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The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)


    Based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, William Wyler’s adaptation of The Letter is better for knowing that it’s a “small” movie. Set in a series of sitting rooms, the overly genteel film allows us to examine the standards of the insular society that’s scandalized by its melodramatic plot. Wyler’s typical style, dominated by long, deep-focus shots, is in effect here, and as a result its scenes of interrogation seem less like an assault on the defendant than an examination of the process by which she is acquitted that implicates the colonial social order. Despite, this seeming ensemble focus, however, the film is a perfect vehicle for its star, Bette Davis. Leslie Crosbie, the hypocritical, high-society murderess she plays is well suited to her screen persona, which has always been more a mixture of cool intelligence and extreme standoffishness than sexual attractiveness. The shots Wyler includes of her fastidiously knitting her lace reveal her shrewd, calculating nature as much as any twist in the plot. That's partially because The Letter’s plot is thoroughly unexceptional. The rather routine courtroom drama it spells out is really an excuse for its examination of its leading lady’s two-faced nature. Bored with her husband, bored with her lover, yet incredibly possessive of both, her character is defined by the clash between her upper-class pride and her less refined sexual impulses.


    The opening scene of The Letter, which features the murder that sets the plot in motion, is incredibly atmospheric. Though the preponderance of studio sets keeps the atmosphere from sustaining such heights throughout, the film hardly suffers because the explosive first scene makes it clear how much Bette Davis’ character is repressing throughout the rest of the film. As other characters attempt to make excuses for her and try to deny the existence of her interior passions, she plays along, until another woman finally intuits the truth about what happened. Though the overly moralistic ending differs from the source material, The Letter really only has two great liabilities. The first is Max Steiner’s wretched score, which pours syrup over the ambiguities that Wyler strains to create. It underscores scene after scene, deadening the atmosphere where the film needs it most and adding unnecessarily “exotic” Asian melodies at every other turn. The second liability, which probably hurts the film less than the first, is the existence of Lewis Milestone’s excellent Rain. Similarly based on a Maugham story set in a far-off locale, it is twice as sultry and twice as effective a condemnation of sexual hypocrisy.



Jeremy Heilman