There is something wonderful about how the best Old Hollywood, big studio melodramas so deliciously inhabit a space between the visual beauty of their wealthy protagonists (and producers), the bigness of their emotions, and the sincerity of their realization. It’s almost funny watching Dark Victory, which fervently tugs on the heartstrings through its magnificent score, every element working in tandem to make you feel sympathetic for a dying Bette Davis. And yet, in spite of how overtly the whole thing is working to get to you, in spite of how much you can see the wires, it still works. Then again, being able to see the way these pictures are constructed isn’t because they’re poorly made, the methods of filmmaking are just more resplendently obvious than a comparable picture might be today. Then again, would a modern version of The Letter be able to be as compelling, given today’s filmmaking practices? There’s no tinkling score or over-reliance on actors to shape the material, no juggling between close-ups to film a scene, no affectation around the wealth of its protagonists, no cleaning up of the politics around it. Would it feel the need to do that, even if it set in a pre-WWII rubber farm in Singapore? What would a contemporary setting even be for this project?
But why fret about the movies of the never when we can gush about the movies of the almost eighty years ago, and how well they hold up? Even if some of why The Letter’s combined elements are so noticeable is because of the era in filmmaking it resides in, as much of it is because the film is so virtuosically assembled that you cannot help but notice the quality of the whole and how wonderfully constructed each of the parts are. Yes, there is the Hays Code ending that is so obviously tacked on, and how an oddly cast, imperiously framed Gale Sondergaard somehow turns in a bad performance despite never saying a word in English. But these are two minor perforations in an impressive vehicle, stuffed to the brim with peak contributions from almost literally everyone involved. Rare is the film with seven Academy Award nominations that I can happily stand by every single one of them, and in fact wonder where its Costume Design and Adapted Screenplay nominations, perhaps even Production Design. Even rarer is for a women’s picture of any kind to get that kind of recognition this day in age. Bette Davis is the sole, unabashed lead of this Best Picture nominee, and it’s practically impossible to attach that kind of Oscar heat to any recent Best Actress nominee that doesn’t have an accompanying Best Actor nominee waiting in the wings. Technical juggernaut Gravity is the only exception to the rule in this decade, throw in The Hours, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge! and we’ve got the millennium covered. It’s dispiriting to realize how many Best Actress nominees are the sole representatives of their films, and even more dispiriting to wonder if the same fate would’ve befallen The Letter. So let’s rejoice again that it was made in an era where women’s pictures were known as a valuable commodity at the box office and to those all-valuable awards bodies, and let me get down to actually talking about it.
You could hardly ask for a more galvanizing opening to The Letter, as the tranquil roll of the credits over workers luxuriating in their barracks in the moonlight is broken by the sound of a gunshot. Out bursts an unknown, wounded man who becomes even more doomed once we see that the person shooting him is Bette Davis. The steeliness of her posture, the rigidity of her arm, the hardness of her expression, everything about the way Leslie Crosbie kills the man she says tried to rape her is the only thing that feels like it contradicts her later recounting that she doesn’t remember killing Geoff Hammond. Her presence, her rage, is simply too potent to match her description – no, her recreation – of a frightened woman desperately fighting for her life. Not that Leslie’s retelling of the killing to her husband Robert and her lawyer Howard Joyce isn’t completely convincing. In fact, what sets off Joyce’s antennae is how perfectly she tells this story of fighting for her honor against a drunk acquaintance, how composed she is until she suddenly isn’t, how there’s something that’s just off about her otherwise spot-on description of events. These suspicions are given even greater weight once he learns from his assistant about the existence of a letter from Leslie, suggesting a relationship with Hammond and asking for a meeting the night he died, albeit threateningly. An explanation that Leslie wanted to corroborate on buying her husband a birthday gun doesn’t quite stick, but she tells it like a woman trying to save her life and get back to her husband, not a scheming murderess furious she isn’t being believed, though her rage is still palpable.
And yet, because the letter is not public knowledge, the idea of Leslie being in any legal trouble is a joke to the wealthy whites of Singapore. Yes, she did kill a man, but because he died how he died, it’s not as though anyone thinks Leslie committed a crime. She defended herself from a drunk attacker, already ostracized for marrying a Eurasian local. Mrs. Hammond, who does not get get a first name, is the woman in possession on the titular, scandalous letter, and most of the film is devoted to Leslie and Mr. Joyce trying to get it from her, fulfilling her requests and meeting her in the ethnic part of Singapore to make the trade. The actual trade-off is perhaps the film’s second-weakest sequence, though one wonders how much this could’ve been elevated even a little had Gale Sondergaard decided to pick an expression other than Imperious Anger. Eyes lit by moonlight through window shades, the sheer electricity of her anger feels oddly one-note, though Mrs. Hammond being scripted only in unsubtitled Chinese denies us any way of understanding why she would give Leslie the only evidence that could possibly bring her husband’s killer to justice. It’s still as tense as any other scene in the film, though it’s just too obvious that Wyler doesn’t know what to do with Mrs. Hammond aside from framing her as a narrative obstacle, not a human person. As it stands, the central conflict of The Letter is not about the trial or the letter so much as it is the accruing of tensions around its main characters as these events come hurtling towards them. What is the state of Joyce’s ethics, his soul, as he commits himself to taking this letter away from the eyes of the prosecution and the hands of a widow to save his friends? What shall become of doting Robert once he finds out the letter exists, and what has been done to acquire it? What’s to make of Leslie’s soul as it is, and who is she really? A long-standing lover or a rattled wife, both perhaps responding a little too insouciantly after killing a man on front steps of her bungalow.
Still, say this for Wyler, Mrs. Hammond is by far the exception to the rule of quality in The Letter. All three of its tech Oscars are richly deserved; Georgy Amy and Warren Low make this is a fleetly edited yarn that knows when best to deploy a close-up, a two-shot, to jump to an insert of an important item. Max Steiner’s score is roiling, emotive, and malleable enough to fit into any emotion Bette Davis is telegraphing for us, even if her face isn’t quite saying it. And Tony Gaudio’s cinematography is a tremendous, nimble asset to The Letter, doing great work with moonlight coming in through window screens, with the blocking of actors, with finding the right angles to get a pang of unrest at an empty porch, a bedside confession, a shadow traveling on the lawn. . Much like the first hour of Malcolm X, Gaudio’s cinematography in the film’s lowest moments – the tradeoff with Mrs. Hammond and the tacked-on finale – creates a feast for the eyes and an interesting mood that almost takes away from how disinterested the director is in these moments. To hop off Oscar’s bandwagon for a quick moment, let’s not deny ourselves how scrumptious each and every one of Leslie’s outfits are, how well Joyce’s and Robert’s suits fit their bodies, how intimidatingly styled Mrs. Hammond is.
But let’s not bury the lede here. The Letter lives and dies by how Wyler and Davis navigate the role of Leslie Crosbie, and they do incomparable work filling out this woman without betraying her. The first real genius of Davis’ performance is that Leslie’s responses to new information are in the basis on emotion and intellect without flaunting if these reactions are coming from an innocent or guilty mind. The questions of Leslie Crosbie’s innocence or guilt, steel and vulnerability, who she does and doesn’t believe in, is handled with remarkable subtlety and depth by Wyler and Bette Davis. The genius of her performance specifically is that she does not sell out Leslie, navigating her emotional and intellectual arcs without playing innocent or guilty outright. This isn’t John Carroll Lynch’s squirrelly prevarication in Zodiac, actively playing the perceptions of the audience or her fellow characters, but nor is this Rooney Mara’s shell-shocked, impenetrable innocence in the first half of Side Effects. Davis’ choices are compelling in the moment and hold up once every truth has been laid bare, every letter read and confession given. It is the way that Davis responds to new pieces of evidence, to questions, to statements of affirmation from friends, from her husband, from Joyce, emotionally and intellectually, in how she moves her eyes and cocks her head. Even if we doubt the honesty of what Leslie is saying, we never doubt the emotional Davis is an actress who knows how to use her entire body in a performance, not just those electric eyes but her posture and her physicality – the different ways she grabs her husband, her posture as she shoots Geoff Hammond, her unease with Mrs. Hammond – and that theatricality, on top of the bigness of her emotions and the subtlety of her playing, fits perfectly with The Letter’s tone, Wyler’s ambitions, and Leslie’s truths.
James Stephenson as Howard Joyce gives the film’s other great performance, and in contrast to Davis his greatness is based in stillness, the variants and degradations of commonalities in a decent, hardworking man. Joyce’s willingness to go along with obtaining the letter goes against everything Joyce believes in, yet he cannot seem to understand why he’s putting his career in jeopardy, even if he is friends with the Crosbies. Stephenson finds the tremors in Joyce’s faux-cool exterior, seemingly taking the whole thing in stride as becomes increasingly fraught by his own actions. His closing statement to the jury of Leslie’s trial, the outcome so assured the prosecution doesn’t even bother to present their own finisher, betrays so many emotional conflicts while still functioning perfectly as an impassioned statement on behalf of his client. Herbert Marshall is very much the third wheel narratively and in terms of performance, though his turn is still poignantly sympathetic to this basically decent man being kept from the truth about his wife until he stumbles into it.
Robert’s stumbling happens almost immediately after the trial concludes, where a getaway plan is dashed once he learns about the letter, and what was done to acquire it. The truth about the night Geoff Hammond died, what prompted him to arrive and what he did to make Leslie shoot her, is finally revealed by Leslie herself. The final half hour is essentially a series of reckonings between Leslie and her husband as the two realize what their marriage can and cannot withstand, culminating in the film’s saddest confession as Leslie howls in the face of a failed reconciliation that she is still in love with the man she killed. It’s here that the tacked-on ending of the Hays Code takes hold, as an eye is exchanged for an eye on Leslie’s front lawn. A getaway stroll is immediately foiled by a police officer the killer stumbles into, an arrest seemingly made through a series of silent glances. It’s palpably odd, unlike a similar tacked-on comeuppance in The Bad Seed, where its ethics-code assigned bit of karmic justice fits the film’s cray-cray style. I suppose The Letterchooses the proper minor character to dole out vengeance, but the sudden resolution of the killing feels bizarrely enacted. As mentioned early, the sheer beauty of certain moments in the sequence feels as though Wyler is trying to find something to be interested in, and its truncated presentation suggests he’s trying to get through it as quickly as possible. The sheer distance Wyler stages us from the killing is odd considering how close we are to Leslie’s killing of Hammond at the beginning, how he does nothing to skimp on the violence of the moment and the responses it creates in Leslie, in the panicked workers. Yes, this killing is done in almost complete isolation, but even the audience is isolated from it, and the poignancy of the moment suffers for it.
If I’ve had a difficult time balancing between what’s inevitable about The Letter and keeping some of the mysteries intact, forgive me, but it’s hard to call the narrative trajectory the film’s most compelling feature. It’s a character study with the trappings of a film noir. The Letter is a deep plumbing of Leslie Crosbie by Wyler and Davis, and they do so with astonishing success and syncopation. There’s no distance between Leslie and Bette, even if the performance is so remarkably realized you can’t help but notice how good she is in the role. The diminished returns of the final minute is nothing compared to the preceding 93 minutes, and I’m amazed that in all my ramblings I’ve barely devoted a paragraph to Wyler’s direction. To be fair, Wyler credited himself totally with the success of The Letteronce it was realized, though the fact that the man is perfectly willing to speak for himself is no excuse not to give my own praise. Wyler makes the film sing, coordinating perfectly not just with Davis but with Stephenson, with Steiner, with Gaudio, with Amy and Law. His is the hand that guides the whole thing to triumph, and he’s as worth crediting as Bette Davis is for making The Letter such a vivid, singular experience. Even if the trial is seen as a joke by many of the characters, Wyler’s investment in the trial is enough that the incriminating letter has real weight on him and on Leslie. The stakes of the whole thing, and how those stakes are different for Leslie and for Joyce, is never lost on him.
Have I said enough to convince you to go and watch The Letter? Frankly, I’ve run out of nice things to say about the film. Taking into account the two quibbles I’ve made about Mrs. Hammond and the odd ending, it’s not enough to matter compared to the virtuosity that the rest of the film exerts. There’s no moment when the picture isn’t completely compelling, and if the sputtering disorganization of this paper indicates anything, it’s that my enthusiasm for the film far outweighs my interest in giving an organized testimony about it. You could never get a corker this finely tuned and psychologically rich made this day in age, let alone one starring a platinum-class actress operating in perfect sync with an equally invaluable director. The Letter has a gargantuan amount to offer, from the fascination of the central mystery to how marvelously it’s realized on every level. You could barely ask for a better version of the film, certainly not one with the Hays Code in play. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in top-tier actressing, sordid 40’s mysteries, stylized lighting, spiritual crises, all guided by a genius director, to rent this film as soon as you possibly can. Hell, buy it. Every choice in The Letter is carried out with finesse, fulfilling its duty to the moment and to the ultimate finale. At 95 minutes it’s built like a steel watch, endlessly rewatchable and sturdy enough to withstand multiple viewings. So go, my pretties. Find The Letter. Give it the attention that it deserves. Anything that has the hutzpah to open with a woman killing a man at the dead of night knows exactly what it’s doing from the start, and believe me, anything this confident and charismatic deserves more shots at our love and attention than the six that Geoff Hammond got.