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