Saturday, January 3, 2015

Letter, The (1940)



Director: William Wyler

Mystery, intrigue, deceit, and passion are the subjects of Warner Bros’ production The Letter, starring Bette Davis and directed by William Wyler. Based on the play of the same name, this picture was a story that had its share of troubles fitting a plot into a package that would pass the Production Code which policed morality in the world of cinema. The result was one of the most critically praised features of the year 1940.

The Letter is a drama about a woman who killed a man claiming she was defending herself, until a critical piece of evidence proves the truth of what led to the events of that night. Set on a rubber plantation on a Southeast Asian island where Leslie (Bette Davis), wife of the plantation’s owner, had shot and killed a man, a friend named Geoff, who she claims was trying to force himself upon her. She notifies her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), and as she goes to trial where all believe she will be acquitted for heroically protecting herself. Only Leslie and Robert’s lawyer, Howard (James Stephenson), finds her clean, claim, and collective recitation of the events of the night suspicious.
Leslie (Davis) calming killing her lover.

Howard learns of an incriminating a letter stating Leslie had invited over Geoff that night, because he husband was away working. This crucial piece of evidence is ransomed to Leslie by the wife of the very man she killed (Gale Sondergaard), because of her jealousy. By suppressing this Leslie is acquitted in court, but when Robert learns all his savings was spent on the acquisition of this letter he is devastated. Robert wants to forgive Leslie, but Leslie cannot proclaim her love for anyone other than Geoff and leaves, at which she is killed in the dark moonlight by Geoff’s wife, in ultimate revenge.

The film has all the great plot points and good acting as a film noir picture mixed into a stage play. Murder, love triangles, and betrayal create this fine melodrama starring one of the great, yet polarizing stars of the day in Bette Davis. Utilizing black and white cinematography so well, The Letter is a dark story of lust, passion , and great loss that leaves an emptiness, while at the same time can be so satisfying in a drama such as this.

The prodigious director William Wyler once again delves into the world of mystery and love’s betrayal in the production of The Letter. Much like his previous year’s Academy Award nominated work with Wuthering Heights as an audience you are left questioning first what the truth is, then once revealed the tragic news we watch as the main characters fall apart. We are once again shown his mastery of his actors and the camera in such films as he is nominated for best director for a second year in a row.

A troubled relationship.
The casting of the film goes well the plot. Bette Davis, a polarizing actress of audiences, pulls the viewers in with her performance, firstly as a questionable victim, then a broken lover, tortured form the inside. Her husband is played by British born actor Herbert Marshall, who plays a victim after being so good at being a villain in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Surprisingly Marshall had appeared in the 1929 version of the The Letter, directed by French filmmaker Jean de Limur, where he played the lover instead of the husband as seen here.

The most intriguing casting would happen to be James Stephenson who plays the lawyer Howard the one person that questions Leslie story for almost the beginning. Stephenson was brought in to read for the part by Jack Warner, head of the studio, but when he was cast by Wyler Jack Warner had a change of heart. Feeling the cast needed more recognizable names Warner requested Stephenson replaced, but Wyler felt Stephenson was right for the part and stood his ground as he gave an Academy Award nominated performance. This was Stephenson’s breakthrough performance, but he would sadly pass away of a heart attack soon thereafter in 1941.

Gale Sondergaard as the Eurasian wife of victim.
In order to fit the Production Code’s rules of films during this period changes were needed to make the original story fit the moral parameters of Hollywood’s ethical police. Geoff’s wife was originally a Chinese woman, but due to code against interracial marriages the character was changed to a Eurasian woman, who was played by Gale Sondergaard. Even more the ending had to be greatly manipulate so that Leslie was killed in the end. This change would be a somewhat justifying way to show a hero cannot get away with murder. Some critics, even those that were not aware of the original material, found the ending bland and rather boring as the troubled Leslie is simply brought to an end instead of being left as a complicated character, troubled to the end. This ending appeared to be a quick, easy out for the story.

Critically the film was a major hit in a year that saw less success than the majestic year of 1939 for Hollywood. The film was nominated for a total seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actor (Stephenson), Score (by the great Max Steiner), Editing, and Cinematography (black and white).

Somehow even though the film was so highly praised that year, it seems to not be held in high regards as other films that would get as many nominations during this period of time. This is perhaps due to the fact that 1940 was greatly overshadowed by the films of 1939 or even the soon to come World War II. Even if that was the case The Letter still makes for a very fine drama worth looking at with a great performance by Bette Davis.

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