Monday, June 1, 2009

The Letter (1940)

The Letter starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall is a classic example of why I really don't like film noir very much. People behave in completely stupid and irrational ways in order for most of the plots to work. The lead characters in noir are required to be short-sighted and mad in their objectives, which limits the depth of the characters and the actors who can play them. I'm sure this mirrors real life somewhat, but it is equal parts movie exaggeration. The genre seems to demand the cool, aloof beauty with a heart of stone, the lustful clever man and the hapless chump to be the victim. But what happens when the actors portraying these types are just too different, too smart, too nuanced to fit into these molds? Well, what happens is a film like The Letter.

The film begins on a moonlit night on a rubber plantation in Singapore, the camera panning over a shed full of dozing workers, moving across the yard to the plantation house. Shots ring out. Leslie Crosbie (Davis) comes to the door pursuing an unseen man. She puts four more slugs into him, in front of half a dozen witnesses, calmly orders the "head boy" to bring the police, before retiring to her room to smoke cigarettes. Her husband, Robert (Marshall) arrives along with the police and their family lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) and the three men coo over her while she calmly tells how the man, Jeff Hammond, tried to "make love to her" before she filled him full of lead. The police and her husband are beside themselves with admiration for her strength and dignity in defending her honor. The lawyer is a bit suspicious. At this point, I wanted to shake Herbert Marshall till his head popped off, but he goes on being decent, thoughtful and totally blind to his wife's obvious flaws. For her part, I began to wonder why she would cheat on a man who was so obviously devoted to her and who is, after all debonair, handsome Herbert Marshall.

Davis plays the role as cool as ice, never letting on until the films last act just what her attachment was to the dead man. Since we never see him except as a corpse or learn much about his personality it's difficult to understand why she would prefer him over her husband and why she is so in love with him when it becomes clear that he treated her pretty shabbily. The bulk of the film is taken up with a letter from the defendant to the dead man that threatens to send Leslie to the gallows where she belongs. Her lawyer compromises his principals to save her because he he so fond of her husband that he doesn't want him to find out what she's really like. And he may be infatuated with her as well. It's difficult to tell because their scenes together are kind of nebulous and Davis plays everything so aloof and quirky that you can't tell whether she's trying to seduce Howard Joyce or not.

Davis wasn't particularly well suited to the stereotype of femme fatale. She's too intellectual, too neurotic (the film's most clever ploy is to channel her restless energy into lace knitting which becomes a symbol for her sexual frustration) and not the right kind of sexy for this. I'm not saying Bette Davis wasn't a sex symbol. She was, but primarily, I think her appeal was to women and men who liked a woman with spirit and brains. She was a thinking man's pin up. Not the sort of knock out who inspired the animal lust that will drive men to do completely stupid and irrational things. In short, she's no Lana Turner. Herbert Marshall, though flawless as usual is perhaps the wrong type to be the likeable chump/victim. He's too handsome, charming and well-matched with Davis to fit the type. In short, he's no Cecil Kellaway.

The Letter
is worth watching for noir fans as it is a well-crafted example of the genre, with plenty of exotic and dark atmosphere and a comprehensible visual language from able director William Wyler. The very qualities that limit the genre of Film Noir, in requiring those stereotypes, also make it so compelling when it does work. This is good example of a movie that gets almost everything right,except casting. It's also an interesting entry for Davis fans who want to see the whole limit of her range as an actress.


Kittenbiscuits said...

Oh, I think I might have to disagree with you on this one. ;) Of course I love noir and I adore Ms. Davis. I've always thought this was one of her best performances. This film has always been one of my favorites. :D

Jennythenipper said...

It's an interesting twist to the noir femme fatale. I like the way she plays it, but I think the biggest flaw is that I never buy into the romantic power of the dead man. By the way, I was just hunting around on IMDB and saw that Marshall played Geoffrey Hammond in the 1929 version of the film. Since we never get to see Georfreey Hammond and the actor who played him isn't credited, I suppose the older film must have had some flashbacks, which would have actually worked, I think. Maybe if I think of Bette Davis having to choose between young Herbert marshall and older Herbert Marshall, then it works for me.