Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Letter (Warner Bros., 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Going from the 1929 version of The Letter to the 1940 version was a fascinating experience. The most obvious difference is simply the maturation of sound cinema as an art form; in 1929 moviemakers were still groping for ways to mix images and sound, while in 1940 talkies were a fully developed medium. Director William Wyler, writer Howard Koch (who, interestingly given his Left-leaning politics, built up the story’s conflicts far more around class than race: the British community in Singapore looks considerably more affluent here than it did in the 1929 version), cinematographer Tony Gaudio (who consistently used the vivid, mephitic noir atmospherics George Folsey had touched on only occasionally in the 1929 version) and composer Max Steiner combine their talents to create a rich, vivid sense of the moral corruption and decay surrounding the colonial order. Davis delivers a power-packed performance that flawlessly negotiates the twists and turns in Leslie Crosbie’s character even though she doesn’t quite bring to the part the occasional bits of pathos that Eagels did. Herbert Marshall reappears in this film, not as the lover — we only see a brief glimpse of him, less than a minute, as he flees the Crosbie home (or tries to) while Leslie is shooting him — but as Robert Crosbie (and he’s so much more authoritative than Reginald Owen that the 1929 version would probably have been better if Marshall had played the husband in that one, too!), bringing his usual qualities as an actor — steadiness, reliability, trustworthiness and an almost surreal naïveté about his wife that undercuts the authority of the rest of his character — to the part. (The next year he, Davis and Wyler would have a rematch in The Little Foxes, in which Marshall again played the naïve, trusting husband of Davis’s murderous wife — only in that film it is Marshall’s character whom Davis knocks off.) There are some obvious differences in plot — as I noted above, the lover, a substantial screen presence for the first 15 minutes of the 1929 version, is only a shadowy non-presence in this one; and the letter surfaces before Leslie’s trial starts, not during it (and Ong Chi Seng — played by Victor Sen Yung in a marvelous performance that proved he had far stronger acting chops than you’d think if all you’d ever seen him in is his films as Number Two Son of Sidney Toler’s Charlie Chan — actually works as a clerk for Howard Joyce in this one) — as well as a God-awful tacked-on ending, mandated by the Production Code Administration, in which Leslie Crosbie makes the mistake of going for a walk in the moonlight after she and her husband confront each other over the letter, and the Chinese wife (not just mistress — the Code strikes again!) of her victim and a male associate of hers ambush Leslie and stab her.

For the rest of her life Davis lamented that her film didn’t get to end the way Maugham’s play and the Eagels version had — with Leslie Crosbie declaiming to her husband that with all her heart, she still loved the man she’d killed — and though not as egregious as some other tacked-on Code-mandated endings (including the one Wyler had had to put up with the year before, in Wuthering Heights, in which Heathcliff and Cathy reappear as ghosts after their deaths — Wyler found that one so putrid that he walked out on the film rather than shoot it, so producer Sam Goldwyn brought in H. C. Potter to do it — and the awful one at the end of The Bad Seed), and shot by Wyler and Gaudio with the same haunting atmospherics as the rest of the movie, it’s still a major downer and makes precious little sense: if they had to kill off Leslie at the end of the movie, it might have made more sense for the husband to kill her himself in a fit of jealous rage. One area in which the two films fight to a draw is the casting of the second lead: Lady Tsen Mei in the 1929 version is surprisingly energetic and emotional for a movie Asian (and of course she has the advantage of being genuinely Asian!), but Gale Sondergaard in 1940 is chillingly intense, understated, and enough of a hard-core revenge figure it’s easy to understand why she was up for major parts like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz and Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (though she lost those to Margaret Hamilton and Judith Anderson, respectively). There have been several versions of The Letter since, including a straight-on TV remake in 1982 starring Lee Remick (a talented actress but hardly in the same league as either Jeanne Eagels or Bette Davis in this sort of role!) and, at least according to the American Film Institute Catalog entry on the Davis version, the 1947 Warners film The Unfaithful reworked the plot of The Letter and cast Ann Sheridan in the lead. It’s a neat story and could probably stand another version, especially with a writer and director who could carefully and credibly update it!