Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Letter (1940)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

A full moon shines bright in the night sky, but clouds drift in front of it, obscuring the view of that all-seeing eye in the sky. There's a sticky stillness hanging in the air over this rubber plantation in early-20th-century British Singapore, as the native workers lounge about in the quiet and latex drips from a tapped tree into a bucket. The silence is broken by a gunshot, coming from inside the house. It's followed by another, and a man stumbles out onto the front porch. Behind him stands a woman, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), who fires again as he tumbles down the steps and lands face-down in the dirt. Even though he's most certainly dead, Leslie empties the rest of the rounds into his back. The light of the moon peeks out from behind the cloud. Leslie's deed is exposed to the world.

This is how The Letter, William Wyler's 1940 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's play of the same name, opens, and from there it's all about Leslie's efforts to prove that she shot the man, a mutual friend by the name of Geoff Hammond (David Newell), in self-defense. She has no trouble convincing her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) that she's innocent. It's her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), who she has a more difficult time persuading, especially when a letter Leslie had written to Hammond emerges and offers hard evidence that this murder had been in the works for some time.

Don't let Davis' wide-eyed innocence fool you. There's malicious satisfaction burning behind those famous pupils.

More after the jump.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Davis completely owns The Letter, capturing the focus of every frame even as others are trying to be heard. Leslie is (foolishly) confident in her air-tight cover-up: Hammond attempted to rape her, she shot him because she didn't have any other choice, and she got a little carried away in the process. When her husband comes home to comfort her, as do Howard and the inspector, Leslie only seems slightly disturbed by her plight. Sure, when she recounts her story, she gives it the requisite drama, but otherwise she lounges about, cool as a cucumber.

Even when she's called out for remembering the events too well and for being too calm, Leslie doesn't lose her cool. The film is really a battle of wits between Leslie and Howard, and the stakes are getting away with murder. While everyone else believes her story without question, Howard keeps probing, offering her a copy of the letter and a chance to explain it.

She's still calm and collected, and explains it away as a forgery. Howard will admit over and over that he doesn't want her to be found guilty, but those are just words. But Howard makes a formidable enemy for her, even though he's technically her ally in this case. They see straight through what they say, and neither really seems to take what the other says as an assurance. This is a good thing, because it allows plenty of opportunities for Davis to arch her eyebrows and get a read on her threats. But even though Howard is presented as her main adversary, he never really poses a serious threat to Leslie's credibility: after all, he is her lawyer, and he goes to extraordinary, possibly illegal lengths to secure the original letter from his partner Ong's (Sen Yung) source.

*best shot*

There is one person, looming in the shadows, who can foil her "perfect murder." That would be Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondegaard), the widow who has possession of that original letter (in the original play, she was Hammond's Chinese mistress, but the Hays Office forced Wyler to change her to his Eurasian wife). This is the first scene in which we really see Leslie's confidence shaken, and Wyler does a terrific job at framing the two women so as to place them in relation to one another. Mrs. Hammond appears to have known about Leslie's affair with her husband for some time, and she also knows that she has the upper hand in their meeting. Yet Wyler positions them in the frame so that they are, more or less, on equal footing, even though Sondegaard was much taller than Davis.

But what I really love about this particular shot is the costuming. Leslie is hiding behind a (literal) white veil of innocence, trying to keep herself covered so that she and her crime aren't exposed. Mrs. Hammond, on the other hand, is dressed down in mourning black, but she doesn't cover herself; she's not hiding, and her severe look indicates that she's not interested in stepping out of the darkness to publicly speak out against Leslie. In an indelible moment, she demands that Leslie remove her veil. She's not going to play Leslie's "does this look like the face of a cold-stone killer?" game. She means business, she knows the truth, and she's set herself up to take care of Leslie if the courts fail to deliver justice.

The Letter ends with a scene that's an excellent example of Hays Code-era Hollywood: in the original play, Leslie spends the rest of her life alone after her husband learns the truth about her affair and murder. However, that wasn't enough for the Hays Office: the murder had not been appropriately punished, and so it is Mrs. Hammond who stabs Leslie in the dark outside the plantation, killing her. It's kind of a cheap ending for the melodrama that preceded it, but it doesn't diminish the impact of what came before.

Leslie could have learned a lesson from other "perfect murder" films: the clouds are going to keep moving, and the light of the moon will expose what was done in the dark.


Shane Slater said...

Nice choice, we chose the same scene. Interesting that you say they are on equal footing here. In my shot (when Davis steps up closer) it seems like Sondergaard is deliberately positioned higher (or is she just very tall?).

Either way it's an awesome confrontation between these actresses.

Jason H. said...

I loved your shot selection, Shane. I think our shots represent Wyler changing the dynamic of the scene: at first Leslie is nervous but still confident of her status (namely, in being white), but by your shot it's become evident who really has the upper hand.

Shane Slater said...

Good point. Such smart camera work from Wyler and his cinematographer.

The Rush Blog said...

I rather liked how Leslie ended up dead at the hands of Mrs. Hammond. I only wish that Wyler didn't add the two cops showing up after Mrs. Hammond had killed her.