The Letter (1940)

August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Letter begins with a literal bang–or rather, six of them. The opening shot, panning over the dreamy, moonlit grounds of a Malayan rubber plantation, is interrupted by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) emptying a revolver into Geoffrey Hammond. The plantation workers rush over. Someone runs off to find Davis’s husband and the police. Once they arrive, she reluctantly recounts the whole sordid story for them: Hammond attempted to rape her; she shot only in self-defense. Though her account is pitch-perfect, punctuated by the appropriate stagy sobs and adoring glances at her husband, we know right off the bat that something’s just a little bit . . . off. Her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) isn’t fully convinced, either. When the officer notes that the corpse was “just riddled with bullets,” you can see the gears beginning to shift in Joyce’s brain. All of this occurs in the film’s first fifteen minutes–and then we’re off and running alongside Joyce as he starts to unravel the web Leslie weaves.

The British colonies, be they Asian, American or African, are some of my favorite film settings. Any story with a colonial setting will work, but especially the Brits–I love the palpable danger you sense as they pull this paper-thin veneer of white linen and garden parties across a culture that’s about to bubble over with heat and oppression. Even the otherwise most run-of-the-mill pictures, the ones that were ignored when they were released, offer plenty for the modern viewer to dissect if they’re placed within a colonial frame. The racial tension and stereotyping of “the natives” are a given. But with a richly drawn movie like The Letter, the white characters give us plenty to analyze, too. Far from home, they’re allowed to act in ways that would never have been allowed in the panopticon of British society. This is especially true for the ladies, any one of whom may be the only white woman for miles, surrounded by plenty of intelligent, ambitious white men making their fortunes on the plantations . . .

And so it plays out in The Letter. Interestingly enough, the two characters who hold the most power are the women: Leslie Crosbie, and Mr. Hammond’s Anglo-Asian widow (played by the very white Gale Sondergaard, naturally). The movie’s men are all pawns, go-betweens, and dupes. The only time men hold even a parody of power is when the all-male jury is allowed to vote on Leslie’s innocence or guilt–but even then, it’s she who manipulated their decision. Not only are women the ones with the power, but in a further twist, it’s Mrs. Hammond–the “Eurasian,” the outsider, the supposed inferior–who holds the upper hand over Leslie. Throughout the movie, all the things that Leslie wants belong to her, and both of them know it. But the audience doesn’t . . . until Leslie goes to see her in the Chinese section of Singapore to acquire the titular letter. The camera lingers on the “exotic” decor, emphasizing that we’ve passed beyond the borders of Leslie’s territory.  It’s Mrs. Hammond and her associates who give the orders here–and in a scene that provides both Joyce and the audience with a visceral aha! moment, Mrs. Hammond drops the letter to the floor and forces Leslie to kneel before her in order to pick it up. Leslie slowly stoops to retrieve it, without comment. Now we see–like the women–who’s been pulling the strings all along.

Of course, none of this is real power: the white men still run the companies, the police headquarters, the law offices. But for a movie that’s so blatantly racist on the surface–Gale Sondergaard in yellowface, Wily Oriental and Dragon Lady stereotypes galore–it’s a fascinating turn.

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