Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Baby, She Wrote Me a Letter

The title refers to one of my favorite songs: The Letter. I prefer the original Box Tops version over the Joe Cocker cover although Cocker's is longer and has a more muscular hook.

For me, the highlight of the recent Max Steiner series at the Castro was The Letter. Last weekend, I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that the 1940 Bette Davis version was a remake of a superior 1929 least according to Mick LaSalle. The 1929 talkie starred Jeanne Eagels who was a heroin addict in real life and died in 1929. I'm sure that being hooked on smack influenced the performance which LaSalle praises. After seeing the 1940 remake, I'm very intested in seeing the Eagels' version.

LaSalle's first sentence implies a disdain of the 1940 version by labeling the film a melodrama. Melodrama is a loaded phrase which I have used to pejoratively describe films or certain aspects of films. I cannot deny that The Letter is melodramatic. However, sometimes the melodrama is so skillfully manipulative that you can't help but appreciate it. This happened quite often in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Bette Davis (as well as Joan Crawford) was frequently the woman doing the manipulating.

The Letter is all that but at some it point it transcended melodrama and achieved something greater. From my 2011 perspective, The Letter also encapsulated all the latent racism towards Asians in a mélange of camp and outright hostility. Never subtle, The Letter is brassy and audacious; kind of like Bette Davis. Released in November 1940, less than 13 months before Pearl Harbor, The Letter is breathtaking in its rampant bigotry which was likely a sentiment shared by many as hostilities grew between Japan and the US.

I was not so much offended by the content as I always watch old films with a complete tolerance for any offensive material. Rather, I was highly impressed by director William Wyler's casual depiction of racism and the way he weaved it into the plot. Having not read the source material, it is quite possible that W. Somerset Maugham wrote the racism in his play. Regardless, the content and the skill by which Wyler presented it was a revelation and highly enjoyable since I was detached from it. It was like looking for Easter eggs.

The plot of The Letter is exceedingly simple. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shoots Geoff Hammond. She chases him out the front door and shoots him repeatedly until her revolver is empty. Crosbie claims attempted rape and self-defense. Although a formality, Leslie is put on trial for murder. Her acquittal seems assured until a letter from Crosbie to the deceased turns up. The letter indicates that on the night of his demise, Hammond was invited to the Crosbie residence because Mr. Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) is away. Not only that, the letter also indicates that Leslie and Hammond were having an extramarital affair. This directly contradicts Leslie's explanations to her husband and attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson).

Against his better judgment, Joyce agrees to purchase the letter from Hammond's widow. With this crucial piece of evidence suppressed, Leslie is acquitted. Later, after Mr. Crosbie is confronted with the content of letter and the cost of purchasing it, Leslie admits the entire sordid affair as well as being a murderer.

I've left out that The Letter takes place in Singapore. The Crosbies, Geoff Hammond and Howard Joyce are Caucasian. Hammond's widow is Eurasian. Joyce's unctuous assistant, who serves as the broker of the letter, is Asian.

First, let me praise Davis' performance. Only 32 when the film was released, Davis portrays an older woman who wears eyeglasses and does needlepoint when her vanity allows. It gives Leslie and Davis a decidedly dowdy appearance. There is a scene in the women's prison where Davis' performance and the cinematography of Tony Gaudio come together magnificently. Leslie goes from denying the letter to admitting to the letter/affair to convincing Joyce to buy the letter which could get him disbarred.

Davis' performance is only one arrow in director Wyler's quiver. Throughout the film, Asians are depicted as deceitful and inferior. My favorite scene is when Joyce gets into his large sedan and drives away. His assistant, Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung), also arrives in the parking lot to drive away but he momentarily disappears. When he reemerges, he is driving a small, sputtering jalopy which had been eclipsed by the larger (presumably Caucasian owned) automobiles.

However, the film hints that Singapore (and by extension all of Asia) is one giant miasma of dubious and unethical behavior...dubious and unethical behavior by Western standards but common amongst the yellow hordes. The tropical heat got to Leslie & Joyce causing them to cuckold her husband and tamper with evidence, respectively. What could they do? Hammond was under the spell of his half-Celestial wife and Joyce was being subtly manipulated by his Chinese assistant into buying the letter; all the while bathed in horizontal shadows.

The most amazing character is Hammond's widow played by Danish-American Gale Sondergaard. She looks like a cross between a dragon lady and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. She stares inscrutably, says little (in fact she doesn't speak a word of English throughout the film) and dresses like a character from a Chinese opera. She is more Asian than any full blooded Asian in the film. Another key scene in the film is when Leslie meets the widow to exchange cash for the letter. Davis wears a ridiculous lace shroud looking like either a saint or a leper. Sondergaard wears something more appropriate for a Chinese New Year's Day parade. The scene is ridiculous and funny and compelling and tense, et al.

Paraphrasing Jules from Pulp Fiction, in the end, the locals go Middle Kingdon on Leslie's ass which I doubt was in Maugham's play. Along the way, The Letter had Bette Davis tearing it up in full Jezebel mode while matching up against a bunch of cunning and diabolical Asians. For me, The Letter was delicious retrograde entertainment.

Bette Davis in The Letter

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