Tag Archives: Herbert Marshall

Bette Davis and James Stephenson in ‘The Letter’

The Letter:  Original Poster

The Letter: Original Poster

“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.

Bette Davis, James Stephenson:   'I don't want you to tell me anything but what is necessary to save your neck.'

Bette Davis, James Stephenson:
‘I don’t want you to tell me anything but what is necessary to save your neck.’

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 might 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.

One of the Greats.

One of the Greats.

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:

Moon over Singapore

Moon over Singapore.

Then it cuts to shots that establish the exotic location — a rubber plantation in Singapore, where a crime is about to be committed  . . .

The Scene of the Crime

The Scene of the Crime.

. . . 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 . . .

The Letter Shot 03

Rubber dripping from tree to bucket.

. . . 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 . . .

The Crosbies' residence

The Crosbies’ residence.

. . . 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.

The Coolies' hut.

A Malaysian musician and his comrades.

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.

Second gunshot, first sight of Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie.

Second gunshot, first sight of Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie.

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 . . .

The man staggers and falls after the third gunshot.

The man staggers and falls after the third gunshot.

Once the man is down, Davis proceeds to empty the last three chambers into his back.

'And o'er [her] countenance, no shadow passed, nor motion . . . '

‘And o’er [her] countenance, no shadow passed, nor motion . . . ‘

When the gun is empty, she looks at the dead man and quietly drops the gun.

The end of the affair.

The End of the Affair.

More hubbub from the Malaysians, barking dogs, the moon goes behind a cloud, then comes out again.  Davis turns to look at it . . .

Full Moon and Empty Arms.

Full Moon and Empty Arms.

The “Head Boy” on the plantation runs up and looks at the dead man.  He cries in alarm, “That’s Mr Hammond!”

The Letter Thats Mr Hammond

Tetsu Komai as Head Boy: ‘That’s Mr Hammond!”

He looks at the empty revolver that she has dropped on the front step.

The murder weapon.

The murder weapon.

“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.

Davis as the murderess, Leslie Crosbie.

Scarlet Woman:  Davis as the murderess, Leslie Crosbie.

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.

Stephenson, Davis, Herbert Marshall, Bruce Lester. Joyce:  'Well, you see, you're by the way of being under arrest now.' Leslie:  'Shall I be . . . imprisoned?'

Stephenson, Davis, Herbert Marshall, Bruce Lester.
Joyce: ‘I think you’re by way of being under arrest now.’
Leslie: ‘Shall I be . . . imprisoned?’

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.

Davis, Stephenson.  "Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.'

Davis, Stephenson. “Strange . . . that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.’

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.

The Razor’s Edge

Truth in Advertising:  The  painting is spectacularly incompetent, much like the picture itself.

Truth in Advertising: The painting is spectacularly incompetent, much like the picture it promotes.

“The Razor’s Edge” is not a good picture, not even close. It’s terrible. It’s badly acted by nearly everyone; it’s coarsely written; it’s pretentious; it’s silly; it’s phony. And a whole lot of people swear by it. If I didn’t like the picture, I wouldn’t write about it, but I confess I find it hard to get through the entire mess in one go. Happily, DVD technology has eliminated the need to do so: when I look at it (as I frequently do), it is always in digestible pieces. To watch the whole thing all at once is numbing, though not, alas, soporific. Some pictures put me to sleep like a charm (“Steel Magnolias” knocks me out cold in a matter of minutes), but not this one: there are many dull patches, but it’s too nutty for me to drift off while it’s on.

William Somerset Maugham:  The old sybarite

William Somerset Maugham: The old sybarite

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), who wrote the novel, was the most successful writer of his day, and his works are still read today. I believe this is because his stories and novels are nearly always entertaining. He had a gift for epigrammatic dialogue and a near-genius for cooking up interesting plots that put his believably human characters through imaginative wringers. For my money, he’s the greatest second-rate writer of all time. If you’re going on a long trip and want to bring along something that is bound to hold your attention without entirely insulting your intelligence, Willie Maugham is your man. He never claimed to be a writer of the first rank, and insisted such was never his ambition. “The Razor’s Edge,” I’d say, gives the lie to this claim, for it has Big Ideas written all over it. The opening sentences suggest that he himself considered this one book different from all his others:

I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage.

Nor does any of it add up to much. Something big is always just about to shake up this world of cocktails and engagement parties, but nothing does. Plenty happens, but only cocktails get shaken. Nothing happens all over the place. It was 20th Century-Fox’s big budget, prestige picture of 1946. It’s the story of a young man’s quest to find the Meaning of Life. Along the way, he travels to the slums of Paris, the high Himalayas, and eventually the slums of Marseilles. I don’t think It’s giving away too much to say that after two and a half hours of twiddling its philosophical thumbs, Lamar Trotti’s screenplay concludes that the Meaning of Life is, well, it’s not so easy to say, exactly. It seems to be something along the lines of “Be Kind” or “Be Good” or “To Thine Own Self Be True” or . . . aw, hell, let’s just say it’s “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” or, if you like, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” and leave it at that.

Several biographers have suggested that Maugham based the character of his hero, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), on Christopher Isherwood, and the character of the arch-snob, Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), on Sir Henry “Chips” Channon (an American-born anti-American Member of Parliament). I can’t help feeling that Maugham — a randy old goat — would never have interested himself in such a story had he not found his young Seeker after The Truth physically attractive.  As written in the novel, and as played in the picture, he’s a beautiful young man and a cracking bore. Maugham’s attraction to Larry is unmistakable in the novel, though he takes pains to suggest his interest is entirely high-minded. This also comes across in the picture, though perhaps not intentionally. At any rate, from this angle, the movie becomes far more interesting than if one takes Maugham’s interest in Larry as being purely Platonic.

What a Swell Party It Is: Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Herbert Marshall, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, Lucile Watson

What a Swell Party It Is: Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Herbert Marshall, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, Lucile Watson

Darryl F. Zanuck’s version of “The Razor’s Edge” starts out well: opulent party along Lake Shore Drive, beautiful costumes, charming dance tunes, Gene Tierney dressed by Oleg Cassini, Tyrone Power in a beautiful tuxedo. (When the story begins to drag, you can watch his sideburns, which keep going up and down from shot to shot.) But problems begin to crop up even in the opening scene: the exposition is barely concealed, if it is concealed at all. And, except for Gene Tierney, who makes no impression but looks beautiful, the acting by everyone else is terrible. Tyrone Power cannot speak the simplest line spontaneously; Anne Baxter overplays self-consciousness; Herbert Marshall (as Maugham) does his weary bemusement bit yet again and is only slightly less wooden than his prosthetic leg; Clifton Webb hisses and minces in his usual tiresome, predictable manner; Lucile Watson — the poor man’s Gladys Cooper — does her little old darling act that never fails to set my teeth on edge. But it all looks beautiful while the cast ploughs through the expository back forty, and the dance band plays “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “I’m Always Blowing Bubbles” to keep their spirits up.

Tierney, Powers, Marshall:  Powers' part was always sharper than his wits.

Tierney, Power, Marshall: The part in Power’s hair was always sharper than his wits.

Tyrone Power never looked better than he looks in this picture.  And he has the sort of handsomeness that looks intelligent. But the way he speaks his lines while gazing into the half-distance makes him seem (at least to me) like he’s a numbskull, rather than the tongue-tied natural philosopher we’re supposed to believe he is. Perhaps I’m alone in this.  Power always gives me the impression of being a nice fellow: I want to believe him, but his line readings make it impossible. On the other hand, it’s this very dopiness of his that becomes diverting when Maugham/Marshall listens to him with such rapt attention. Herbert Marshall was not the sort of actor to hint at homosexual undercurrents, but those undercurrents are there, touch wood. Why else would a celebrated author/sybarite listen so attentively to a loquacious dimwit’s pseudo-spiritual poppycock?

Larry on his way to the high Himalayas: Who do they think they're kidding?

Power as Larry Darrell, on his way to the high Himalayas: Who do they think they’re kidding? Yodel-ay-hee-hooey!

I’ll never understand why Seekers after The Truth always have to scale mountains to figure it out. Why is The Truth supposed to be more evident where the air is thin? And why are mountaintop hermits and Hindoos always so more in touch with reality than the rest of us, who actually live in it? And why is the Lama or Swami or Mountaintop Holy Man always British?  In this case, he’s Cecil Humphreys, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

Cecil Humphreys, Power:  Swami, How I Love Ya . . .

Cecil Humphreys, Power: Swami, How I Love Ya . . .

Of its many hilarious infelicities, “The Razor’s Edge” has a score by Alfred Newman that is not only  echt  Newman, but also  borrowed  Newman: he wrote much of the score for another picture for Sam Goldwyn (“These Three,” based on “The Children’s Hour”) and recycled it. This is hardly unheard of, but it’s striking because Darryl Zanuck personally produced “The Razor’s Edge” — it was his most expensive picture to date . . . and he spared almost no expense. So it amuses me that his court composer should simply recycle his shit from ten years earlier — for a different producer. In “The Razor’s Edge,” for the demimonde scenes in Paris, when Sophie (Anne Baxter, who won an Oscar for her hammus alabammus performance) has become an incorrigible drunk and opium smoker, Newman uses a tune played on an accordion — it’s a song that my first voice teacher, Carl Pitzer, gave me to sing: “Mamselle.” (A small cafe, Mamselle/Our rendezvous, Mamselle./The violins were warm and sweet/And so were you, Mamselle, etc., etc.) BUT . . . Alfred Newman gives us only the refrain and never the bridge, which is the only interesting thing in the fucking song. So on and on and on it goes till you think you’ll go out of your head. If this is what Anne Baxter was listening to every night, is it any wonder she turned to Żubrówka and poppies?

Anne Baxter, bit player.   Sophie in bad company:  The devil wears a fez.

Anne Baxter, bit player. Sophie in bad company: The devil wears a fez.

Last time I watched the picture, I heard something in the score I’d never noticed before, right near the end of the picture.  Clifton Webb is swishing away to meet his maker — he hasn’t been invited to a particularly important party on the Côte d’Azure — and he’s about to die an unhappy old maid when Ty Power winkles an invitation from the secretary (Elsa Lanchester in a touching, unusually restrained performance) of the woman who has chosen to snub Webb, and has it delivered to Webb’s deathbed. Webb’s dying words are “Elliott Templeton regrets he must decline the Princess’ kind invitation, as he has a previous engagement . . . with his. . . blessed Savior. . . . (the old wwwitch!)” I rely on your ears to hear how Webb speaks these words . . . next to him, Henry Daniell has iron in his loafers and anvils sewn into his bloomers. But no sooner has he spoken these words, but Alfred Newman comes in heavy on the contra bass . . . it’s too funny!  Oh, it did make me laugh.

One last thing, and I’ll let it alone . . . for now.  Here’s a clip to give you an idea of the high-minded claptrap that makes up this whole picture.

Nice poem, that. Middling reading, though he doesn’t recite the whole thing. He stops, like an NPR music clip, in mid-phrase.  Finally — a small matter, perhaps, but important to some of us:  it’s a sonnet, not an ode. Did nobody in that huge production know the difference?