Thoughts on meaningful cinema - old and new - from an avid film devotee. Tributes to directors, composers, cinematographers and other craftsmen. - Tom Hyland
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Emerging from the Darkness
The Letter (1940) is one of Warner Brothers' finest melodramas of that decade, a subtle study of deceit, murder and self-revelation that is supremely acted by the entire cast, eloquently written, beautifully photographed and effortlessly and stylishly directed by William Wyler. It is a film that deserves to be better known.
Set in a rubber plantation in Maylasia, the film immediately grabs the viewer with the opening image of a full moon lighting up the night. Wyler shows us a lovely image of sap slowly dripping from a rubber tree and then cuts to show us the workers in their outdoors living quarters playing checkers or musical instruments or sleeping. As he pans off these people, we see the house of the film's main couple, Leslie and Robert Crosbie (Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall). Suddenly we see a man emerge from the front door and stumble down the porch stairs, as Leslie is in the act of shooting him at point-blank range; she even empties the gun's chamber of the final few bullets as the man is already dead, laying on the ground.
The story quickly unfolds after that as Leslie tells her husband and her lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) why she shot this man, Mr. Hammond. Leslie explains that he suddenly appeared at her door, asking to come in and talk and as she knew him for some time, agreed to have him come into the house. According to her version, they had an argument, he had too many drinks and then threatened her; her murder was self-defense in her eyes.
The others are satisfied, even proud of her courage, but it soon emerges that a letter that Leslie had written to Hammond has been located by his widow. The letter was written on the same day of their encounter and detailed Leslie's desire to have Hammond visit her. These details of course, place doubt on the truth of Leslie's original story, so her lawyer must make plans as to the best way of convincing a jury that she is not guilty of murder.
He is told by his assistant Ong (Victor Sen Young) that Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) is willing to sell the letter to Leslie and him for the sum of $10,000; in exchange, the widow will keep her silence. Against his better judgment, Howard goes along with this plan. The trial is held, Leslie is acquitted and we are then given the final act of Leslie and her husband trying to work out the rest of their lives. The film ends on a somber note, which I will not go into for those readers who have not seen the film.
All througout the film, Wyler emphasizes the theme of emerging from the darkness. Much of this is done visually, and much credit must go to the superb black and white photography of Tony Gaudio, who captures the murky mood of this story superbly. We see several images of the moon being hidden by the clouds and then reemerging, as darkness and light are interchangeable in only a few moments. This is initially seen in the first sequence as the plantation workers, awakened by the gunshots, are seen with the moon's light on their faces; a few seconds later as the moon hides behind the clouds, their faces are covered in darkness.
Wyler continues this visual metaphor later on in the scene in a prison office when Leslie tells Howard her plan to buy the letter. He agrees to do so and tells her that he will do everything he can to save her life. As he says this, he becomes the dominant figure in the scene, as he moves in front of Leslie, obscuring her face from the light entering the room's windows. It's a subtle visual touch and a nice way of showing the darkness into which Leslie must descend to be acquitted.
The major characters must also materialize from the darkness as well. Leslie must admit to her lawyer and then her husband that she lied about the reason she shot Hammond. She must also reveal her love for the dead man, not only to her husband Robert but also to herself. Her husband must figuratively see the light of her deception and Howard must reconcile the dark nature of his decision to buy the letter, even though this is in contract with his moral code. The way that each character's decision affects the others' is a strong underlying theme of this story.
Wyler also works with the theme of frailty, especially with Leslie's character, who is shown on several occasions knitting lace. The delicate nature of lace is in keeping with the emotional fragility of Leslie, while the needle she uses is sharp, just as the knife she will encounter in the final scene. Her needle is a source of creation, while the knife will represent destruction.
Wyler films most of this in long takes; editing and closeups are kept to a minimum. It's a treat to see a master director at work, as his camera setups and compositions serve the story beautifully. But his direction of actors is just as impressive. Herbert Marshall as Davis's husband is first-rate, as he keeps a stiff upper lip, even after learning of his wife's betrayal; it's a thoughtful, charismatic performance. Stephenson received an Oscar nomination for his role as the lawyer; it's a challenging role, one in which his character is not even afforded the luxury of a smile and he delivers brilliantly. Also worth noting is the small gem of a performance by Victor Sen Young as Howard's assistant. All of these roles are underplayed; clearly Wyler wanted this effect as the details of the plot were startling enough on their own.
Then of course, there is the performance of Ms. Davis herself. This was Bette Davis at her finest; in other words, this was Bette Davis, the actress and not Bette Davis, the Star. This was clearly a vehicle for the actress, as her name appears before the title, but thankfully, Davis decided to put her histrionics on hold for this performance and the film is all the better for that. She acts in this film instead of emoting, something which we've all seen from time to time. Davis also gave a wonderful performance the following year in The Little Foxes, also directed by Wyler; apparently he knew as well as anyone how to get the finest work from this iconic actress.
Howard Koch, who would go on to co-write Casablanca at Warners a few years later, adapted this story from W. Somerset Maugham's play of 1927; his screenplay is beautifully structured and a model of efficiency. His words sound natural and are never forced. I loved this particular exchange between Davis and Stephenson, when he asks her about her knitting:
Davis: I find it soothing. Stephenson: Does that mean it takes your mind off other things? Davis: Is that a legal question?
Additional credit must go to Orry-Kelly for his costume design (especially Davis' and Sondergaard's outfits), the layered art direction of Carl Jules Weyl and the impressive score of Max Steiner. The composer, who could be a bit intrusive at times with his cues, adds emotional depth to the story with his subdued themes.
The Letter is a story with a sensational theme that was handled with great finesse and style by William Wyler and his collaborators. This is a film that should be mandatory study for today's filmmakers who could learn a lot about film language and the elegance of telling a story in a cinematic way.