Tuesday, March 18, 2008

THE LETTER (Warner Bros. 1940) Warner Home Video

Once seen, the opening moments of William Wyler’s superb melodrama, The Letter (1940) are seared into the memory forever. Bette Davis stars as the diabolically delicious Leslie Crosbie; unscrupulous wife of a Malaysian rubber plantation owner. After packing six slugs into her lover, Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell) in a fit of jealousy, Leslie embarks on a deeply disturbing odyssey to vindicate herself of his murder. She commands her house boy (Tetsu Komai) to seek out her husband and her attorney while concocting a scenario that will stand in for the truth upon their arrival to the scene of the crime.

She is ably aided in her deception by the naiveté of her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall) and by her flock of fair-weather friends. Ah, but Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard), the deceased’s Eurasian widow is witness to ‘the letter’ a tawdry ode of illicit passion penned by Leslie to the late Mr. Hammond on the night Leslie killed him in cold blood. Will Leslie beat the rap? It certainly appears so, what with attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) and prosecutor John Withers (Bruce Lester) falling prey to her misdirection and lies.

However, when Howard learns of Leslie’s infidelity he sacrifices his own moral integrity and faith in the law to earn his client an acquittal. A blackmail scheme involving Mrs. Hammond and Howard's assistant, Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung) – involves buying back ‘the letter’ even though Howard knows Leslie is guilty. 

The Letter is shockingly good on every level. The original play by celebrated author Somerset Maugham must have seemed old hat to Davis, who by this time had made a career out of grand bitches. As Leslie, Davis is cleverly fiendish and stylishly sinister. Her performance lures us in hook line and sinker. 

At the time of filming, director Wyler and Davis were in the middle of their very brief but tempestuous love affair. This was their second on screen collaboration. Their final partnering on The Little Foxes one year later would not yield so equitable an alliance. Even so, Davis clashed over the reading of the scene in The Letter where she confesses to Robert she still loves Hammond. Wyler wanted her to look Robert in the eyes. Davis wanted to look away. Director and star fought it out with Wyler eventually winning the argument, though Davis would insist for decades afterward that her way would have been better.

The Hayes Office also insisted in a few minor changes to Maugham's original before okaying the final cut. In Maugham's play Leslie escapes the charge of murder and lives the rest of her days without Robert. Under the production code, however, her crime had to be avenged. Thus, Mrs. Hammond kills Leslie in the final reel of the film. 

The Letter was nominated for 7 Oscars. It won none! But Davis's mesmerizing and unsympathetic performance endures, transforming standard melodrama into cinema art!

Warner Brothers’ transfer is, for the most part, acceptable. Contrast levels seem slightly too dark on occasion, and there are several scenes that must have been sourced from print material rather than the original camera negative – for contrast and grain are more prevalent. There’s also an annoying hint of edge enhancement that wreaks havoc on the horizontal slats and bamboo blinds that figure into the mood of the piece – making certain scenes seem digitally harsh. Age related artifacts crop up now and then.

The audio is mono and overall nicely balanced. Extras include a fascinating alternative ending only recently discovered in the Warner vaults, as well as 2 audio bonuses and the film’s original theatrical trailer; aside: a pity that no audio commentary was provided for such a noteworthy film.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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