Manuel Betancourt

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Letter (1940), or How Bette’s eyes are fiery and murderous

April 15, 2014 · in Film

This is part of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot Series”

(you can check The Letter entries here, past entries here, and my contributions here)

I saw The Letter (1940) for the first time last year. I did it as part of the “Mondays with Manuel” series, in which I’m making my way through every film cited in Manuel Puig’s neo-noir novel The Buenos Aires Affair (every chapter opens with a snippet of dialogue from movies featuring female stars like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo — it may be the proto-actressexual guide to studio Hollywood.

The Letter 10 The Letter 09

Thinking of it in terms of its visuals two things struck me. One is the gorgeous title cards. Every movie should have such sumptuous typography. Bette Davis’s name in beautiful cursive should be reason enough to get you to watch this film.

The Letter is a fascinating character study wrapped in a noir film. Wyler and Davis do a great job of building Leslie Crosbie (accused of shooting down someone who turns out to have been her lover) as an emotionally cold and seemingly unrepentant murderess whose plight we nevertheless we understand and feel sympathy for. In true noir form — and this what struck me this time around — the entire film feels increasingly claustrophobic, as it constantly frames Leslie and those around her in lights that mirror prison bars:

The Letter 04 The Letter 05
The Letter 06 The Letter 07

Lights, blinds — even the furniture in her home! — echo the way in which Leslie’s actions (the film opens with the murder under the moonlight) are leading her to an eventual life in prison. And while the plot quite obviously spares her from a literal prison, we are reminded again and again that the prison she fears the most is not a physical one behind bars, but the one she has built for herself in a now-loveless marriage.

My favorite image is the moment she steps out of these metaphorical bars and into the moonlight where she belongs. (I try to think this is the moment where the film ends, because I rather hate the tacked on Production Code insisted-on-and-approved ending that assures she won’t get away with murder, adultery and what amounts to a civil separation from her husband). It’s a stunning image, wonderfully framed and lit but also wonderfully evocative of the many thematic threads of Wyler’s film. It’s one of those iconic images you just want to frame:

The Letter 08