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The Letter (September 24, 2009)

The Letter was originally a short story by W. Somerset Maugham written in 1925, which became a play performed on Broadway in 1927. It had previously been filmed by Paramount in 1929. When Warner Brothers submitted Howard Koch’s script for this movie to the Hays Office, which monitored Hollywood films’ adherence to the standards of the Production Code, changes had to be made in the story, because the Code did not countenance extra-marital sexual relationships or crimes that remained unpunished by the end of the film.

This movie was shot starting in May 1940 and was released in November 1940. It was nominated for a good number of Oscars – William Wyler for best director; Bette Davis for best actress; James Stephenson, who plays the lawyer, as best supporting actor; Tony Gaudio for best black-and-white cinematography; Warren Low for best film editing; Max Steiner for best music, original score; and best picture. It did not win any, however.

From today’s perspective it seems odd that Gale Sondergaard, a Caucasian actress, plays a Chinese woman, but remember, it was quite common for white actors and actresses to play Asian roles in Hollywood movies at that time. Nor can we manage to be as sympathetic to the life of colonial British planters lording it over the natives in Malaya as 1940s American audiences perhaps were. When the picture was released Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, "The ultimate credit for as taut and insinuating a melodrama as has come along this year — a film which extenuates tension like a grim inquisitor's rack—must be given to Mr. Wyler. His hand is patent throughout . . . It is an evil tale, plotted with an eye to its torturing effects. And Mr. Wyler has directed the film along those lines. With infinite care, he has created the dark, humid atmosphere of the rubber country. At a slow, inexorable pace, he has accumulated the details. His camera generally speaks more eloquently than anyone in the picture—when, for instance, it finds a dead body lying in a rubber-curing shed or picks up the lacquered face of the native woman or focuses significantly upon the tinkling decorations in a Chinese room. The tensile strength of Mr. Wyler's suspense is incredible. Miss Davis is a strangely cool and calculating killer who conducts herself with reserve and yet implies a deep confusion of emotions . .. Only the end of The Letter is weak — and that is because of the postscript which the Hays Office has compelled." Billy Stevenson, in his contemporary blog “A Film Canon”, writes of the visual effect of this movie in these words: “In the process, it produces a strong noir aesthetic, generating a proliferation of low ceilings, as well as a dependence upon moonlight, itself generalized into a series of ghostly, elastic white presences, whose rubbery stain clings to the characters with the same insistence as the starched suits that seem to constitute their wardrobes.”

Interesting and nuanced performances, and an arresting visual style, make The Letter a memorable film, and I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.