Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Letter (1940)

The Letter is first class entertainment.

This 1940 film noir from director William Wyler (Ben-Hur, The Little Foxes) offers plenty to savour.

There's great performances from Bette Davis, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard (The Mark of Zorro) and beautiful cinematography from Tony Gaudio (The Adventures of Robin Hood, High Sierra).

The Letter earned an eye-popping seven Academy Award nominations, including Davis (best actress) and Wyler (director).

This film opens with a bang, or bangs, to be more exact. Leslie Crosbie (Davis) has just filled a Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell) with slugs outside her home at a rubber plantation late at night.

She suggests Hammond was a surprise visitor who planned to sexually assault her. The story sounds believable until her lawyer Howard Joyce (Stephenson) learns of a letter Leslie wrote to Hammond that same day, demanding to see him. They were lovers. Leslie is riled he chose to tie the knot with Sondergaard. Murder follows.

Joyce puts his career on the line to help his client. Her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), is her loving and totally clueless better half who knows nothing of his wife's lengthy affair. His dreams of a new business opportunity are also risked because of the cash it'll take to make the sure chances of a murder conviction disappear.

Sondergaard says little in this film, but boy does she make a big impact on the screen as she continually glowers at the woman who killed her husband. The spooky mood surrounding her character gets a big help from the score courtesy of Max Steiner (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind). Watch, and listen, for a scene at a Chinese merchant's shop with wind chimes dangling as Mrs. Hammond and Leslie meet. This is great cinema, followed by a chilling finale.

There's plenty of drama after the murder trial as Robert tries to deal with his wife's infidelity, Joyce wondering if he's thrown his career away and Leslie still tormented by her lover. The DVD I watched offered an alternate ending, but there's nothing Earth shattering about its content. The original packs a real punch and a fine overhead shot leading to the film's final scene.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Prison matron Doris Lloyd was Baroness Ebberfeld in The Sound of Music. She also had an uncredited role in the original Mutiny on the Bounty.

Victor Sen Yung, who appears as James Stephenson's assistant, was Hop Sing in Bonanza. He also played Jimmy Chan in several Charlie Chan films.

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