“The Letter” (Warner Bros. 1940) is a truly fine picture, with several impeccable performances, especially by Bette Davis, who is at her best, and James Stephenson, a wonderful British actor with a vulpine countenance, who matches her performance brilliantly.
James Stephenson is worthy of special mention. He came to acting late in life — he made his first picture when he was 48 — and died of a heart attack at the age of 52. Like Claude Rains, he was often cast as suave villains, and like Rains, he tended to dominate any scene he appeared in. William Wyler was so impressed with the authority of Stephenson’s screen presence that he fought hard to cast him in the important role of Howard Joyce, over the studio’s strong objections. Once you’ve seen Stephenson as Joyce, it’s hard to imagine another actor bringing so much gravitas and pathos to the part. Claude Rains himself might not have been quite so ideal, as he was rather too arresting a personality for the role. Stephenson manages the almost impossible feat of playing an ordinary, plain-spoken, humorless man of high principles — without being dull or priggish. (Alan Rickman manages the same trick in “Sense and Sensibility.”) When he agrees to bend his own integrity to save the skin of a client, Stephenson, neither expressing his inner turmoil in words, nor telegraphing it with theatrical grimaces, conveys that the ethical shortcut he has taken on his client’s behalf has destroyed his own self-respect, and very possibly, ruined his life . . . and he knows it. It’s a quiet performance, and is in no way showy, but it’s as remarkable a characterization as I’ve ever seen on film. The picture belongs to Bette Davis, first, last and always, but the support she gets from James Stephenson is beyond all reckoning: his performance makes her greatness possible. Had he lived longer, he may well have become one of the greatest actors of the Studio Era in Hollywood. So three cheers for James Stephenson . . . a penny for the old guy.
W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote the original story, is unquestionably my favorite second-rate author (I like John O’Hara as much or better than Maugham, but aside from the rubbish he wrote at the end of his career and a few mid-career missteps, I don’t consider him second-rate). “The Letter” is one of Maugham’s best known short stories, but I think it’s far from his best work. (“Mackintosh” and “The Book Bag,” both of which take place in the same part of the world, are the two I’d recommend as his best.) The picture is far better than the story (except for the tacked on ending demanded by the Hays Office), in great part because Bette Davis actually makes the protagonist believably human, rather than Maugham’s enigmatic monster. It is possibly the best performance Davis ever gave. She’s wonderful in many other pictures, but this is the one that makes the most of her talent and technique. (To be sure, “All About Eve” is also one of her best, but she’s so much like Margo Channing, that the demands on her interpretative skills were not nearly so great — nor was she called upon to do an accent.)
The opening sequence is a marvel of story-telling efficiency: it’s made up of a pair of lengthy tracking shots, a nearly invisible wipe and a few cuts, which establish that we are on Rubber Plantation in Singapore. It opens with the full moon:
Then it cuts to shots that establish the exotic location — a rubber plantation in Singapore, where a crime is about to be committed . . .
. . . there’s a cut to liquid rubber dripping into buckets (all this time, Max Steiner’s ersatz Oriental music is toodling away, to reinforce the sense of the Mysterious East) . . . The camera pans down the length of a rubber tree, then begins, without a cut, to traverse the property in a remarkable, long tracking shot . . .
. . . we see the main house, where the plantation’s manager, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall), lives with his wife, Leslie (Bette Davis). The camera continues to travel . . .
. . . to the thatched, open warren where the Malaysian workers live. One of them plays tune on a pipe, others sit up and gamble, others are asleep in their hammocks . . . All is quiet.
Suddenly we hear a report from a revolver. A cockatoo in the foreground flies away in terror. The camera glides — in no big hurry: it’s a hot, muggy night — over to the main house. There’s another report; a man, holding his belly, staggers out of the house onto the veranda, with a woman just behind him. She fires a second shot.
Now we see that the woman is Bette Davis with a smoking gun in her hand. She shoots again. The camera cuts to sleeping dogs as they jump up. Another cut to the Malaysians as they awaken and begin to make a hubbub. The dogs begin to bark. Cut back to the house, where the man staggers down the veranda steps and falls to the ground . . .
Once the man is down, Davis proceeds to empty the last three chambers into his back.When the gun is empty, she looks at the dead man and quietly drops the gun.
More hubbub from the Malaysians, barking dogs, the moon goes behind a cloud, then comes out again. Davis turns to look at it . . .
The “Head Boy” on the plantation runs up and looks at the dead man. He cries in alarm, “That’s Mr Hammond!”
He looks at the empty revolver that she has dropped on the front step.
“Come inside,” Davis says without emotion and goes back into the house.
That’s the end of the first sequence — running time is approximately two minutes and forty seconds. I can’t think of another picture that opens more impressively or conveys more information so smoothly and efficiently.
Color photography could not have improved this wonderful picture. It is a shame, however, that there’s no way the audience can know that Leslie Crosbie was dressed in scarlet when she emptied one chamber into Geoff Hammond’s belly and five into his back.
In the following scenes, we learn from Leslie that she shot the blighter in self-defense: he showed up at the house while her husband was away and tried to rape her. Nobody doubts the truthfulness of her account, but her attorney, Howard Joyce (the remarkable James Stephenson) tells her that a man has been killed, and this is still a civilized country, so she must be imprisoned until the trial. There is no doubt that she will be acquitted.
The entire picture is full of remarkably skillful writing, acting, directing and editing. But one scene in particular deserves special attention: it’s right in the middle of the picture — the interview between Leslie and Joyce, her lawyer. It’s shot in a small room, with the door closed. The scene lasts somewhere between seven and eight minutes. The first four minutes of that scene are played in one continuous take; after that, aside from a few inserted close-ups, the rest of the scene is played in long takes, and always with both actors in the frame. No editor had a hand in creating the timing and tension in that exchange — and a lot goes on in that scene: there are many shifts in tempo and emotional states. Nor is the camera static: it moves around a lot — beautifully, never calls attention to itself, but just enough so that we’re always shown what we need to see — and all in that confined space. Davis and Stephenson go at it hammer and tongs. I consider that scene to be one of the high points of movie acting. It’s not merely that the two actors are so excellently matched and so skillful, but Wyler lets them get on with it, and doesn’t rely on a lot of ping-pong match close-ups — the sort of hackwork that Vincent Sherman so often resorted to.
I could watch that picture every night for months on end and not get tired of it. Except for Steiner’s intrusive score, I think it’s very nearly perfect, not excluding the skulking racist cartoon slant-eyed devils, which are of course deplorable, but so perfectly of their time, and so faithful to Maugham’s own mixture of fascination with, condescension of, and occasional revulsion to the peoples of the Mysterious East.