Nov 7, 2019
On Blu-ray: Bette Davis at Her Best in William Wyler's The Letter (1940)
I’ve always viewed the films that Bette Davis made with director William Wyler as an emotionally charged conversation between actress and filmmaker. There’s something precise about the cinema they made together, as if they are trying to achieve the perfect mix of the authentic and the dramatic. You can sense it in Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941), but I’ve found that mood most intense in The Letter (1940), which just made its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.
Adapted from a Somerset Maugham novel, the story of a married woman living on a far east plantation who kills her lover first came to the screen in 1929 as one of the few movie performances of troubled stage actress Jeanne Eagels. Her performance remains remarkable today for its intensity. She doesn’t seem intimidated or restrained by the camera and microphone and somehow makes a playing to the rafters performance work on film. Her stilted costars look like they’re in another world. She’d first performed the role on the stage and seemed to have carried her interpretation to Hollywood intact. It’s a theatrical take, but it’s drawn from real, raw fury.
Davis’ take on Leslie Crosbie seems to have been somewhat inspired by Eagels intensity, but she finds power in repressing her anger at being trapped on a plantation, ignored by her husband, with nothing to do but obsessively make lace. She doesn’t feel guilty about committing adultery and murder, because in her mind, she had no choice but to find ways to entertain herself. She acts as if the true betrayal is by her lover for leaving her alone again.
This is not Leslie’s world though, and while the court is firmly on the side of the white upper classes, her lover’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard) will see that justice is served. In classic Hollywood, even a rich white lady can’t get away with sinning in the end. As opposed to Eagels, who is defiant in her undying love for the man she murdered, Davis’ Leslie is tortured, and on a certain level realizes she will never have a moment of peace without him. It is possible that revenge is a welcome distraction for her.
Wyler and Davis fought hard about how the complicated Ms. Crosbie should be portrayed and the result is a ferociously executed performance that reflects that passion. These two have long been my favorite director and actress combo, because the turmoil of their fiery, but ultimately productive onset battles never fails to translate in some way to the screen. It is lively filmmaking which transcends the essentially orderly nature of making movies in the studio age.
The Blu-ray image is clear and clean without being too sharp. Special features on the disc include two different radio productions of the story starring Davis and her costar in the film Herbert Marshall. There is also a theatrical trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.