William Wyler’s The Letter (1940): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 3

In a film noir, it’s an even bet that love will kill you. Afterglow? More like aftergloom. Relationships start with tendrils of smoke, curling upwards from the end of a cigarette—and, more likely than not, they’ll end up as smoke, too, poetic plumes of it trailing from a warm gun.

William Wyler’s The Letter (1940) begins with just such an ending, what you might call a bad breakup. Because it’s Bette Davis bidding adieu, that parting kiss comes in six installments of lead.

As I wrote a few days ago, there’s something intrinsically romantic about noir, something wounded and torn apart by passion gone very wrong. And that something is what The Letter has in spades.

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From the first shot, that baleful, cloud-wreathed moon, Wyler orchestrates a kind of celluloid trance. The sequence resonates with mystical note, as though the rules of life, the laws of the universe, had been temporarily suspended.

Tomorrow, hell, even 5 minutes from now, the lies, the conventions, the pretenses will resume their importance. For tonight, however, some celestial guardian was struck with absentmindedness and forgot to lock up the demons. Through it all, that lurid, opalescent moon winks from behind its clouds as though she’s in on the morbid joke.

A restless, roving camera movement—following the monotonous drip-drip-drip of milky rubber tree sap, creeping around the Singapore plantation, peering in at the native workers—makes the air tingle with imminence, with the stillness that signifies something dire just about to happen. And happen it does.

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A shot rings out, shattering the humid hush of the tropical night. No cut, but a cockatoo flaps away. The camera ambles on a bit then stops as if prompting the thought, “Did I really just hear that?” In the distance, we see two indistinct figures in the doorway of the plantation. More shots ring out.

With cameraman Tony Gaudio, Wyler meticulously choreographed the long takes that pull the viewer into the mystery and drama of The Letter. As the director recalled:

“The script said something like, ‘You hear a gunshot and you see a woman coming out to shoot a man.’ I thought the shot should shock you. To get the full impact of it I thought everything should be very quiet. At the same time I wanted to show where we were—in a single camera move.

“This two-minute sequence was all we did the first day [of shooting]. And since all of this was not in the script, we ended the day with only a quarter of a page filmed. Normally you’re supposed to do three or four pages a day. Jesus, the whole studio was in an uproar. But when they saw the shot they didn’t mind.”

Yeah, I’ll bloody bet they didn’t.

In contrast to the languor of that traveling shot, once the gunplay takes hold on reality Wyler cuts rapidly through 4 shots that last little more than a second. Sleeping dogs jump to attention. Natives sit up in their hammocks.

Then we see Leslie Crosby, charging on to the porch like a Fury in a tea gown, emptying her pistol into her ex-lover. He’s dead. It’s done. But the camera isn’t finished with her. It approaches her gently yet probingly, ending on a closeup of her hard, unreadable expression.

We have a moment to catch our breath, to process the violence, to realize that we don’t know what to make of this woman who kills with such élan then freezes without any conspicuous remorse.

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In the series of shots that follow, the moon hides behind the clouds then emerges to dazzle Leslie, snapping her out of her momentary paralysis. She gapes up at the sky with the look of a madwoman as the enormity of her actions sinks in.

Most old Hollywood movies want you to take light for granted, just lap it up as part of the general splendor while you devote your attention to the plot. In film noir, light and darkness are themselves characters, and usually pretty nasty ones at that, taunting both the viewer and the exquisitely tragic denizens of the story world. (One thinks of Gene Tierney squinting into the police lamp in Laura or Janet Leigh breaking a lightbulb to escape the border town peeper and his flashlight in Touch of Evil.) Light and dark are exhibitionists in the noirverse.

In The Letter, the moon’s decadent, flashing beauty signals to Leslie Crosby that the Night of No Rules is over. But getting the demons back in their cage won’t be so easy.

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(Wyler quote from Jan Herman’s A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler.)

Free Friday Film: Of Human Bondage (1934)

posterShe was no classic beauty. She didn’t have a voluptuous figure. Her stance and poise remind one of a hen—perpetually ready to peck away. To lascivious Hollywood producers, she wasn’t the ideal type of chick they aimed to maneuver onto their couches. They thought she possessed all “the sex appeal of Slim Summerville,” an insult which has been ascribed to several moguls.

And yet, over 70 years since her heyday, Bette Davis still exudes a charisma that is nothing short of spellbinding. One has the feeling that her libido is constantly coursing through her, barely held in check, like the fierce torrent that pours through a hydroelectric dam. Her undeniable sexiness derives from her daring, transcendent self-consciousness, the feeling that her every motion expresses a gesture of defiance or engages in a demonstration of some kind. Her characters are usually performing for someone’s benefit, even if it’s just their own. “Here I am,” she seems to be saying. “Even if I’m a mess, I exist. I’m acting. I’m taking action. And I’m not going to apologize for it.”

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On the birthday of one of the cinema’s great divas, I’d like to remember the movie that cloaked her in an aura of allure and fear, that transformed her into a true star, not just a cardboard goodie-goodie ingénue. Of Human Bondage (based on Somerset Maugham’s novel) provided Bette with her breakout role. She risked her contract at Warner Brothers to take the vulgar, hateful role of Mildred in a production at Radio Pictures (which would evolve into R.K.O. Radio Pictures) and Jack Warner hoped that she would fail.

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The sheer perversity and willfulness of her character, a cockney waitress who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with Philip Carey, a directionless medical student, no doubt echoed Bette’s own indomitable desire to get what she wanted. Watching Of Human Bondage still feels like witnessing a high-wire act: Bette’s nervous power zigzags across the screen and it’s not hard to understand why when you realize that she staked her career on her talent. And won.

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I’ve seen the film a few times and I still get the impression that Mildred might do something new, crazy, and ill-advised every time I tune in. Bette’s interpretation of Mildred manages to bridge the gap between tarty and uppity. She puts on airs, but never fails to accept an invitation to roll around in the muck. This woman lives for punishment, both inflicting it and receiving it.

However, rather than being a walking complex, a neurosis on legs, Mildred comes across as a multi-faceted person. I particularly applaud the sense of self-preservation that Bette brought to the character—despite her masochistic tendencies, Mildred doesn’t like the pain she brings on herself. She clearly wants to use Philip as her safety net, someone she can use and wring for money and security while she’s out hunting something better.

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Mildred’s attractiveness resides in this aspirational quality, mixed with an almost animalistic drive to find the fittest possible mate. She wears her shamelessness with the same confidence she wears pretentious hats or skintight slutty dresses. Here Bette’s witch’s brew of lust, venom, guts, and self-destructiveness foreshadows the strange alchemy of sexiness and repulsion that we associate with the femme fatale of classic film noir. Plus, after the producers saw Bette in this role, I daresay that all comments about Slim Summerville were quickly retracted.

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The movie also boasts a wonderful performance by Leslie Howard who did an excellent job of making Philip Carey, a rather weak man, still sympathetic and likable—not just a drippy victim. Leslie was a delightful, romantic actor, but here, he strikes the right pathetic, passive note that enables us to believe (well, almost believe) that a woman might recurrently reject and wound him.

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Although the film isn’t a masterpiece, director John Cromwell added several interesting psychological touches, redolent of German Expressionism. For instance, at the nadir of his obsession, Philip hallucinates and begins to see Mildred everywhere. The diagram in his textbook dissolves into her. The next day, he fails an important exam because the anatomical skeleton assumes her likeness. The film also throws us off balance by staging many shot-reverse-shot exchanges with characters stationed exactly in the middle of the frame, instead of the usual just-a-little-to-the-side. Frequent wipe transitions and swish-pan cuts enhance the brisk, disorienting grimness of this saga.

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Figure A: Bette Davis

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With a frank depiction of childbirth outside of wedlock, paintings of stark naked ladies, and strong hints of sexual passion or frigidity, Of Human Bondage stands out as one of the most mature Pre-Code films I’ve seen. It eschews any sort of glittery, wink-wink titillation in favor of gritty, uncompromising realism. Backed by Bette’s commitment to bringing out her character’s every wart, the film gives us a portrait of human wreckage, people destroyed not by a twist of fate, but by something as banal and unglamorous as a lack of self-control.

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So, I recommend that you watch Of Human Bondage. You will cringe. You will squirm. And you will marvel at the spitfire virtuosity of Bette Davis, coming of age as a screen actress. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m embedding a remastered version of the film, but it’s in ten parts. You can easily find the other parts on YouTube. In case you find that too inconvenient, there’s also a lesser quality version of the whole movie contained in one video. This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie!