Thursday, April 02, 2015

"The Letter": a Bette Davis thriller, of a Somerset Maugham story, wouldn't work today (or could it, with another twist?)

A film titled “The Letter” might sound intriguing in the Internet age, especially to someone vaguely remembering older novels based on series of letters, or plotted around the receipt of a handwritten letter conveying some family secret, like in Victorian England.
In fact, it was the title of a play by W. Someret Maugham, from a short story collection called “The Casuarina Tree”.  The 1940 film is directed by William Wyler and stars Bette Davis in one of her most “evil” roles (until “Baby Jane”).  
The most interesting scenes visually occur at the beginning. The camera dawdles on a rubber tree, and then tells us we are in Singapore (when it was still a British colony) and then shows us servant men sleeping in outdoor hammocks.  Soon we come to the plantation house, and see Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shooting a higher ranking house servant Goeff Hammond.
Leslie is arrested but seems headed for acquittal but in this film (as, oddly in my own screenplay “The Sub”) her own defense attorney (James Stephenson) plays devils advocate when he gets a letter that Lesie had written to Hammond the day she killed him.  There follow a bizarre sequence where Leslie needs to “buy” the letter to keep Geoff’s mixed race wife (Gale Sondergaard) from blackmailing her. After Leslie seems to get off in a British trial, she gets her just desserts at the end, at a knife.  The movie DVD offers a slightly longer ending (from 1941).

Of course, the plot doesn't work in the digital age, when a letter is so easily "copied" and lasts forever in the deep web. I may have had an incident involving "evidence" vaguely like this once subsumed on online versions of my own work. An interesting parallel would occur if someone tried to get me to remove a footnoted name of someone from a "Google Books" copy of my book online, instead of just my own online copy (which is what people really read usually).  That could set up  situation a bit like this movie in modern times.   


The black and white photography looks very sharp on the DVD transfer. But the movie has no hint of modern Singapore.  

I note that most classic film DVD's seem to translate to "1.85:1" when I play them.  Originally they would have been 4:3.  
Picture: a March ice storm (no relation to movie, except for the near black-and-white). 

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