More than any other, "The Letter" is the quintessential Bette Davis film. It is one of the best examples of the studio system's star vehicles, where an actor carried the weight of a film. Davis is (nearly) the whole film from the audience's point of view, and without her the whole thing would collapse. Of course, the play on which it was based was in itself a star vehicle (Maugham wrote it for Gladys Cooper, if I recall correctly) so the whole thing is already centred in the leading lady. Having seen it on stage a few years back, however, I recall it as a much more balanced affair.
In a plantation in Malaysia, Leslie (Davis) shoots a man outside her house. The man, was one of her neighbours, and when the police comes, she tells them that she killed him after he tried to rape her. All seems pretty clear until a letter surfaces. I have to be admit, this is one of my favourite Bette Davis' performances. She's perfectly glacial, composed and her eyes, often about to explode, are a focus point for the audience (I think William Wyler, the director, knew this). As I once said to a friend, you can't take your eyes off her. Her character's obsession with detail and self-imposed discipline, her efforts never to give away anything away, so cleverly represented by the lace, appeals to me to no end. However, having recently seen the film recently for the umpteenth time, some of the flaws are becoming more and more evident.
The first, and most obvious, is the most unfortunate casting of Herbert Marshall. In one sense, he is perfectly pathetic, and therefore should have been perfect as the husband. The problem is that he can't act. And this is a film where all the action occurs in the amazing opening sequence, so it would have helped to have an actor who could actually act.
The second fault is the opening-up of the source material. Maugham based his play on a short story (also by him). It is of the nature of theatre that all action is moved forward by words. In cinema, that is a disaster, so often writers open the play up, show different locations, add characters, etc., to make it feel less closed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm starting to think it doesn't always work here. By breaking the long scenes of the play into tiny bits, you also loose the effect. You loose tension and structure and adding or extending things like the sequence in Chinatown serve no purpose other than make the film longer. Although it also leads us to the next point: the portrait of the Asian characters, either as greasy, devious, over-polite plotters or as greasy, devious, opium addicts. Played for laughs and the security of the White audience of the period, they are a hindrance to modern audiences, add nothing, and to be frank, are quite distracting.
Finally, there's the ending (and yes, spoiler alert). The original, bitter ending of the play, with Leslie not only admitting that she still loves the man she killed, but also that she will have to live a long, boring life concious of it is gone. This, I am sure is what attracted Maugham. So why does it have to go? Well, the Hays Code. As a murderess, Leslie must be punished. But this empties the film of its impact. So, to be fair, every time I watch it, I pretend the last few minutes aren't really there - the film ends when she utters the infamous line, "with all my heart I still love the man I killed".
Having spent so much denigrating what is one of my favourite films, and clearly not expressing how big is my emotional reaction to this film, I will try to get back on track and focus on three of my favourite things. The first, is obviously Davis (yeah, sorry, couldn't help it). The scene in the prison is still my favourite of all her performances: trying unsuccessfully to keep cool as her perfectly composed starts crumbling and you can feel her trying (and failing) to hold on. She got an Oscar nomination, and I probably would have given it to her, had I had a chance... Another highlight are the final scenes, when safe and sound, all is revealed. I have mentioned above that you can't take your eyes off her. I really believe this. The second highlight is the underrated James Stephenson as the lawyer, a character actor who would die the following year, just as his career seemed to take a more promising turn (he got an Oscar nomination for this film). Here he is a fallen angel, truly broken down by his actions to protect the wife of a good friend (the stage production I saw suggested that his actions might be motivated by something more than friendship towards Leslie's husband). It's really a pity that they didn't keep the dynamics of the play, as he could have been an even better match to Davis. Finally, the gorgeous, at times almost noir-ish Oscar nominated cinematography by Tony Gaudio: Bette Davis never looked as beautiful as all covered in Orry-Kelly's virginal white lace.