Lawrence Russell

The Letter (1940) dir. William Wyler cine. Tony Gaudio writ. Edward Koch (from Somerset Maugham's story) music Max Steiner star. Bette Davis (Leslie Crosbie), Herbert Marshall (Robert Crosbie), James Stephenson (Howard Joyce), Gail Sondergaard (Mrs. Hammond), Tetsu Komai (Head Boy), Sen Yung (Ong)

"Mandalay by moonlight. The white gateways are flooded with silver and the erections above them are shot with silhouetted glimpses of the sky. The effect is ravishing...." (Somerset Maugham)

As so much of the action in The Letter occurs at night, you suspect that Leslie Crosbie (Davis) is a nympho-somnambulist, betwitched by the moon and the sentient shadows that act as a chorus to her sexual madness while concealing the pornography of her crime. You hear one shot, see someone stagger from the door to the veranda, then fall down the steps before Leslie Crosbie materializes and pumps five more bullets into the fallen victim. You never see the man who was her lover, only Leslie looking downwards as she fires, her face an ambiguous mask, as inscrutable as the moon to whom she eventually raises her eyes.

It's an incredible opening, one in which the lunar atmosphere is a mystic camouflage for a killing whose mystery slowly unravels like the lace work Leslie uses to soothe herself in times of stress. The dead man is Jeff Hammond, another ladies' man in the tight colonial loop of inter-war Mandalay whom no one suspects of having an affair with the solid wife of a rubber plantation manager, Robert Crosbie -- another blind love chump. Crosbie immediately sends for his friend and lawyer, Howard Joyce, and despite the fact that Joyce is nobody's fool, he becomes a patsy in Leslie's design to cover up her crime. That he doesn't become a sexual stand-in for her dead lover is probably a matter of fate rather than integrity, as Leslie is as manipulative as she is immoral.

"He tried to make love to me and I shot him."

This isn't entirely an issue of sex and fidelity. Leslie is an accomplished liar. You see her reenact her version of what happened -- an uninvited guest, attempted rape, a justifiable homicide, virtue intact. Her husband and the District Officer are duped, for while their code includes men as cads, it precludes women as instruments of evil. Only Joyce is troubled, as his forensic mind anticipates the murder trial that must inevitably follow -- why six bullets, when only one was needed?

His uneasiness soon proves justified. When his obsequious clerk Ong tells him about a "friend" who has a letter, Leslie's deception and culpability are revealed. At first she denies having written to Hammond:

Leslie: We heard about his wife... once, quite by chance, I actually saw her...

Joyce: What was she like?

Leslie: Horrible. She was all covered in gold chains... a face like a mask....

Joyce: So when you knew about her, you stopped having anything to do with Hammond?

Leslie: (smugly) Yes.

At this point, she means they ostracized Hammond because he had a "secret" Eurasian wife.

Joyce: I think I should tell you there is in existence a letter in your hand writing...

Leslie admits her lie by creating a bigger one -- she invited Hammond over to ask his advice about a gun for her husband's birthday, she says. A new gun for her husband -- Freud would call it the truth. Joyce reads the letter... and the mask is off. Leslie faints, falls to the floor.

She has more weapons in her arsenal, however. They reconvene in the First Aid Room:

Leslie: Are you going to let them hang me?

Joyce: What do you mean by that, Leslie?

Leslie: You could get the letter.

Joyce: Do you believe it's so easy to do away with unwelcome evidence?

They stare at one another like a prelude to sexual intimacy, as if Joyce has now become Hammond. In a film with many great scenes, this is one of the best. While Davis was never a beauty, there's a dangerous vibe in her performance as Leslie Crosbie. As John Huston -- who also directed her -- says, "There's something elemental about Bette -- a demon within her which threatens to break out and eat everybody, beginning with their ears." Howard Joyce escapes with his ears but he loses his integrity. He agrees to get the letter... and in so doing, crosses the line, engages in a criminal act.

Hammond's widow has the letter. The price is ten thousand dollars, exactly the amount that Robert Crosbie has in his savings account. How is this known? You assume that the wily Ong is part of a corruption, a state of affairs systemic to a colonial regime. The price also includes a rider that it must be delivered by Leslie Crosbie herself. While this reversal of Fortune appears to be an unacceptable humiliation, Leslie accepts the conditions eagerly as if it fits perfectly within the design of a larger agenda....

Perhaps this is the best scene in the film. Perhaps it's the best scene in just about any film. It's more than a meeting between two rivals, a rejected mistress and a widowed wife -- it's the meeting of East and West, two phases of the moon. Men express themselves through women, and it's through women that culture is born. Maugham would have us believe that the greatest misogynists are women themselves -- an embittered view of a failed heterosexual. But the politics in this encounter are as primal as they are territorial, as homosexual as they are sado-masochist. Contrition may be in the ritual.

"Those eyes like a cobra's eyes..."

Ong leads the lawyer and his client to a shop in the Chinese quarter. In a room upstairs they find an old man smoking opium, the apparent "friend" that Ong has been negotiating through. They wait. Glass chimes tinkle... and Mrs. Hammond parts the beaded curtain and enters the room. Her expression is an asexual mask, but like the stone face of a temple idol, it assumes the identity required by the devotee. Now the dominator, she becomes masculine.

The two women stare at one another.

Ong: She speaks only Malay.

Joyce: Ask her if she has the letter.

Without taking her eyes off Leslie's, the Eurasian widow tells Ong that Leslie must remove her shawl, the white lace head covering. Leslie obeys. The blood money is passed to Mrs. Hammond but she waves it away. Leslie approaches the low platform, eyes raised as if once again contemplating the face of the moon. Mrs. Hammond draws the letter from her sleeve, allows it to fall at her feet. Leslie kneels slowly, recovers it. "Thank you," she whispers.

While you suspect her intentions, Leslie is now being driven by something much larger than criminal duplicity. While her husband and friends remain anxious about the trial, Leslie sits serenely with her lacework, almost indifferent to the outcome. Her lawyer goes through the moves like a zombie, his values compromised by the fait accompli of the Malayan way. It doesn't matter, as the prosecution gives no rebuttal and Leslie is acquitted.

In the normal scheme of things the drama would end here. Perhaps you would see Howard Joyce succumbing to her in a clandestine moment, his corruption complete. But somnabulists usually follow the same path... and that path leads to Mrs. Hammond and her eyes "like cobra eyes".

There's nothing sentimental in a story by Somerset Maugham. Sado-masochism runs through his work like a river that divides men from women, yet is a common source of Nature from which they must both drink. Despite working under the strict censorship rules of the period, screenwriter Edward Koch manages to sustain the powerful fatalism of Maughan's world-view... and in fact improves upon the ironic potential of the narrative (in Maugham's story, it's Leslie's husband who confronts Hammond's Chinese mistress and recovers the letter). The ending is typically subversive because while it conforms to the rule that adultery must be punished, it posits the notion that women kill just as easily as men.

As her emotionally destroyed husband gets drunk at the bar, Leslie leaves the party and is drawn to mystic solitude of the moonlit garden. The invitation by her new lover has been sent earlier -- a dagger on the mat outside her bedroom door. When she returns, the dagger is gone, but the moon draws her into the garden. Mrs. Hammond waits in the shadows by the gate. Whatever spell Leslie Crosbie is under, it controls her sexual being completely. Just as Love must succumb to Death, she is knifed by Mrs. Hammond. Thus the lesbian solution is a phallic solution.

Suicide? As a form of justice, Leslie's death is another example of the mysterious forces that control our sexual identities and shape the religious response. We exist as shadows in the night.

While many people exalt Welles' cinematic opening in Citizen Kane (1941), the tracking shot that Wyler uses to establish setting and mood at the start of The Letter (1940) deserves attention. The sequence culminates with the shooting of Hammond and that first vision of a woman possessed. It's outstanding, as are the geometrics of light and shadow that characterize this film as something beyond mere melodrama. The Letter starts as a masterpiece, ends as a masterpiece -- something rare in the translation of literature into film.

© LR 16/7/99

*The Letter, first made in 1929, star. Jeanne Eagels. In this version Herbert Marshall plays Leslie's doomed lover.
*James Stephenson (the lawyer, Howard Joyce) died a year later. According to Wyler's biographer Jan Herman (A Talent For Trouble), Stephenson was recommended to the director William Wyler by Jack Warner.


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