Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Bette Get Your Gun
By Josh R
It begins, quite literally, with a bang.
The first 30 seconds of William Wyler’s The Letter, released 70 years ago today, are deceptively, ominously quiet. A pale moon, drifting in and out of view among low-hanging clouds, illuminates a Malaysian rubber plantation after nightfall. The camera pans languorously across the nocturnal scene, observing its particulars; white liquid collects slowly in buckets fastened to the trees, workers shift restlessly in the hammocks of a bamboo-thatched bunkhouse, dogs crouch listlessly in the yard in front of the bungalow. It’s a picture of somnolent inactivity, lulling the audience into a false sense of security.
The silence is abruptly punctured by the sound of a gunshot. A man staggers out of the plantation house, stumbling down the veranda steps and falling to the ground. A woman emerges from the house, firing on her victim three times in rapid succession, as the camera swoops in for a close-up. This, dear friends, is what is known in cinematic parlance as A Bette Davis Moment. Talk about making an entrance.
The Letter is not generally classified as film noir. For one thing, its characters are genteel, sherry-sipping Britishers, not hardscrabble bruisers and broads from the wrong side of the tracks; the only time a woman might be referred to as a Dame in such rarefied environs would be if she’d been given the title by The Queen. In addition, the film features many of the stylistic conventions of what was known during the studio era (somewhat reductively) as “a woman’s picture.” This is not to be confused with a “chick flick,” a term Mr. Copeland despises and the label usually applied to frothy romantic comedies or movies that push buttons in order to reduce audiences to heaving masses of blubber. Rather, it is a vehicle deliberately tailored to accommodate the specific screen persona of a major female star, and made with a female audience in mind. A “woman’s picture” doesn’t have to be operatic, exactly, but it always traffics in heightened emotions; audiences of the 1930s and '40s didn’t turn out in droves to see Bette Davis ride a horse, fly a plane or win a boxing championship — they came to see her emote. It’s a genre that owes more to the devices of 19th century melodrama than 20th century crime drama, and as such, no matter how dark things get, they don’t turn the shade of noir that the technical definition of the term implies.
I’m really not sure how I’d classify The Letter. If the film doesn't qualify as film noir in the traditional sense, it's too atmospheric to be dismissed as mere melodrama; if it’s “a woman’s picture,” then it’s the leanest, most fatalistic one Hollywood ever produced, and a much more challenging film than most are given to suppose (more on that later). Whatever you want to call it — and I know many would disagree with me here – it is the best film Wyler ever made, featuring one of the greatest performances Bette Davis ever gave. Considering the respective careers of those respective artists, that’s no small compliment.
Based on a 1927 play by W. Somerset Maugham, previously brought to the screen in a 1929 adaptation starring Jeanne Eagels, The Letter charts the events which unfold in the wake of a murder — one which initially appears to be fairly straight-forward, but is carefully revealed to have much more sinister underpinnings than anyone in a white smoking jacket with a fondness for bridge and cricketing might be given to suppose. Leslie Crosbie, the unimpeachably proper, irreproachably refined wife of an eminent plantation owner, claims the murder as an act of self-defense. In a carefully structured confession — delivered with masterful restraint — Leslie reveals how she bravely fended off the aggressive advances of a drunken would-be rapist. By the time she’s finished her narrative, a veritable paean to the triumph of civilized decency in the face of base savagery, everyone who’s witnessed her performance is ready to award her the Victoria Cross for Valour — she’s such a monument to stiff-upper-lip courage she makes Mrs. Miniver look like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand.
The case appears to be open and shut; for one thing, there’s no one around to contradict Leslie’s version of events, which she describes with such clarity and conviction as to make any alternate scenario seem highly implausible (and anyway, the smoking jackets reason, nice British Memsahibs just don’t kill people in cold blood…it simply isn’t done.) Making the case for defense even stronger is the revelation that the dead man kept an Asian wife in secret — a fact which doesn’t exactly endear him to the white population of Singapore. Looking at all the facts semi-objectively, it’s an easy one to call…don’t you rather agree, old chap?
Everything seems to be building to a quick, painless acquittal — or at least, it does until a rather incriminating piece of evidence, most unexpected and still more inconvenient, surfaces to cast a very different light upon the case. A letter, allegedly penned by Leslie and addressed to the deceased, throws every aspect of the matter into question. The dead man’s widow is in possession of the document, and is willing to withhold it from the prosecution — for a price. How damning is the content? Reading between the lines of the letter, the murder comes into focus as less an act of noble self-preservation than a sordid crime of passion. Who is the real victim here, the film asks — and who, exactly, are the true savages?
I’ve described The Letter as a challenging film; to be more accurate, it is a film that delves into issues that no other American film of the 1930s or '40s had the nerve to touch with a 10 foot pole. At face value, The Letter is a melodrama, albeit of an atypically noirish strain. It also is a film about hypocrisy, in all its shameful permutations. First, it is a scabrous, damning look at the nature of Colonialism, exposing the sham behind the carefully maintained façade of polite magnanimity and benign gentility that characterize British Imperialism’s grotesquely self-serving vision of itself. The British see themselves not only as innately superior beings — enlightened, evolved and moral — but as the protectors of and benefactors to those whom they suppress to further their economic aims. In fact, all they do is create waste — whether by acquitting a guilty woman, or by keeping the natives from realizing political, social and economic freedom in their own homeland. No matter how the colonial prerogative manifests itself, it still amounts to a perversion of justice.
By logical extension, The Letter also is a film about race. No matter the fact that she murders in Singapore, Leslie is tried in a white British court by a white British jury. The victim is someone who breached the social compact by marrying outside of his race; the accused may be guilty of murder, but in the eyes of Colonial culture, the victim is guilty of something much worse. The irony here is that the film’s depiction of Asians is, to put it mildly, somewhat offensive from a contemporary perspective; but even for a film that traffics in broad ethnic stereotypes, The Letter still offers some daring insights into the tropism of racial prejudice to the politics of Colonialism.
Finally — and perhaps most startlingly — The Letter is a study in sexual hypocrisy, stripping away the myths behind traditional gender roles while examining the manner in which they’re exploited. People are willing to buy into Leslie’s lies because they coincide perfectly with patriarchal, quasi-Victorian views on womanhood and female sexuality. No one is willing to conceive of anything base or impure in a scrupulously groomed, well-mannered Daughter of The Empire — in order to believe she is capable of a committing a cold-blooded crime, they would have to acknowledge that she is likewise capable of having red-blooded sex drive. Victorian women were taught to grit their teeth and think of England during the sexual act — if they were thought capable of deriving any pleasure from it, it would mean their tweedy husbands weren’t always capable of satisfying them. For her part, Leslie is only too happy to promote the notion of The Good Wife as Vestal Virgin; in effect, it provides her with an unshakable alibi.
If any of this makes The Letter sound like a long, dull slog through the realm of critical theory, Wyler’s approach never verges on heavy-handedness; the socio-political content is the subtext of the film, and is impressed upon the viewer in subtle ways. The film doesn’t hit you over the head to make its points; it is all the more unsettling for what it insinuates, as opposed to what is made explicit. It is a strategy shared by the film’s leading lady — the richness and complexity of Bette Davis’ performance is astonishing. Even before assuming the mantle of The Godmother of Grand Guignol, the actress was never one to shy away from histrionics; in The Letter, she tempers her explosive, volcanic energy, delivering a masterful study in controlled aggression and cagey reserve. Her Leslie Crosbie is calm and collected, playing her assigned role to perfection while sitting quietly on a wicker-lined veranda doing lacework — never betraying a whiff of the roiling emotions that fuel her desperate acts of violence and betrayal. She’s a meticulous person, constructing elaborate fictions not unlike the delicate patterned laces she spins out, with mercurial attention to detail; quite literally, she is weaving a veil of lies behind which to hide. By keeping her emotions in check, she is able to keep her true nature concealed from others. Davis subtly indicates how tortured and damaged Leslie truly is, the extent to which suppressing every natural instinct has eroded both her sanity and her humanity — “still waters run deep” never seemed more apt. With the possible exception of her indelible performance as Margo Channing in All About Eve, the adulterous, murderous Leslie Crosbie may stand as the actress’ most textured, nuanced creation — a woman whose actions are all the more terrifying given the disconnect between the cool, patrician face she shows to the world and contorted visage beneath the mask.
The most celebrated sequence in the film is the one that shows Davis at her finest — a scene which is virtually free of dialogue. When Leslie and her lawyer (James Stephenson, who is sufficiently fascinated by his client’s two-faced nature to forsake his legal code of ethics…yet another instance of hypocrisy) resolve to purchase the letter from her blackmailer, the killer and her victim’s widow are brought face to face. It’s a tense, wordless encounter; the widow stares at Leslie with an expression of white hot fury etched into her painted features, clutching the letter in her taloned fist. Leslie gazes up at the woman, with pleading saucer eyes; it is a look of penitent supplication, desperate and contrite — she is at this woman’s mercy. When she reaches out to take the letter, the woman drops it to the ground — on this one occasion, the colonist shall bend to the colonized. Leslie retrieves the letter from the ground at the woman’s feet; when she rises, her features have not moved a fraction of an inch, but her eyes communicate something quite different. It is a look of triumph, mingled with the smug self-satisfaction of one who’s skirted imminent disaster by inches and emerged without a scratch. The balance of power has shifted; Leslie softly thanks her adversary, but it’s a hollow display of manners — there’s a note of contempt and ridicule in her tone, and a smirk forming around the corners of her mouth. A great actress can say it all with a look; while her big, talky confession scenes are the showiest acting moments in the film, it is in this one brief moment that Davis tells us everything we need to know about Leslie Crosbie — when the mask slips, we catch a glimpse of someone brazen enough to stare down her victim’s widow with an expression of defiance, and arrogant enough to think she can get away with it.
This being the era of Hays Censorship, she doesn’t get away with it — the Hollywood Production Code of the 1940s firmly stipulated that the guilty be made to pay for their sins. In a way, the film might drive home its theme of injustice even more firmly if Leslie were allowed to get off scot-free — but the ending seems in keeping with the fatalistic tone of the film, which is what makes its considerations so bitterly resonant. Davis shows us that Leslie is actually capable of feeling remorse — but in the dark world of The Letter, there is no room for crime without consequence. In that respect, it’s vintage film noir.