Saturday, October 5, 2019

Movie Reviews: The Letter

The Letter
directed by William Wyler
Some people seem to believe that women can never lie about anything involving sex or that if they do it's no big deal because after all women as a group are oppressed. At the extremes some such folks express hostility towards to the concepts of innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt or an adversarial justice system. Some honestly think anyone who would defend himself too vigorously against a sexual assault charge is proving that he must have committed the crime. 

Other people have the intelligence or integrity not to go that far but point out that most rape or sexual assault charges are not deliberate lies. So some people wonder about the motives of people who become wondrously wroth over the rare proven false rape charges.

None of us are immune to bias. We believe the best of our friends, relatives and lovers. The Letter examines these biases in a 40s noir setting, one in which as normal in these films, "evil" can be a question of perspective. Although race isn't the film's emphasis it's certainly something which influences the film's settings and characters. This film is set in pre- WW2 Malaysia, in and around rubber "plantations" owned by White Americans and White Europeans. These people all live the good life, buying and selling their "plantations" among their small group. There's no war to worry about yet. 

Because there are White Women living in the area, unlike the initial European colonization of say South America, it's considered in bad taste and declasse for a man of Caucasian heritage to marry or openly take up with a woman of Asian or even Eurasian heritage. 

Several characters refer negatively to a White man who did such a thing, citing his actions as proof of his depravity, bad upbringing, or social unworthiness. The opposite case, a White Woman taking up with an Asian or Eurasian man, is unthinkable.

Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis in all of her bug-eyed glory-no disrespect as I have similar peepers) is the wife of rubber plantation manager Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall). Robert is away on business. There's someone in his home besides his wife. That someone is Geoff Hammond. Well he was in the Crosby home. 

As the film opens he's running/stumbling out of the house, while being shot by Leslie. Leslie's not taking any chances. Leslie shoots Geoff at close range several times, ensuring that Geoff is removed from the planet. Leslie tells her servants to send for her husband. 

When Robert, the police, and the family attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) arrive, Leslie goes into full "I'm just a little woman" mode and says that Geoff tried to rape her (Because of the time period the word "rape" is not actually used). So she had to put him down. Hard and fast. Everyone is very sympathetic. 

The police say that Leslie will have to be in jail to await trial (she didn't kill a Malaysian after all) but that her acquittal or even pre-trial dismissal of charges is a foregone conclusion (she is a married white woman of impeccable morals after all). 

Robert just wants to hold, hug and support his wife. He doesn't want her to answer any more questions. And he gets upset with anyone who asks her more questions. Robert is a gentle devoted trusting husband that does his best to provide and protect. He can't stand any idea that he might have failed to protect his dearest. But Howard, despite being friends with both Robert and Leslie, can't shake his feeling that something isn't right. Why did Geoff come to Leslie's home late at night when her husband was away? Why did Geoff park his car away from the home where no one could see it? 

Why did Leslie shoot Geoff so many times? Why did Leslie shoot Geoff in the back? Even obliquely raising these questions upsets Robert and Leslie. So Howard lets it go. Heck he's a defense attorney, not a prosecutor.

But the next day Howard's clerk (Sen Yung) shows Howard a copy of a private letter that changes perceptions. 

Although it's Davis' Leslie who gets top billing you could argue that the film is just as concerned with the moral choices that Howard must make. He must choose between his duty as an attorney and his duty as a friend to both Leslie and Robert. 

And almost any choice Howard makes is going to be the wrong choice. Howard's frustrations and attempts at compromise drive a lot of the film's tension, as do the slowly revealed secrets. Howard's knowledge causes him physical pain. Your sympathies may change as you learn more of what really happened. Or they may not. That's what I liked about this film, you can sympathize with different characters who are "right" in their own minds. Unfortunately because of the times in which the film was made it was apparently thought necessary to put in an ending which may have pleased the censors but made little sense for the characters as they were portrayed.

Like all the best noir films The Letter features stunning black and white cinematography with meaningful use of shadow and darkness. The Letter received Oscar nominations for its cinematography.  If nothing else see this film for how it looks. This film has a great deal of emotional intensity that is turned up higher and higher as the film reaches its climax. It is always a bit of a shock to my system to realize that actors and actresses whom I had firmly fixed in my mind as old or even elderly people past their glory days were once young. Time marches on for us all.

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