Maybe a bit indistinct, but it is Gale Sondergaard’s hands clutching the letter which provides the dramatic centre of William Wyler’s THE LETTER.
A few thoughts about this marvellous melodrama.
This film has so many memorable scenes in it, the one involving the exchange of the letter is just one.
THE LETTER draws you into its spell just as surely as Tony Gaudio’s camera weaves its way to that opening shot when Bette Davis suddenly appears,gun in hand, emptying it into the body of her lover.
Moonlight and shadows create the suffocating atmosphere that makes you believe you are on a Malayan plantation in the tropics .
After the shooting, Bette is seen constantly looking up at the moon, as if transfixed.
She may be losing her mind, but she convinces nearly everyone that the shooting was justified.
She is almost oblivious to the dead body at her feet. He didn’t want her any more and she killed him.
That moon hypnotises her.
The incriminating letter ( in which Bette urges her lover to come to her that evening) is in the hands of the murdered man’s Eurasian widow (Gale Sondergaard).
Bette, wearing the most beautiful white lace shawl , is forced to go to the widow’s place of business, a gambling house,along with her lawyer (James Stephenson) and the man who is negotiating the transfer of the letter for £10,000,Victor Sen-Yung.
The widow makes her entrance through a beaded curtain and gazes down at this woman who has killed her husband.She does not speak English but asks ,through Sen-Yung,for Bette to remove her shawl.
Her hatred is obvious. Her eyes bore into this figure in front of her. She makes Bette come to her after the money has been handed over.
She pulls the letter from under her sleeve, but instead of handing it to Bette,she drops it at her feet. Bette is forced to bend down to pick it up. All the while,Gale towers over her and expresses so many emotions without uttering a word. Her movements are minimal.
Bette whispers ‘Thank you” then turns and leaves.
And at the end of the film, when Bette has been found not guilty, she seems to go back into that dream state. Life isn’t really worth living without the man she killed. She walks slowly out of her house,almost in a trance, and down to the outside gate, where fate awaits her.
During the film,Bette’s character,Leslie, keeps herself occupied with intricate crocheting.
It’s so sad that James Stephenson, so impressive as the lawyer, died only a few months after The Letter was released.
As for Gale Sondergaard, what an actress. With so little to do, she is unforgettable. She has another great scene,where she goes to view the body of her late husband. Again, with no dialogue,Gale conveys the anguish she feels.
Bette ,Gale and William Wyler should have won Oscars.
I only began to appreciate this film after I had seen it on the big screen.
William Wyler made it clear afterwards, that the film should have ended with Bette declaring her love for the man she killed.
In the original Somerset Maugham play, Bette’s character doesn’t die, but I must admit, there is a certain satisfaction to the 1940 ending.
Some trivia from IMDB – David Newell (as Hammond) had to roll down the stairs 8 times after being shot before William Wyler was satisfied.
In 1956, Wyler directed The Letter for TV (‘Producers Showcase’),with Siobhan McKenna,John Mills,Michael Rennie and Anna May Wong.
THE SECRET FROM MALAMPUR