Title: The Letter
Language: English, Malay, Cantonese
Genre: Crime, Film-Noir, Drama
Director: William Wyler
Writers: W. Somerset Maugham, Howard Koch
Music: Max Steiner
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Victor Sen Yung
To quell my intermittent Bette Davis mania, this time comes THE LETTER, a William Wyler helmed Film-Noir, garnered 7 Oscar nominations including BEST PICTURE, DIRECTOR, ACTRESS and SUPPORTING ACTOR, a rare fete for the usually overlooked genre in the voters’ perspective.
Davis is Leslie, a lone wife in Singapore with her rubber plantation administrator husband Robert (Marshall), mercilessly shoots a man to death whom she claims to be a sex offender, and under the aegis of her loyal friend-cum-lawyer Howard (Stephenson), she seems to be able to get away from the murder, but a letter proves it is only her side of the story and the price to buy the letter will cost all the fortune they have.
Leslie is a quintessential femme fatale, a haughty but lonely woman in a hostile oriental surrounding, erodes with daily blandness (lacing is her ostensible escape), Davis is a marvelous presence in eliciting sympathy for her unsympathetic character through her bulging eyes, they allure viewers to speculate the unspoken stuff, particularly when she resort to Howard for help, and her secret starts to divulge, with hindsight the plot is quite discernible, but it is Davis’ pure force of personality makes the whole case a beguiling enigma, even until the ultimate confession, one might find it hard to believe the truth is as plain as it is. Thanks to the ludicrous Production Code, her demise is sine qua non, but the coda is nevertheless a spine-chilling one with the effects of the ominous full moon shades.
Stephenson is the antithesis of Davis’ jealousy-ridden, murder-possessed viciousness, oscillating between a decent lawyer and close friend, his suave and dispassionate complexion also undergoes a fatal makeshift, his two-hander with a cunning Victor Sen Yung is textbook accurate in exposing racial prejudices at its time (even being an Asian myself, I was purposefully motivated to loathe Victor’s sugarcoating extortion, nonetheless, it is a well-acted piece of work for an Asian performer to occupy quite a long screen-time).
Sondergaard, as the other woman in a winning stance, conscientiously clad in her clunky Malay outfit and felt absurd in her Euroasian lineage (it is an inevitable side effect to pass off a Caucasian as an Oriental), but she impressively steals the limelight whenever her menacing visage is theatrically highlighted, while she is more than an acquisitive money-seeker, her venom is tangible and her dagger is sharpened and will taste some blood.
Although the finale is expedient and falls into banality to be morally corrected (she just cannot fool herself to restart her life with a man truly loves her in spite of all her wrongdoings), Wyler’s cannon is always a golden mine for cinephile to devour and cherish, THE LETTER is a less achiever than THE HEIRESS (1949) due to its foibles in my humble opinion, but Davis should have brought home another Oscar as Olivia de Havilland did.