rug and start anew (...with more rubber) as though nothing ever happened; as though she never was in love. Hmmm. It’s not that Robert has stopped loving Leslie. It’s just that this poor sap’s love will NEVER be enough. With the world at her feet...with freedom in her hands...with her welcome back into the community, (poor poor Leslie), ONLY Bette Davis could be honest enough...true to herself enough to throw it all away. Perhaps it was Leslie’s one selfless act to help Robert get over her, by sending him off hating her.
Above: Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) tries to reconcile with his wife, Leslie (Bette Davis).

“With all my heart, I still love the man I killed.”
Her fate is sealed. We know how this will end.
I love this film. The entire cast plays their archetypes wonderfully. I love watching Gale Sondergaard- regal, silent, deadly but most of all I love watching Bette Davis weave and crochet her way to her doom under the moonlit Malaysian nite. I wonder if Ong was able to hang his own shingle somewhere?

* The Academy Award nominations for The Letter (1940) were as follows: 

Best Picture: Warner Bros.
Best Director: William Wyler 
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Bette Davis 
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: James Stephenson 
Best Cinematography, Black-and-White: Tony Gaudio 
Best Music, Original Score: Max Steiner 
Best Film Editing: Warren Low
What?? Nothing for Gale Sondergaard?

The Letter (1940) is readily available on DVD and is broadcast on TCM periodically.  The trailer for this film, redolent of the suffocating tropical intrigue in this story and suffused with Max Steiner's intensely dramatic score, is posted below:


KimWilson said...

Great look at one of Bette Davis' best performances. Love that poster for The Letter at the beginning of your article. The only thing I don't like about the film is the ending--as this is NOT what happened in the play. I think TCM should show this film back-to-back with the 1929 version starring Jeanne Eagels. Interesting enough, this was not one of Davis' favorite performances--the whole being married yourself and in love with a married man and then being directed by that man in a film with a similar situation could have been a but much--plus, she obviously had issues with the final product--she cried when she saw it.

Moira Finnie said...

Hi Kim!

I'm so glad that you like CineMaven's appreciation of this movie.

I would love to see Jeanne Eagels' version of The Letter (1929) as a double feature with this one too. I have seen portions of the 1929 film, and I was very impressed by the leading lady's edgy performance. As many readers undoubtedly know, Herbert Marshall appeared in the '29 Eagels version too--except that instead of portraying poor, clueless Robert Crosbie, he played Geoffrey Hammond (the victim) in that one. Hammond's part was substantial in the Maugham play that the earlier film was based on, even though the role was merely a "walk-on" (or would it be a "stagger-on"?) in the 1940 version. Hammond was played by an uncredited David Newell in the Wyler version. In the '29 film, Reginald Owen played a more outraged Robert Crosbie, who seemed to be less forgiving of his wife's foibles than Marshall was in the later adaptation.

I agree that the original ending of Maugham's story and play, which you can access here, was more poignant and just--in a realistically twisted way.

Btw, The Letter (1929) is available on DVD from the Warner Archive

DorianTB said...

Moira, I really enjoyed CineMaven's fascinating, detailed review of THE LETTER! I had mentioned to Rachel at MacGuffin Movies that I had avoided THE LETTER for ages because it seemed to me like one of those "weepie" women's pictures I usually loathe. But I kept catching bits and pieces of the film over time, and I finally sat myself down and watched THE LETTER from start to finish, and I realized what a fool I'd been to avoid it so long! :-) It hit me that THE LETTER was actually a film noir cleverly disguised as a "women's picture," and it had me riveted! Now I'm also interested in checking out the 1929 version. Great post!

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

Great film. Great cast. Gale Sondergaard is great in a role with very few words. James Stephenson is solid as an upright lawyer who knows he'll pay a terrible price for destroying evidence crucial to the murder case. I was really impressed by Tony Gaudio's work behind the camera too.


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