Happy Birthday Bette Davis: THE LETTER (Warner Brothers 1940)

Film noir buffs usually point to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR as the first of the genre. Others cite 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON as the film that launched the movement. But a case could certainly be made for William Wyler’s THE LETTER, released three months after STRANGER, but containing all the elements of what would be come to called film noir by future movie buffs. THE LETTER also features a bravura performance by Miss Bette Davis , who was born on this date in 1905, as one hell of a femme fatale.

The movie starts off with a bang (literally) as Bette’s character Leslie Crosbie emerges from her Malaysian plantation home pumping six slugs into Geoff Hammond under a moonlit night sky. The native workers are sent to fetch Leslie’s husband, rubber plantation supervisor Robert, from the fields. He brings along their attorney Howard Joyce, and it’s a good thing he does, as Leslie is booked on a murder charge and transported to Singapore to await trial.

Leslie’s story is that Hammond “tried to make love to me and I shot him” (in other words, a rape attempt), and her story never deviates, not even once, raising suspicion in the veteran barrister’s mind. That suspicion heightens when Joyce’s assistant Ong tells him he has knowledge of a letter proving Leslie’s statement is “not in every respect accurate”, written by Leslie herself. The incriminating letter in question is in the possession of Hammond’s Eurasian widow.

Leslie asks Joyce to take the money from Robert’s hard-earned savings and purchase said letter. He retrieves the letter in Singapore’s dark Chinese Quarter, and Leslie pleads with Joyce to suppress the evidence in order to vindicate her. Against his better judgement, he does so, and a not guilty verdict is found, but when the truth is finally revealed about Leslie’s relationship with Hammond, it proves devastating to all concerned…

The noir themes are all there – murder, crime, adultery, prejudice, and an overall sense of impending doom. Director Wyler was born in Alsace (now eastern France) in 1902, and certainly must have viewed the German Expressionistic films of the period as a youth. He came to America in 1921 at the behest of his mother’s cousin, Universal honcho Carl Laemmle, and worked his way up from “swing gang” member to director.

Though adept at virtually every film genre there is, many of his works have that dark touch of noir to them – DEAD END, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, DETECTIVE STORY, THE DESPERATE HOURS, and his later, underrated psychological horror THE COLLECTOR. The repeated shadowy stripe motif represents the prison these characters have all made for themselves, but the  standout scene for me was when Joyce visits the dark, mysterious Chinese section of town to purchase the letter, and that entrance by the Dragon Lady-looking Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard), a tense, gripping masterpiece of a moment (and is Willie Fung as the antique shop owner smoking an opium pipe there?).

Wyler was Bette’s favorite director, appearing in three films for him, and receiving Oscar nominations for them all (winning her second for 1938’s JEZEBEL). She dominates every scene she’s in, from her blazing entrance to the fatal final moment, and gives an Oscar worthy performance, though she lost to Ginger Rogers for KITTY FOYLE (there was some tough competition that year – besides Ginger, Bette was also up against Katherine Hepburn for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Joan Fontaine for REBECCA , and Martha Scott for OUR TOWN). Bette’s superb supporting cast includes Herbert Marshall as the cuckolded husband, James Stephenson in his Oscar nominated  performance as lawyer Joyce, (Victor) Sen Yung as the go-between Ong, and of course the aforementioned Sondergaard as the wronged Mrs. Hammond.


Though Davis was elated to be reteamed with Wyler, she must have been rapturous to learn the source material was a play by Somerset Maugham, whose story OF HUMAN BONDAGE put her on the Hollywood map back in 1934. Once on that map, Bette never left, and her remarkable film career spanned an incredible 58 years, with more classics than clunkers (although there were a few). And by the way, the line “Petah, Petah, give me the lettah, Petah”, done to death by Bette Davis impersonators forever, never appears in THE LETTER. There’s not even in “Petah” to be found in the movie! What you will find is a grim tale of forbidden love gone wrong, made by one of Hollywood’s masters and starring one of the brightest superstars in Hollywood history.

Happy birthday Bette Davis (1905-1989)

 

 

 

Wild Wyler West: Gary Cooper is THE WESTERNER (United Artists 1940)

It’s hard to believe that, except for two films in which he cameoed, I haven’t covered any movies starring my namesake, Gary Cooper . Nor have I written anything about any of major Hollywood director William Wyler’s works. So let’s kill two birds with one stone and take a look at 1940’s THE WESTERNER, one of the best Westerns ever. It’s a highly fictionalized account of the life and times of Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903), played by Walter Brennan in his third and final Oscar-winning role, with Cooper as a drifter at odds with “The Law West of the Pecos”.

That “law” is Bean, who sides with the open range cattlemen against the homesteaders who’ve moved into the area. Into the town of Vinagaroon rides Coop as Cole Harden on his way to California. Unfortunately for Cole, he rides in on a horse stolen from one of Bean’s cronies, and is put on trial in Bean’s saloon-cum-courthouse. The sly Cole is saved from the hangman’s noose thanks to some quick thinking, gloming onto Bean’s obsession with singer/actress Lili Langtry. Cole claims to not only have met “The Jersey Lily” but possess a lock of her hair, and smooth talks his way into Bean’s good graces.

The homesteaders are disheartened by the cattlemen’s constant harassment, and begin leaving West Texas in droves. Cole stops by one of the ranches to thank Jane Ellen Matthews, who tried to stand up for him at his trial, and finds out some of the sodbusters have ridden into Vingaroon to lynch Bean. Cole rides ahead to avert catastrophe, and an uneasy truce between cowboys and farmers is formed. That truce doesn’t last long, and Cole is forced to choose sides between Jane Ellen and the sodbusters and Bean’s men, while the judge awaits the coming of Lily Langtry herself to nearby Fort Davis…

The interplay between Cooper and Brennan is a master class in screen acting. The two actors made six features together, and were friends offscreen as well. Whether feeling each other out while guzzling some ‘Rub of the Brush’ (so strong it eats right through Bean’s wooden bar!), Cole’s fanciful tales of Lily Langtry captivating the enamored Bean, or their final showdown (which heavily influenced the finale of Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST ), these two are perfection. The taciturn, boyish Cooper is a movie star like they don’t make anymore, and Brennan matches him scene for scene.

Wyler came up through the ranks making silent Westerns at Universal, and his resume reads like an All-Time Great Movie list: DEAD END, JEZEBEL, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE LETTER, MRS. MINIVER, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, DETECTIVE STORY, ROMAN HOLIDAY, BEN-HUR. He directed fourteen actors to Oscar victories, which must be a record! Wyler and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Gregg Toland , create a deep-focus Western world, and though the screenplay by Jo Swerling and Niven Busch may be historically inaccurate, the film’s look certainly isn’t. There’s an ambitious, exciting scene where the cattlemen burn out the homesteaders, and the “special photographic effects” are credited to another ace cinematographer, Archie Stout .

Doris Davenport plays Cooper’s love interest Jane Ellen – wait, who? Miss Davenport was a former model who was a contender for the Scarlett O’Hara role in GONE WITH THE WIND (wasn’t everybody?), and has but nine credits on IMDb. Apparently, she quit acting after 1940’s BEHIND THE NEWS, but her performance here shows she could’ve been a star given half the chance (at least in my opinion). A very young Forrest Tucker makes his debut as a farmer, while veteran Fred Stone appears in his last as Jane Ellen’s father. Others in the cast are a young Dana Andrews , Stanley Andrews, Trevor Bardette, Lilian Bond (as Lily Langrty) , Charles Halton, Paul Hurst, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Tyler , and Chill Wills.

THE WESTERNER is full of so many great bits it would take me all day to point them all out. So I’ll just say, putting all those bits together adds up to a classic Western that’s hard to resist for film buffs. The performances, the dialog, the camerawork, direction – what are you waiting for, go watch it now!

 

 

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