Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Letter (1940)

Director: William Wyler                                    Writer: Howard Koch
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard

Paramount had already filmed this play by Somerset Maugham in 1929 with famed actress Jeanne Eagles in the lead and Herbert Marshall as her lover. When Warner Brothers acquired the rights they turned The Letter into a film noir with Bette Davis in the lead and Herbert Marshall now playing the part of her cuckolded husband. It was a brilliant move as the story comes alive under the direction of veteran director William Wyler. While he would go on to do a couple of noirish thrillers in the fifties, it’s a shame that he didn’t get to work on more overt films noir during the forties because his work here seems as if he would have been tremendous at it. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Wyler for his direction and Bette Davis for best actress. Though the film earned seven nominations in all, it failed to win in any of the categories. This was Wyler’s second film with Davis, after Jezebel won her an Oscar, and the two would go on to work together again in The Little Foxes. Howard Koch, who would win an Oscar for himself for his participation in Casablanca two years later, does an exceptional job of adapting Maugham’s play for the screen but had some stiff competition at the awards that year and wasn’t nominated.

The film opens on a rubber plantation near Singapore. Inside the house a shot is fired, and David Newell stumbles out onto the porch. Then Bette Davis emerges and empties the rest of the gun into him, even after he falls to the ground. The workers wake up and talk excitedly, while Davis tells Tetsu Komai to go get Bruce Lester, the foreman, and James Stephenson, their lawyer, as well as her husband, Herbert Marshall. The story she tells is that Newell had come to the house unannounced and began making unwanted advances toward her. The men, of course, believe her but Tetsu Komai suddenly disappears into the jungle. Nevertheless, she is unofficially under arrest and Stephenson takes her to Singapore early that morning to turn herself in. Waiting and watching from the foliage is Gale Sondergaard, who turns out to be Newell’s wife. This fact was something of a secret, as was Newell’s ownership of a gambling house, and so because of how that makes him look Stephenson believes the trial will be a mere formality. Later, however, Stephenson is visited by Victor Sen Yung who tells him of the existence of love letter from Davis to Newell that is in the possession of Sondergaard.

Though blackmail doesn’t come up in the conversation, it is heavily implied. As Yung leaves Stephenson tries to play it cool, but it’s a bombshell. When Stephenson confronts Davis she lies at first, then tells him the truth and from then on it’s strictly business between the two of them. Sondergaard makes two conditions for selling the letter, the first is ten thousand dollars delivered to her personally. The second is that the delivery be made by Davis herself. But the trial isn’t the end of the problems, it’s only the beginning, and the ending of the film is absolutely exquisite. There’s an old lawyer joke that goes, how do you tell when a lawyer is lying? His mouth is moving. The same can be said of Bette Davis. The only real suspense for the viewer in most of her films is how long it’s going to take everyone else in the film to realize it. But nobody does it better. James Stephenson also does a tremendous job as the family lawyer, disgusted at having to cover up for Davis’s crime and yet still hoping he can protect the pathetic Herbert Marshall, who actually manages to elicit some sympathy. Stephenson was given a well-deserved Oscar nomination but tragically died of a heart attack after making only three more films.

The sets are absolutely beautiful, and the rich black and white only serves to accentuate the alien quality of the jungle and the isolation of the house. The Chinatown set is also marvelous. The lighting is everything one would expect in a noir film, with high contrast and plenty of shadow. There’s some wonderful moving camera work when Davis is recounting her story of shooting David Newell, and when Davis is forced to meet with Sondergaard. The opening of the film, prior to the shooting, is also one of the most memorable in film history, done in one continuous shot. Tony Gaudio was nominated for an Oscar for his work behind the camera. Max Steiner’s score is a good one, and the melodic leitmotif that first appears in the title credits and throughout is memorable. Steiner earned one of his twenty Oscar nominations for the film. Finally, a couple of memorable character actors put in an appearance in the film. Cecil Kellaway, who appears briefly in a party scene, seems to have had his speaking part cut because he only has a cameo appearance. And Doris Lloyd plays the prison nurse. The Letter is everything the viewer could hope for in a Bette Davis picture from Warner Brothers and comes highly recommended.

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