Saturday, October 5, 2019
Bette Noir Watch: The Letter (1940)
Format: Amazon Streaming
I am well aware of the hurricane force that is Bette Davis, but for whatever reason, I don't wind up taking enough advantage of her expansive filmography. Sometimes I feel genuine guilt in regards to this deficiency, and - as this Davis-induced-remorse had occurred once again recently - I decided to remedy the issue by force-marching Jamie through a 90 minute movie that, frankly, I knew nothing about.
A prestige picture of sorts from pre-war Warner Bros., The Letter (1940) makes not just for an interesting time capsule, but a fascinating melodrama and noir, punctuated by Davis' terrific performance. With a script based upon a 1927 play (and previously made into a movie during the silent era), the material of the film is well honed, a tight, taught narrative with a number of fascinating characters and smart dialog.
The film opens on a steamy night at a rubber plantation in the Malay Peninsula where shots are heard, and Bette Davis is seen following a man out of the door of her house, filling him with lead, even after he's down. The plantation employees rush to her aid and she asks them to summon local law enforcement and her husband. She then relates to the authorities and her husband that Hammond, the victim, had tried to rape her, and she'd grabbed her husband's revolver and shot him in a blind panic.
Her seemingly air-tight defense is punctured when her attorney - a friend of Davis'husband - is told by his Chinese clerk that there is a letter sent by Davis to the victim on the day of the murder, demanding he come see her. The victim was an Englishman, but he'd taken a local wife, a Eurasian woman, who now has the letter. She asks for a large sum of money to return the letter and much discussion begins.
Davis's path may be a bit telegraphed - but sometimes it's about the execution. While some things may have played differently in 1940, the moments when the story moves from beat to beat and as it slowly reveals Davis' character's story may not add up the way we thought remain as wrenching as if we couldn't put the pieces together ourselves prior.
Visually, the movie is pure noir. Venetian blinds, deep shadow, etc... and dynamic camera work (Tony Gaudio) all plays perfectly into Noir Alley visuals, just as much as the slow reveal of Davis's character drops her directly into noir lead territory. But beyond those checkboxes, it really is a strikingly well-shot film, enough so that even from the first shots of Davis' plantation and the iconic shot on the front steps (that's all I knew about the movie), you can see the money spent in careful planning and carry-through.
I don't want to dismiss the rest of the cast, none of which I was familiar. Herbert Marshall plays her husband, James Stephenson the attorney, Victor Sen Yung the clerk. And you can't not give a nod to Gale Sondergaard, the widow - weirdly playing a woman of bi-racial birth who is very clearly a woman with a last name like Sondergaard.*
There's a 2019 reading of the film that it would be easy to categorize as Yellow Peril, but I think the movie, instead, is a reflection of the time and sympathetic in its way to the colonized people of Singapore and Malaysia (who would be overrun by the Japanese in WWII). The locals may be living apart from the English, or on their plantations, but it's not portrayed as nefarious - but perhaps unknown to the English - and the actions taken that put Davis at odds with her victim's wife are squarely the fault of Davis. Honestly, my reading had me kind of rooting for the "antagonists" of the film as they stuck it to The Man. And, frankly, I wonder if they assumed we'd assume the Asian characters were scheming just by default, which... oh, 1940...
I'm okay with melodramas, but I am especially okay with Bette Davis-starring melodramas. I'll certainly watch this one again at some point.
*while watching the movie, I wondered if this was an end-run to deal with the Hayes Code. Some instances of White people playing other races were because the Hayes Code didn't allow for interracial romance on screen - so, you cast a white lady as an Asian lady because the guy was English. Or something. Or, you know, good old fashioned mid-century racism.