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"THE LETTER" (1940)

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CineMaven
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"THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby CineMaven » April 29th, 2009, 12:51 pm

Hello there. I initially posted this over at TCM City. I had a lot of positive responses from it and was suggested that I post this here at the Oasis. So here it is...a post I did back in November 2007 on the classic Bette Davis film: "THE LETTER." Little did I know a year and a half ago that I would be so lucky to be able to present my thoughts on this great film to Robert Osborne. Had I known that...I might've written this a little better. The question marks were put in by the computer. I just didn't want to go back and change everything to quotation marks or apostrophes. Hope it all makes sense to you.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy!!


William Wyler's: "THE LETTER"
Posted: Nov 9, 2007 5:23 AM


"THE LETTER" Now some of you may want to go on to another thread while I wax poetic about this movie. It does not replace "Vertigo" in my heart. In fact, "Vertigo" is heart-felt movie for me...my heart gets broken and I am spent after each viewing; but 'The Letter' is a different kettle of fish. It keeps me bone-straight in my seat. It's the slow peeling of a woman's cry of self-defense..to...cold-blooded murder...to...the release of confession. Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie is layered and peeled like an onion, but don't cry for her.

I've had many viewings of this classic film since I was a teenager. I don't know if it's becuz I already know the outcome, but I must say this is the first time that I have seen this movie where I am whole-heartedly watching the movie from Gale Sondergaard's perspective, as the recently widowed Mrs. Hammond. I am utterly and absolutely sympathetic to her, and look at Bette Davis (Leslie) with a jaundiced eye. This movie is about watching a murderer. There'll be no need for a spoiler alert, because everyone, but EVERYONE has seen (or SHOULD have seen) this great movie.

First off, everyone fawns and gushes over Leslie and her plight of being arrested for the murder of a man who tried to rape her. The cop questioning her is enamored, her husband (naturally) fawns over her; the jailer who opens the gate tells Leslie she can stay in the visiting room as long as she wants...even the jail matron says: It's a different place since Mrs. Crosbie's been here...its a shame she has to stay here atoll.' Western Caucasian privilege''' I daresay yes. During Leslie's statement of the events, she (Bette Davis) does sound veddy veddy stiff-upper-lip and actressy (guess that's why I luv her); pregnant pauses for effect. The only one NOT falling all over himself over her is her lawyer. He: Howard Joyce (played by James Stephenson) has a rather cold, hard look. Looks like a leading man worthy of acting opposite the Warner Queen. He stands toe to toe with her. He asks questions that cast just a slight doubt as to the veracity of her story. He talks to the cop and asks him if attacking a woman sounds like Hammond's m.o. since he seemed to be a ladies' man. He even says to Leslie: 'When I was looking at Hammond's body...it seemed to me that some of the shots were fired after he was lying on the ground.' There's just enough questioning to give us pause. (If only Johnny Cochran had questioned HIS famous client, but I digress). There's no doubt that the privilege of race & class gets you perks.

A car's headlights and Max Steiner's music introduces us to Gale Sondergaard as Hammond's Eurasian wife now widow. She's dressed in black...somber, stately, handsome, elegant. You get a whiff of what the plantation crowd thought of the inter-racial marriage between one of their own Hammond and Sondergaard's character when you hear the lawyer Stephenson say to Herbert Marshall who plays the husband: 'Strange that Hammond was able to keep his life so hidden; that gambling house he owned and especially the Eurasian woman. I think it was finding out about her that turned opinion so completely against him. Davis' description of Gale Sondergaard's character is none too flattering: 'Horrible! She was all covered with gold chains and bracelets and spangles. Her face like a mask.' But William Wyler gives Sondergaard the close-up camera shot of her career, (IMHO). Wyler places his camera below, looking up at her as she closes her dark eyes that are filled with tears at seeing her husband's dead body lying on the floor. And Max Steiner's music for her is great...heart-aching, quite sympathe-tic. Yep...it's the 1940's and the music helps us along telling us how we're to feel, I guess. And I LOVE IT. Sondergaard's been given two scenes in this movie that define her career (for me).

How are Asians treated in this film' Aaaah...if only it were 2007 and NOT nearly seventy years ago. The Asian clark (actor Sen-Yung who, if I'm not mistaken played Hop Sing on tv's 'Bonanza') plays his role in a bit of a subservient manner (ever-smiling, small quick mincing steps to keep up with the big Lawyer Man) even though he KNOWS he is holding ALL the cards by having the letter in his possession. He is soft spoken while sticking in the dagger oh so gently and deferentially into his boss' guts. It made me wonder what the role would've looked like had it been played by Keye Luke, who I thought was a much more hepcat re: his role in the Charlie Chan series. I wondered what the role would look like if they allowed an Asian actor to just play the role like a 'Normal' person. The proprietor in the store where the letter is exchanged is quite a hoot. (Willie Fung') He has a laugh that could rival Dracula's Renfield. He looks like he's laughing at those crazy Westerners. (I like him). They have to go slumming to get the letter that will save Leslie's pretty privileged little neck.

But who am I kidding...it's Bette Davis who owns this film. It's Bette Davis whose performance is riveting and makes me watch this over and over and over again. She first comes off veddy arch, veddy proper and wounded; veddy mannered and actress-y. But slowly she reveals her true self and the truth of the events. Then she becomes the Legend we know her. She acts a bit coquettish during her visit with her lawyer. Being in jail has been a bit of a vacation for her, she says. (HUH'') She fiddles with a flower for her blouse as she speaks to her attorney. She has a self- assured answer for everything until her lawyer brings up this letter. It's all in those Bette Davis eyes. She needs time to remember (to lie, she means). She unflinchingly, unwaveringly says: 'Howard I swear to you, I did not write this letter.' And she makes total eye contact, defiantly; she needs him to believe her. She squeezes her handkerchief for subtle emphasis. If anything, this movie teaches you you can lie to your husband, you can lie to your Priest (or Rabbi or Minister). But you'd BETTER NOT lie to your lawyer. So she admits she wrote the letter. And then we hear the lawyer reads some of the letter's content (to us). It really changes our opinion of her (and there's Max Steiner's music underscoring the words she has written: 'Robert will be away for the night. I absolutely MUST see you. I'm desperate and if you don't come I won't answer for the consequences. Don't drive up.' When he starts hammering at her about how the trial can go against her favor, she falls into a dead faint. Maybe not the way Marie Osmond hit the deck during 'Dancing with the Stars,' but in a movie star way Davis, falls out to avoid dealing with the truth. (And stalls for time).

Look at her tactic: she mentions how all of this will affect her husband. It's like a guy trying to get his wife to stay 'for the sake of the children.' After her faint, she's laying on the prison hospital table; we don't see her face at all. The camera's behind her. But her hand leans against the wall...and it's her hand that does the acting. Funny how I never noticed that the first twenty years I've seen this film.

Leslie: 'I'm afraid I've made rather a mess of things.'
Howard: 'I'm sorry.'
Leslie: 'For Robert, not for me. You've distrusted me from the beginning.'
Howard: 'It's neither here nor there, Leslie.'
Leslie: 'Who's got the letter'' THE MUSIC STOPS
Howard: 'Hammond's wife.'
Leslie: 'Oh.' MUSIC BEGINS AGAIN 'Are you going to let them hang me''
Howard: 'What do you mean by that Leslie''
Leslie: 'You could get the letter.'

I tell you, watch her hands...listen to the music...how soft & seductive. Listen how the music stops and starts. She starts to spin the web to ensnare her lawyer. Since she can't out & out seduce him, she plays on his sense of loyalty; uses the husband card: 'Poor Robert, he doesn't deserve it. He's never hurt anyone in his life. He's so good and simple and kind and he trusts me so. I mean everything, everything in the world to him. This will ruin his life.' The lawyer decides to betray himself because he DOES have feeling for her. Oh that's subtly shown and unspoken. But Davis needs to stick the knife into his ethics just that much more: 'You won't have to show Bob the letter, will you'..and after the trial'...but if he loses his trust in me, he loses everything.' She ups the ante. And I think he knows he's being had but good. She's leaning against the wall, looking so vulnerable. She's baited the hook with his friendship for Bob (Herbert Marshall) and landed a whale of a fish.

'I don't want you to tell me anything but what's needed to save your neck,' he says.

The Lawyer sells the Hubby on the idea of paying for this incriminating letter. He's cool, calm and collected very, mater-of-fact. Very Walter Pidgeon like. He's sold his friend and his ethics down the river and wipes his brow (a silent: WHEW!!). Love the little by-play between him and the bartender talking at cross-purposes. Howard needs another drink after selling this swill to Husband Bob when the bartender says: 'Too bad rubber won't grow in a civilized climate,' then FADE OUT. We know why Howard's sweating. He's got a secret from his husband, and from his wife (the always lovely and sophisticated Frieda Inescort. Too bad the trajectory of her career led her to appear in 'Alligator People' with Beverly Garland). Howard is somber jeopardizing his career for Leslie. The guilt is torturing him. He looks snazzy in that white dinner jacket, his gaze at her is cold & hard in their 'moments' that are forever interrupted. I hope I'm not boring you. I told you I'm going to wax poetic about this movie. Leslie spins her web around people with as intricate a pattern as her lace needlepoint work. I'm an indie filmmaker and screenwriter and this motion picture helps me with learning how to use less words between actors. Learn from the best...Wyler.

And now THE BIG SCENE where Wife and Mistress meet. DAVIS in lace, looks positively virginal as she goes before the altar of the Wife. The good guy/bad guy colors are reversed here. The chimes start... Davis, Stephenson and Sen-Yung wait with baited breath as though waiting for a monster to burst through the door.(Remember 'The Thing: From Another Planet' 1951 when he bursts through the door' I am NOT likening the great Sondeergaard to The Thing. Save your cards and letters). The proprietor is smoking his hash (or is that opium). The Lawyer takes a deep breath. Davis looks innocent. Sondergaard walks up to the beaded curtain. The camera dollies towards the curtains that Sondergaard stands behind. She hesitates and then parts the beaded curtain and walks through. The camera again is in the position of looking up at her.(Great camera movement). She towers over the camera and looks down. I'm telling you Sondergaard does-not-blink! William Wyler has set up Sondergaard in a very powerful position. The music echoes the chimes. The store proprietor giggles. Sondergaard doesn't even take the money, becuz it's not about the money for her. She makes Bette walk over to GET the letter. Sondergaard pulls out the Letter, Bette steps forward into her key light. Sondergaard drops the Letter to the floor. She's the only person who's ever made Bette Davis drop to her knees. (Aw c'mon, you're not counting her dropping at Fonda's feet in 'Jezebel' with THIS scene are ya') When Bette bends down and picks up the letter, the camera drops down with Davis...we drop down with Davis and humble ourselves before Sondergaard. She has probably suffered racist slings and arrows from the rubber plantation owners and their wives. When Bette bends down to retrieve the letter, Sondergaard takes a deliberate step back. So much is said with that one step; probably that Bette is not worth Sondergaard wiping her shoes on her. It is my favorite scene of all the movies I've ever watched. The music is a combina-tion of both ladies' themes (all the while Steiner's musical chimes under- score everything). Bette does not back down either. She too is unblinking. And she will do WHATEVER it takes to get back this incriminating piece of evidence. She is a survivor. She faces the wife of the man she had been having a torrid affair AND have killed. Could YOU do it' I couldn't. And Only Bette Davis can take her medicine like a man! (Okay, Stanwyck could too).

At the trial, Howard's summation galls him. His words about truth and justice stick in his craw like a dagger. He pushes through, but has lost a bit of his soul in defense of his client. But any good lawyer worth his salt defends his client...even when he KNOW she is guilty; even if he's falling in love with her. The verdict: not guilty, of course. Hammond was a cad...a swine, right' The plot ups its ante a bit. Robert, the Husband, wants to buy a plantation elsewhere and use his $10,000 to help towards the purchase.

When it's revealed what his money was spent for, Davis hides no more. She's honest...she's exposed...she's naked. It's her one honest moment in the film. Steiner's music is a low bass somber drum beat. 'I was in love with Jeff Hammond. Been in love for years. We use to meet each other constantly once or twice a week. Not a soul had the smallest suspicion. Everytime I met him I hated myself and yet I lived for the moment when I'd see him again. It was horrible. Never an hour when I as at peace, when I wasn't reproa-ching myself. I was like a person who was sick with some loath-some disease and doesn't want to get well. Even my agony ws a kind of joy...Then I heard about that, that native woman. I couldn't believe it, I wouldn't belive it. At last I saw her. Saw her walking in the village with those hideous spangles, that chalky painted face, those eyes like a cobra's eyes. But I couldn't give him up...At last he turned on me. He told me he was sick and tired of me. That it was true about that other woman. That she was the only one that had ever meant anything to him. That he was glad that I knew because now I'd leave him alone. When he got up to go and I knew if he'd left I'd never see him again, so I seized the revolver and fired...there's no excuse for me. I don't deserve to live.'

Her confession serves as a release/relief for her and a salvo to his ego...his idea of her...his idea of his life WITH her. Where do you go from there' She's laid herself bare. Marshall is stripped of any illusions of her.

Her lawyer says: 'He's going to forgive you.' 'Yes,' she says. 'He's going to forgive me.'

Oh they'll try to make a go of. Friends come out to celebrate Davis' acquittal and perhaps even their own acquittal for indicting a bon vivante who gambled, had women but then had the audacity to marry an Other. But it won't work between Davis and Marshall. It's not that Marshall has stopped loving Davis. It's just that this poor sap's love will NEVER be enough. With the world in her hands...with her freedom and welcome back into the community, only Bette Davis could be honest enough...true to herself enough to throw it all away. Perhaps it was her one selfless act to help Marshall get over her, to send him off hating her. But with this one line her fate is sealed: 'With all my heart, I still love the man I killed.'

We know how this will end.

I wish I had some screen captures to illustrate my point, but hey, I'm no Frank Grimes. I love this film, love watching Gale Sondergaard- silent but deadly but most of all I love watching Bette Davis weave her way to her doom under the moonlit Malaysian nite.
"You build my gallows high, baby."

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby mrsl » April 29th, 2009, 10:27 pm

I watched the other night and this makes me want to watch it again tonight :!: :!: :!:

Anne
Anne


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* * * * * * * * What is past is prologue. * * * * * * * *

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby CineMaven » April 30th, 2009, 12:00 am

I'm flattered MrsL. You should see what others chimed in about their thoughts on "THE LETTER." Thank you for reading.
"You build my gallows high, baby."

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby knitwit45 » April 30th, 2009, 8:43 am

Hi CM. I've read you for quite a while, and it was so much fun to see you shine with Mr. O. I only saw The Letter for the first time last year :oops: :oops: but I am now a die-hard fan. Your review was great, thanks for sharing! And I'm so glad you decided to make this your new comfort zone!

Nancy

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby JackFavell » April 30th, 2009, 9:09 am

You said, "I hope it makes sense".

Not only does it make sense, it is marvelous! I never liked the movie much before I saw it during the Fan Programmers event. My best friend in high school loved it, but somehow the greatness of it escaped me for a long time. Your post brought out that greatness for me. You have the ability to write so that I actually see the movie in my head. I don't know how you do that! It is a talent that I would love to have.

My main problem with the movie was that I felt I was expected to feel sorry for Leslie Crosbie. Wyler's direction is so neutral that I felt uncomfortable watching the movie. It is deeply disturbing in many ways. He never once interjects a viewpoint or a comment on Leslie's actions.... he is cold blooded in his approach here and leaves us to draw our own conclusions, something we as audiences aren't left to do enough. I can think of only 3 or 4 movies that have been made in which we are left to think our own thoughts at the end..... The other movies that do this were made much, much later, so that makes this movie groundbreaking.

It is a GORGEOUS movie, with absolutely stunning cinematography, coldly calculating mise en scene (someone should write about the cold and hot of this movie at some point), and the greatest screen actress giving very possibly the greatest performance of her career. Though other Davis films are more fun to watch, this one is the most strictly controlled and deeply felt. Can you think of ANYONE else who could have given this performance? No. Even saying it is laughable.

Your post from the perspective of Mrs. Hammond allows me to understand the movie's racial aspects which had bothered me before. If you think of it fromt he standpoint of 1940, It must have been a slap in the face to a lot of people. The main thing that has bothered me about the movie for years was the racial theme. I always saw it as an apology for Leslie.... now I see that it is anything but that - like watching a Ford movie and thinking he was a racist.... I could not get to the deep underlying theme of white privilege and it's retribution. Thanks for helping me to see that.

You mention that Joyce the lawyer is the only one NOT falling all over himself.... In any other movie of the time, Joyce would have been doing just that. but this dichotomy in each of the characters makes for a wonderfully deep and intricately human movie. The fact that the main two characters have a deeply divided nature is sooo interesting. It makes us understand how you can love a person that you hate....or hate a person that you love.

How are Asians treated in this film? Aaaah...if only it were 2007 and NOT nearly seventy years ago. The Asian clark (actor Sen-Yung who, if I?m not mistaken played Hop Sing on tv?s ?Bonanza?) plays his role in a bit of a subservient manner (ever-smiling, small quick mincing steps to keep up with the big Lawyer Man) even though he KNOWS he is holding ALL the cards by having the letter in his possession. He is soft spoken while sticking in the dagger oh so gently and deferentially into his boss' guts. It made me wonder what the role would?ve looked like had it been played by Keye Luke, who I thought was a much more hepcat re: his role in the Charlie Chan series. I wondered what the role would look like if they allowed an Asian actor to just play the role like a ?Normal? person. The proprietor in the store where the letter is exchanged is quite a hoot. (Willie Fung?) He has a laugh that could rival Dracula?s Renfield. He looks like he?s laughing at those crazy Westerners. (I like him). They have to go slumming to get the letter that will save Leslie?s pretty privileged little neck.

This is the main problem I had watching it all those years. I would have loved your ideas about playing the Asian characters normally. But in 1940, the theme had to be obscured by these stereotypes.... There must be doubt in our minds about both whites and Asians. Maybe this is part of the point of the film... I just don't know....

I tell you, watch her hands...

Davis' hands are her best acting tool, outside of her eyes. I will never forget watching Elizabeth and Essex and being blown away by her performance.... her hands never stop moving through the whole picture. They are symbolic of her brain, active and working. At the end of E and E, she stops every movement of her body. Her hands go still, as if she herself has died with her lover on the block. She will never be the same. I'll never forget it.

I love how you write Davis' voice - "reproa-ching myself" . This made me laugh. It is perfect, dead on copy of her pronunciation.

"weave her way to her doom".... Just perfect. I love the way you write! This was a fantastic essay. I hope you are proud of yourself, because you really, really should be.

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby MissGoddess » April 30th, 2009, 10:30 am

The Letter is one of those classics that has been with me almost since the start, yet I read about it in film books before I got to see it. When I first watched it, I was most focused on the cinematography (rarely did I notice such things specifically back then---that's how striking it is) and the way Bette used her hands, as has been mentioned. I always thought it amusing how the young policeman is so filled with admiration for Leslie---"She's so calm!" he exclaims at one point, or something like. But Joyce keeps on looking as if he wasn't quite convinced. Now I find him equally as interesting as "Leslie". Wendy, you beautifully brought out why when you talked of how, in other circumstances, he behaves as if he'd have fallen for Leslie. That "dichotomy", as you said, really invests their scenes together with fascinating undertones.

Bette's "Leslie Crosbie" reminds me a little of Mary Astor in Red Dust. They're both married to good men but go ape over a guy who in the end, returns to an earthier mate. :lol:

Poor Herbert Marshall. He must have had it written into his contract after The Little Foxes: "No more movies with Bette Davis AND William Wyler---one or the other but not both together. I can't take it anymore." :D
"There's only one thing that can kill the movies, and that's education."
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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby rohanaka » April 30th, 2009, 1:41 pm

Hello there, Miss Maven (and my other TCM friends)

Well, here we are in a new setting talking about The Letter! But discussing a REALLY terrific film like that knows no “setting” I guess. (ha)

And hello SSO folks! I am a newbie to this board, but I am a “not so newbie” over at TCM. I have enjoyed “lurking” around in here in the past, and have thought many times about joining, but just never followed through. But I am happy to be here now.

A few folks (with dual citizenship here and at TCM) have encouraged me to share my response to Miss Maven’s post RE: The Letter with you on this board. So… for better or worse…. Here it is. (and thanks everyone for letting me share) (and PS.. just for explanation purposes... the "other posts" I refer to a couple of times on here are ones that were made in the TCM thread...) And so now, to quote from my all time favorite movie (The Quiet Man)... Without further eloquence... here we go:


Miss Maven: I have NO difficulty understanding your choice for THIS movie as your fan programmer pick. It sets a "standard" for good classic film drama to be sure. And I have never been a huge Bette Davis fan, and have only really liked her a LOT in a few different roles.... but I have to say... THIS film makes me totally rethink my opinion of her in a whole new way. Oh my golly...

I really enjoyed re-watching your chat with our beloved Mr. Osborne too... a very nice way to put the whole movie into perspective both at the start... and at the finish of the film.

Now before I go any further.... it is going to be next to impossible for me to talk about this movie without talking about THE STORY... so... SPOILING will occur.. reader beware.

First I have to say... there is just so much "poetic" justice in this story. It is almost as if the whole thing is one big epic "poem". And the one doing the reciting... the watchful moon.

After the opening credits.... the MOON is the first thing you see.... shining down on EVERYTHING. And let's face it... THIS is one crime that is NOT going to be able to be hidden.. I mean she more or less empties out a gun on a man w/ dozens of "ear" witnesses within a few hundred yards hearing the whole thing. But the moon is the only eyewitness against her... the moon sees it all... and for a moment... hides its face.... and hers as well... and a dark shadow crosses over everything. Is it the shadow of guilt? We don't know yet... but the moon does... and refuses to stay silent. And this time, instead of shining down on HER... it shines on the man laying dead, and shows her crime instead (as she retreats into the shadows).

And then off and on... over the course of the film... the moon is there to remind her, "I saw what you did" and at times she seems willing to stare the moon down... as if issuing a challenge almost. Other times... she looks away, as if it is too much to bear. But it was really interesting... at the end of it all... when "justice" is being served (more on that in a minute) the moon hides its face and will not be a witness FOR her this time. I say again... poetic justice.

I went in and re-read a lot of the posts and something I got to thinking about was the whole "money" angle with regard to the selling of the letter. Someone said on here that for Mrs. Hammond... it was NOT about the money but rather it was about making Leslie "grovel" at her feet.

But I got a whole different perspective on this as I was watching. For me... The money was not to buy the letter.... it was to help Mrs. Hammond pay off her accomplices... because she had this whole thing planned out. And EVERYONE (including Ong) helped her do it... and it WAS both a judgement on Leslie.. as in.... "you killed my husband, now you have to pay" but it was also about what has already been mentioned by others on here... a judgement on "caucasian privilege". Mrs. Hammond did not have any desire to place justice in the hands of the European Court system... she wasn't ever going to give that letter to the prosecution. She just used the letter to draw Leslie out... it was her "summons'" to show up for court, if you will. And by the very act of "being there"... Leslie confessed to her crime. And then by throwing the letter on the ground... Mrs. Hammond pronounced sentence. It was almost a cruel joke.. she gave Leslie what she needed in order to be set free from the "legal" trial... so that she would be free to face the REAL sentence when the time came for Mrs. Hammond to carry out justice. The widow was the judge, the jury, and the executioner.... the wife of the victim carrying out the sentence on the one who murdered her husband. (again... another bit of poetry)

I thought all the performances were very well played. The character of Joyce was SO well done... OH MY GOLLY... when he was giving his summation to the jury... he almost choked on the words. He HATED himself maybe even more than he hated HER at that point... because now... everyday for the rest of his life... he was going to have to look at himself in the mirror and realize what he'd allowed himself to become.

But I thought that Crosbie was well played too, and of course... the(almost completely) silent and menacing Mrs. Hammond... OH me...

And ONG... OH WOW..... I am thinking he must have left a trail of "oily slime" behind him everywhere he walked.... what a creepy little guy.

But this is Bette Davis' movie... SHE is the one that makes this film just bust wide open with her performance.... Mention was made of her "spinning her web" of lace... that is a PERFECT way to describe her... a beautiful, innocent looking little VENOMOUS spider... whiling away her time spinning lace one moment... and lies and deceit the next. It is interesting when she tells Joyce that she'd taken up making lace "a few years ago".. and then I wondered if it was the same time she began her affair w/ Hammond... as if she needed to busily work out her guilt (first for the affair... and then later for the murder) ... by keeping herself constantly moving.... Because THAT is what crochet is if you think about it... a CONSTANTLY moving activity that it deceptively quiet and introspective. If you watch her sitting there just busily working the thread and the needle... she just keeps going and going... because she can't really act that way on the outside... or everyone will know her guilt... so she keeps her nervousness hidden in plain sight by just keeping her hands busy instead. Again... an almost "poetic" thing...

Ok... I am likely "overselling" the poetry angle... but it's late and I am an old woman... ha... please forgive my "rambling" on and on… I will stop for now... (I think I am hearing snoring...are you still awake after reading all this?? ha)

But I will say one more thing... and that is THANKS again, Miss Maven... for introducing me to a REALLY wonderful film!!!

And thanks again SSO folks for letting me share! :)

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby JackFavell » April 30th, 2009, 1:54 pm

Poor Herbert Marshall. He must have had it written into his contract after The Little Foxes: "No more movies with Bette Davis AND William Wyler---one or the other but not both together. I can't take it anymore." :D

He sure does get it between the eyes in those two movies, figuratively and literally. The poor guy, doomed by association with Davis and Wyler to be thought of as "weak" for all of eternity.....

Not to digress, but I have to admit, I have always loved watching The Little Foxes, mostly for Marshall's spectacular scene on the stairs. The fact that he has an artificial limb makes him fascinating to me as well. I sometimes think about it when watching a scene, but usually his acting is so good that I forget it immediately. I am always impressed with Marshall's acting, and have never seen him turn in a bad performance.

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby knitwit45 » April 30th, 2009, 2:04 pm

Great post, rohanka! I do have a question for both you and CineMaven. According to RO, from a previous showing of the movie, the ending was tacked on over the vociferous objections of Bette Davis. No one was allowed to get away with murder at the time the movie was made. Any thoughts or info on this? thanks!

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rohanaka
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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby rohanaka » April 30th, 2009, 2:10 pm

Hi Knitwit45... thanks for the feedback... and I am as interested in the answer to your question as you are. I only just heard of this alternate ending thing myself.
(ps... you live in GARDNER???? I used to live in EDGERTON!!... and IWORKED in Gardner!!) ha.

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby knitwit45 » April 30th, 2009, 3:20 pm

(ps... you live in GARDNER???? I used to live in EDGERTON!!... and IWORKED in Gardner!!) ha.


SHAZAM!!!! I didn't think anyone could even find me on a map!!!! Hi, neighbor! (or used-to-be neighbor)

I think the movie (my memory ain't what it used to be) was supposed to end with her last line, but the censors got nervous and made them tack on the ending we see now. Does anyone know for sure if this is right, or am I dreaming again????

Nancy

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby rohanaka » April 30th, 2009, 4:30 pm

SHAZAM!!!! I didn't think anyone could even find me on a map!!!! Hi, neighbor! (or used-to-be neighbor)


Yep....still a neighbor.. only on the other side of the state line.

And WOW.... I can't wait to hear what other folks have to say about the original ending. (almost puts me in mind of The Bad Seed sort of thing...)

I think the line about "I still love the man... " would have been a good way to end it... but I guess I gotta go w/ the censors.... because I think the way it was done is a GREAT way to end it. I guess I just liked the "righteous judgement" angle of the widow carrying out the final sentence... (OH! I never realized I was so bloodthirsty...ha) Plus it sort of gives purpose to my whole "conspiracy theory" angle.. ha. And without it... I think crafty Widow Hammond would have just come off looking like "Greedy Widow Hammond" instead. :)

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby JackFavell » April 30th, 2009, 7:28 pm

Personally, I can't imagine another ending that would be as satisfying or well done. What? Leslie has to go on living with her guilt? That would be too boring. Leslie must go out as dramatically as she came in (it's Bette after all!).... with guns blazing or knives flashing in the moonlight...

feaito

Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby feaito » May 1st, 2009, 10:32 am

Theresa, your article is so good that it no only made me realize about lots of things in the film that it truly made want to see it all over again. Your description of the film is alluring and enthralling and it gives a new light to this perennial Classic. Also, since Bette Davis -during this period- is one of my favorites and William Wyler is my top-one director, I ought to watch it again!

I printed your article and I read it very throughly last night before going to sleep. Thanks for sharing!

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Re: "THE LETTER" (1940)

Postby moira finnie » May 1st, 2009, 12:30 pm

I love what you wrote about this movie, CM, and think this may have been one of the best things written on the TCM website in years. I hope that you'll write in depth again about movies that appeal to you and why they effect you. It is truly interesting and makes me look anew at what seems like a familiar movie.

One thing that always interested me is the way that when the lawyer James Stephenson visits his client in jail, Bette Davis, as you mention, seems to have been "on vacation".
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She always seemed to me to be sparkling in part because she has a new character to play, that of "the gracious lady in chains", nobly enduring the conventions of justice even though it is a foregone conclusion how this will end in an acquittal. She seems to be enjoying every new pose that occurs to her during her lawyer's visit with her, but, in what I think is an interesting choice on the part of Wyler (and Davis) is that the actress has her back to the camera when she finally faces the truth about the letter and her involvement with the dead man. Davis actually conveys her complex emotions with the back of her head in this scene! The only other actor I've seen do this well was Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (a few moments in his performance saved this fairly synthetic movie for me) and George C. Scott in a scene in another flawed but peculiarly moving film, Islands in the Stream.

Another thing about this movie is that there are only a few moments when Leslie Crosbie's not posing--with the lawyer, in the presence of Sondergaard, and when she admits to her husband that she still loves the man she killed. One more thing--the lawyer James Stephenson, who, despite his complicity in getting the letter from the widow, is working--not so much for Davis, but for her husband, Herbert Marshall--trying to protect him from the ugly truth. There is much more of a bond between him and Marshall than there ever is between Davis and the lawyer, even though she clearly tries to seduce him emotionally as she has most everyone else.

Did you know that in the original Maugham story and play the ending was the Crosbie's staying together rather than have the PCA mandated ending of Davis' character getting her due?

At the conclusion in the play and short story, the lawyer Joyce says to her, "It's not easy to live with a man you don't love. But you've had the courage and the strength to do evil; perhaps you will have the courage and the strength to do good. That will be your retribution." To which Leslie replies, "No, that won't be my retribution. I can do that and do it gladly. He's so kind and good. My retribution is greater. With all my heart I still love the man I killed." I think that ending is one of the few things I'd change about this movie.
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