Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Tonight's Movie: The Letter (1940)

The next film to be reviewed from my list of 10 Classics to see in 2015 is THE LETTER (1940).

THE LETTER was directed by William Wyler, a man seemingly incapable of making a bad movie. It reunited Wyler with Bette Davis, who had starred in Wyler's JEZEBEL (1938); they would team again for THE LITTLE FOXES (1941).

Although it was my first time to see THE LETTER, over the years I'd read so much about it, and seen so many clips, that it was nonetheless very familiar, and I was able to anticipate pretty much everything which happened. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as it allowed me to focus on the film's acting and style without being overly concerned with the twists and turns of the crime story.

Filmed from a screenplay by Howard Koch, based on W. Somerset Maugham's story and play, THE LETTER is a wonderful example of studio-era craftsmanship; the filmmakers never set foot outside a soundstage, but the film has great mood and atmosphere, filmed in black and white by Tony Gaudio.

The movie is set on a rubber plantation in Malaya, and it begins in shocking fashion, as Leslie Crosbie (Davis) pumps several bullets into Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell) as he falls down her front porch.

Leslie tells her husband (Herbert Marshall) and lawyer (James Stephenson) that Hammond had tried to attack her and she had shot him in self-defense. Gradually, however, her story starts to fall apart, as her attorney learns that there is an incriminating letter in the possession of the deceased's wife (Gale Sondergaard).

As Leslie tries to maintain control while weaving a web of lies -- symbolized by her constant crocheting of lace -- her lawyer ends up basically selling his professional soul, arranging for Leslie to buy the letter and defending her at trial despite knowing it was murder. While they're at it Leslie and the attorney also use up her husband's savings to buy the letter, leaving the poor trusting husband completely bewildered when he gets the news, since he believes his wife innocent.

Despite obtaining the letter, Leslie's lies continue to unravel...

THE LETTER is quite an interesting film, starting from the startling beginning. It's fascinating to watch Leslie "working" the men in the early scenes; she's cool as a cucumber, occasionally acting upset for effect, while her husband looks more haggard with every passing hour. (One wonders if he suspected all was not quite right with his wife, her behavior, and their relationship...)

Stephenson as the attorney has a great scene where he acts very offhand as he learns of the letter's existence from his rather creepy assistant (Victor Sen Yung), but then as soon as the other man leaves he grabs the letter and reads it avidly. He also has a wonderful extended jail scene with Davis where he confronts her about the letter.

Since the movie ended I've been contemplating what the lawyer's motivations were in helping Leslie buy the letter and then defending her: Was he into the case too far to feel he could quit? Sorry for her husband? Wanting to preserve the reputation of the local European colony? The challenge? He seems guilt-ridden while at court.

Stephenson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for THE LETTER; sadly he died the year after THE LETTER was released, only 52 years old. There's a book on him published by BearManorMedia.

I didn't think it was a perfect film, with my attention starting to wander towards the end of its 95 minutes, but it's a very good one. Leonard Maltin's 3-1/2 stars seemed about right to me.

The filmmakers are all top flight, including music by Max Steiner and superb costumes by Orry-Kelly.

The supporting cast includes Frieda Inescort and Bruce Lester. Elizabeth Earl, also known as Elizabeth Inglis, plays one of Leslie's friends and looks very much like her more famous daughter, Sigourney Weaver.

An interesting bit of trivia is that Herbert Marshall was also in a 1929 version of THE LETTER, that time playing the unfortunate murder victim. Jeanne Eagels and Reginald Owen starred as the Crosbies. I recorded it from Turner Classic Movies not long ago and hope to see it, as it should be interesting to compare to the remake.

THE LETTER is available on DVD.

THE LETTER will air soon on Turner Classic Movies, showing on January 15 and February 11, 2016.


OpenID vienna said...

What a coincidence,Laura. We both reviewed The Letter on the same day! You're more dispassionate about it than I am - I just love it.

12:51 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's wonderful, Vienna, what a great coincidence! For everyone who'd like to check it out, Vienna's post on THE LETTER is here. Really enjoyed your take, you zeroed in on some interesting aspects I didn't touch on.

Best wishes,

5:31 PM  
OpenID cienna said...

Thanks so much for linking to my post. I'll try and put your link on my blog.

9:57 AM  

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