Monday, July 26, 2004

A Review of The Letter

I've only seen two William Wyler films before--The Children's Hour and Roman Holiday--and I'm not especially wild about either. Tonight I watched The Letter with a friend who loves the film, and I was impressed enough to make a note to see Jezebel or The Little Foxes, two other celebrated collaborations between Bette Davis and Wyler. The Letter, based on a Somserset Maugham novel, tells the story of a woman who murders a man and the trial that ensues. Bette Davis more than lives up to the legend of her famous eyes, turning in a superb performance as a woman struggling between deceit and honesty. What makes the story so unusual, aside from the absurdly old-fashioned, gentlemanly conduct of the murder investigation, is that the determination of guilt or innocence in the private realm is what matters most. The lawyer, a friend, first works to learn the truth, and then finally the husband learns. The court trial, the public one, is not a matter of determining truth but of strategizing to avoid punishment, which makes the film much truer than most court trial films, even today. In the end, though, the message seems to be that truth will out, that the reality of the heart will manifest itself somehow--first, here, in a letter, and then finally in a pair of melodramatic confessions. This notion is played out in a heavy-handed way (with changes from Maugham's story) because of conventions of film industry morality of the day, though it doesn't necessarily contradict the underlying truth, that regardless of what happens in court, it's much harder to bury the truth in the everyday experience of domestic reality.

The film is set around colonial jungle plantations in Malaysia and is heavily informed by notions of exoticism. I had a hard time tangling out the race politics of the film, which are far too complex to simply be labelled "racist." Victor Sen Yung, in a supporting role, plays a man who traffics in blackmail, and his obsequious manner presents a familiar Asian stereotype, but in another sense his character is engaging his Western opponents in the refined, "civilized" manner they usually claim as a mark of superiority, and he's beating them at their own game. Gale Sondergaard plays a Eurasian woman, the widow of the white murdered man (you can make out the outline of a scandal in these characters' world), who is presented at once as some kind of mysterious, evil dragon lady, but also as the moral superior to Bette Davis' character, literally holding the higher ground. (Notice the two characters' clothes, especially when they wear white and when they were black.) The ending works well enough, but I think it would have been even more powerful to leave the characters as they were in relation to one another before the final twist. (3 stars out of 4)



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