Monday, August 9, 2010

1940 - The Letter

I'm back! Yes, I realise there has been a rather elongated pause leading up to this post. It has been a very hectic time for me recently. While I have been performing My Fair Lady, I have also been rehearsing Midlife: The Crisis Musical, the next show to be staged at the Allenberry Playhouse. Consequently, I have essentially been without a day off for two weeks. The only free day I had was last Monday, and that was spent in New York City with my darling wife as well as some family who were visiting from Australia. Plus, some good friends from home, Steve, Susie and Amanda, were also in town for an improv festival, allowing for a long overdue catch-up. It was an enjoyable break from the hustle of rehearsals, but it left me with no time for this project.

Thus, today was a relaxing day off in which I finally found some time to watch another nominee from the 1940 Best Picture contest...

The Letter
William Wyler
Howard Koch
(based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham)
Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

The Letter begins dramatically with Leslie Crosbie (Davis) firing bullets into an unarmed man named Hammond. When her husband Robert (Marshall) arrives with their lawyer Howard Joyce (Stephenson), her story is that Hammond, known as a friend of the Crosbies, tried to make love to her, so she defended herself by unloading the pistol into him. She is put into custody in Singapore, awaiting trial, despite her seeming innocence.

Soon, however, Howard becomes privy to a damning letter that Leslie sent to the deceased on the day of the murder which seems to indicate a more intimate relationship between the two. The original letter is in the possession of Hammond's widow (Sondergaard), who threatens to deliver it to the prosecution unless her demands are met.

With such a breathtaking opening scene, The Letter grabs you by the throat very early. What follows is a gripping suspense drama that had me wondering why it hasn't become a bigger classic. Although there are a few wordy sequences (it is based on a play, after all), director William Wyler cleverly infuses the picture with symoblic imagery, mostly involving shadows and moonlight. Apparently, the ending needed to be altered from its original version thanks to the censors, and the resulting bleakness of the denouement probably explains the film's failure in the test of time. (Anyone with a decent understanding of the Hays Code will know that murderers were not allowed to remain unpunished.)

Bette Davis' eyes are at their glassy best as she portrays a woman desperate to hide the truth. But Gale Sondergaard as the bitter widow gives Davis a run for her money in the "staring daggers" department. Herbert Marshall as the unsuspecting husband appears in his second 1940 nominee after Foreign Correspondent. My favourite performance from the film comes from James Stephenson, superbly detailed as the attorney with a guilty conscience.


  1. It looks interesting. Good writeup too!

  2. And I thought you delayed your blog because you knew I was on a two week vacation :) You've been quite busy.
    Great write-up. You covered "The Letter" to a 'T' Can't think of much to add, other than I feel about the same: a solid accomplishment all around.
    A few words about William Wyler. Although he isn't thought of as an auteur or a director with a particularly distinctive style, his Academy superlatives are quite noteworthy:
    Most nominations for Best Director: 12
    Most films nominated for Best Picture: 13
    Most films that won Best Picture: 3
    Most performances directed that received nominations: 35
    Most performances directed that won Oscars: 14
    He has held these records for a long time and some may never be surpassed.

  3. Weird occurrence. I awoke in the middle of the night and the TV was on (Turner Classic Movies, of course) It was Ann Sheridan day as part of their summer under the stars programming. The movie was "The Unfaithful," and before I could groggily turn off the set, I said to myself - Wait a minute! This movie is just like "The Letter." I had never seen it before, so here I was from 3 AM to 4 AM watching a movie. It was indeed a remake of "The Letter." I like Ann Sheridan and she was good, but this one lacked the teeth of the Davis movie by changing the motive of the killing and especially the the compromises that her attorney had to make withholding physical evidence.

    Matt, I know your movie watching time is limited now, but if you haven't seen it, make room for "Me and Orson Welles." It was just released on DVD and anybody connected with the theater should especially enjoy it. Christian McKay is a revelation as Orson Welles.

  4. Yes, I've heard good things about Me and Orson Welles. It has now been added to my Netflix queue.

    Tomorrow, I have my first day off in about two weeks, so we'll be resuming normal transmission.