THE LETTER (William Wyler, 1940)

Because of its sociological canvas and urgent, deeply moving treatment of a topical theme, everyone is right in believing that William Wyler’s best film is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); but his most brilliant piece of filmmaking is without doubt The Letter, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s story and then play from the 1920s. Indeed, this is one of the most accomplished films to emerge from the studio system, despite the change of ending dictated by the Hays Office production code. Moreover, The Letter is one of those works that proves richer and more satisfying with each fresh viewing.

The Letter was based on a true story. Recruited in England by the school’s headmaster, William J. Proudlock was a teacher at the Victorian Institute, a boys’ school in Malaya when, in 1907, he married Ethel Charter. By the time he became acting headmaster in 1911, he and Ethel had a three-year-old daughter, Dorothy. One April Sunday night of that year, William was dining with an associate and Ethel was alone in their bungalow attending to correspondence. A visitor appeared at the bungalow: William Crozier Steward, an engineering consultant. Shortly after, gunshots pierced the air, and Steward came stumbling onto the bungalow’s veranda and dropped to the ground below, dead. Following him outside, Ethel emptied the rounds of her husband’s weapon into his lifeless body. At trial, Ethel’s defense was self-defense; she insisted that Steward had tried to molest her. The judge nevertheless found her guilty and sentenced her to death, but the crescendo of community appeals to the Sultan of Selangor, including from the school’s staff and students, succeeded in winning her release from prison five months later. While she and Dorothy left for England, Proudlock remained behind to pursue a charge against the police for their mistreatment of his wife. Losing his case, he quit the institute and rejoined his family. (The Proudlocks eventually separated.) In 1921, Maugham visited Malaya in search of material for his stories. He came across Ethel’s lawyer, Courtenay Dickinson, who apprised him of the case involving her. Changing names and some facts and events (including the trial outcome), Maugham penned the story. In productions of the subsequent play, Gladys Cooper and Katherine Cornell played Ethel, rechristened Leslie Crosbie, and Jeanne Eagels played the part in a 1929 film version. Bette Davis was Wyler’s Leslie (this collaboration occurred more than a year after their own love affair ended), and Ann Sheridan, Eileen Atkins and Lee Remick later took up the role.

Wyler’s film is a fascinating study of colonialist racism. Proudlock, rechristened Robert Crosbie, is no longer a teacher; he runs a rubber plantation in Singapore. (The Crosbies are childless, and there isn’t a single child in the film.) Everyone English refers to those who work for and tend to the needs of the Crosbies, all adults, as “boys.” Leslie was having a love affair with Steward, rechristened Geoffrey Hammond, whose marriage to a Eurasian woman, once disclosed, turns the white British community against the deceased as they close ranks in defense of their own presence in Malaya. The film opens with a crane shot across the flimsy shacks of natives who work for the Crosbies, progressing to the shooting-death on the veranda of the Crosbies’ posh bungalow. In the course of this celebrated shot, the piercing sound of the revolver discharges is superimposed on images of the roused and frightened Malayans. More: a cockatoo’s flutter at the disruptive noise, which the camera also picks up on its way to the veranda, underscores the theme of alien intrusion; the Crosbies, and by implication the British, simply don’t belong in this environment, which they have nevertheless quite taken over.

It is in this context that the contrast between Leslie’s English lawyer, now called Howard Joyce (James Stephenson, wonderful), and his Malayan assistant, Ong Chi Seng, is best understood. The former seems rock-solid, as smooth as silk; the latter is an unctuous schemer, out for his (and his people’s) own ends: a portrait of pure hatred seething almost invisibly beneath an accommodating smile. In the parking lot of the courthouse, Wyler scores a visual coup. We watch one lawyer leave in his big, magnificent, smooth-running automobile, thus revealing what it blocked from view: the Malayan lawyer’s rickety, noisy, tiny vehicle in which he, too, now leaves. This is cinema!

The central character, Leslie Crosbie, accounts for Bette Davis’s phenomenal performance. In her and Wyler’s interpretation, racism and sexual repression intersect in Leslie’s personality. Leslie despises Hammond’s Eurasian wife, whom she describes to Joyce as “horrible,” “all covered with gold chains and bracelets and spangles, her face like a mask.” Leslie’s eyes break through her reserved English manner and come feverishly alive as she discharges her venomous hate for her lover’s Malayan wife.

Hammond’s wife: the woman Hammond chose over her. (The implication is surely that Hammond’s marriage ended his affair with Leslie.) It is the Malayan woman’s power over Leslie that tests Leslie’s sense of control, her sense of being. Joyce learns from Ong—I do not mean to condescend; I’m assuming that the first, not the last, name here is the family name, and I apologize if I’m incorrect—that Hammond’s widow is in possession of a letter, from Leslie to Hammond, begging for the visit that ends in his death, thus implying the love affair whose disclosure would likely result in a guilty verdict against her and lead to her execution for what thus far she hasn’t been suspected of: premeditated murder. “Robert doesn’t deserve this,” she tells Howard; “He is so good and kind, and he trusts me so.” (What cheek!) Thus she manipulates Joyce into agreeing to buy the incriminating letter from Hammond’s widow—a breach of professional ethics that, if exposed, would likely lead to his disbarment. Ong arranges the meeting between wife and mistress that the former demands if she is to sell Joyce the letter. They meet in a stifling, smoke-filled curio shop in the Chinese quarter. Leslie’s face flickers a mixture of fear, discomfort and defiance; Leslie hopes against hope that her lover’s widow won’t get the better of her. However, the Malayan woman demands that Leslie walk up to her in order to receive the letter; when she does, Leslie’s face is purged of everything except an uncomfortable sense of subjugation; it’s a look on her face we’ve never seen there before. Hammond’s widow tosses the letter to the floor and recoils a foot when Leslie stoops to pick it up. It is the negative, the inverse, of the colonial power relationship: the white woman appears cowered to the native. This is the moment that gives Leslie what she wants (the letter) but takes away the sense of cosmic order, the superiority conferred on her by being British and white, that (even without her thinking about it) she has always relied on.

Leslie’s principal hobby, to assuage the terrible loneliness she has endured while her husband is away at work in the fields, is needlepoint. Leslie is all about wanting to be in control. The needlepoint soothes her, she explains to Howard. It makes her seem, to him, though, calculating. (Earlier he had mused in front of her: “Strange, that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know a thing about her.”) It reminds him of the craft with which Leslie flawlessly recited her lying account of the murder of Geoffrey Hammond. She is sensitive to the fact that Howard may think of her as “evil”; she herself uses the word. She is nothing of the sort. Part of the remarkable complexity of Davis’s enactment of this role is how likeable throughout she makes Leslie Crosbie, whom she and Wyler portray as someone in the grip of forces beyond her control. (This is symbolized by the fateful full moon that, passing in and out of clouds, seems to follow Leslie in this film of the night.) This is as unsettling as it is inspired, and it holds even when Leslie lies, even when she kills. The upshot is this: our attention shifts from her personality shortcomings to the larger issues at work. Colonialism. Racism. The unnaturalness of British reserve, as it pursues a calm, an order. Like Greta Garbo, the greatest film actress ever, Davis in this instance incorporates in her characterization its own distancing mechanism.

Since Wyler left their relationship in order to marry someone else, Davis herself may have experienced the unequal love of partners that premises The Letter. We are told that Hammond was a cheerful, lighthearted man, the kind one can’t help liking. The implication is clear: for him, the love affair with Leslie wasn’t serious; but, for her, it was adulterous, and it was everything. A parallel to this situation is Leslie and Robert’s marriage: he loves her completely, no matter how much the disclosure of the letter (payment for which has wiped out his life’s savings) has battered him; but does she love Robert? Near the end, Robert says their marriage can continue, but only if she loves him. “Yes, I do,” she says—and we actually hear the three words being crafted into a semblance of conviction before the two kiss. But the example of Bob’s kindness, here revealed in his awesome capacity to forgive a mendacious, unfaithful wife, suddenly becomes too much for Leslie to sustain, exploding her hypocrisy. “No, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!” she cries out. “Leslie, what is it? Leslie, what is it?” Facing her spouse, literally looking up at him, Leslie whips out at them both the most terrible, most heartrending line of dialogue imaginable: “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!”

So powerful is this exclamation, it might have torn the film asunder had Wyler and Davis not ingeniously prepared us for it. Near the beginning of the film, after she has killed Hammond, Leslie retreats behind the closed door of her bedroom. We hear her cry; it’s a low, tight sob unlike anything I have ever heard elsewhere. At the Joyces’ victory party following Leslie’s acquittal, Leslie retreats to the guest bedroom to take up her needlepoint. Once again we hear that sob emanate from her—only, this time we are privy to the scene, inside the closed door along with Leslie. We weigh the connection. By her own jealous hand, she has lost the love of her life. In retrospect, we realize she is thinking to herself softly, quietly, regretfully, “With all my heart, I still love Geof, and I will never love anyone else.”

This powerlessness of Leslie’s in her private emotional life provides the negative for, and ironically reflects on, the power situation in the film’s social and legal environment. It’s point and counterpoint—if you will, a kind of needlepoint. Ultimately, there may even be a suggestion of causality, with the presumption of control in one domain establishing the expectation for power in the other; and, of course, the natural feelings that Leslie has determinedly denied by killing Hammond reflect the unnaturalness, too, of taking over foreign environments and plundering their resources for your own and your home country’s gain. This film so comes together.

The film must end (according to the production code) with Leslie’s paying for her marital infidelity with her life. Outdoors at night, beneath the full moon, her “head boy” holds her as Hammond’s widow stabs her through the heart with a phallic knife; it’s her husband’s vengeance that the Malayan woman is executing. Too, the knife, a symbol of power, suggests a redressing of the power imbalance between British and natives. The scene, though required by Hollywood, doesn’t ring false. For one thing, as I have suggested, it is clearly part of the film’s thematic fabric; it doesn’t feel “tacked on.” Moreover, it completes the film’s complex portrait of Leslie Crosbie. After she has shockingly confronted her spouse with her residual feelings for her dead lover, Leslie is bereft of everything, including both spouse and lover. Half-drawn now to her own end, she ventures out of the Joyces’ sanctuary, not precisely knowing what to expect, but wishing an end to her guilt and suffering—guilt over her betrayal of her husband and the murder of Hammond, and suffering because she has completely pushed away her husband and, most of all, because she must miss Hammond, now, forever. Visually, she seems pulled outside to her death by her own shadow, which is to say, the moon. (Terror at the point of death is rendered perhaps more piercingly by Davis than by any other actor or actress in any other film.) The metaphor is exact and complete: the colonizing British Empire, decadent, is drawn to its own extinction. At the end of the film, the camera drifts upwards from Leslie’s corpse in the garden to a view of the Joyces’ picture window, through which we see and hear the very British party, seemingly safe and secure, still going on inside. The final shot of the film is a shot of the moon in the heavens. Party on; but fate all the while is taking you towards the end of your whole way of life. Max Steiner’s fateful musical theme underscores this ending and its powerful message.

The script by Howard Koch is fine, the black-and-white cinematography by Gaetano (Tony) Gaudio is moodily ravishing and redolent of decay, and the editing, doubtless following Wyler’s intent, is superb. This is one of the best edited American films ever. Warren Low is the credited film editor.

The acting is superb—not just Davis’s, but every bit of it. Herbert Marshall and Stephenson, in particular, bring great depth to the roles of spouse and barrister.

The Letter is not to be missed, no matter how many times one has viewed it. I want to watch it again right now.

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3 thoughts on “THE LETTER (William Wyler, 1940)

  1. Bravo. I had been reading the IMDB “external reviews” and become quite depressed over how few people GOT this film — even the ones who liked it, liked it in a patronizing “oh look at this splendid old Davis melo!” kind of way. It’s a masterpiece, and it was a pleasure to read someone treating it as such.

  2. Pingback: newcritics - » The Letter (1940)

  3. Just finished viewing The Letter. Thank you for your brilliant analysis. Minor detail–Leslie crochets lace to soothe her. Which makes her lace shawl in the Chinese quarter all the more metaphorical.

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