Manuel Betancourt

Mondays with Manuel: The Letter (1940)

July 1, 2013 · in Books, Film, Manuel Puig

Mondays with Manuel is a new ongoing series here at the blog wherein I am watching all the films referenced in Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair (1974). If the name sounds familiar, it is because Puig gave us that other Hollywood-obsessed book (turned film/turned play/turned musical) Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). In his 1974 police novel, Puig opens every chapter with a snippet of dialogue from movies he adored, all of which star beautiful and iconic starlets from Old Hollywood from Dietrich to Garson. I’m working on Puig and the influence of these films on his prose for my dissertation, and this seemed like a good way of doing double duty (triple if I include the fact that I hadn’t seen any of these films before!).

The British planter: (to his wife, who has just confessed to him that she didn’t kill a man in self-defense, but out of spite because he was abandoning her) We must stay together, it’s all in the past now.
Bette Davis: (looking aimlessly at the flawless furniture of that Southeast Asia cottage, far out in the jungle) But can’t you see…? With all my heart I still love the man I killed…
(from The Letter, Warner Bros.)

The Letter 01

William Wyler’s 1940 film The Letter opens with a murder: Leslie (Bette Davis) is seen shooting in cold-blood an unidentified man on the front steps of her husband’s “Southeast Asian cottage.” In front of her husband and attorney, Leslie admits to killing Hammond (a friend of the couple) in self-defense. But in true noir fashion, there is more to this murder than what we are initially shown and told. Puig’s epigraph is taken from the penultimate scene in the film — and the final scene in both the original stage play and the original screenplay — when husband and wife are left to face the true motivations behind Leslie’s recently exonerated crime. (In the final cut of the film Leslie is killed at the hands of Hammond’s Southeast Asian widow, thus meeting the then enforced Motion Picture Code which required that sordid subject matters such as Leslie’s adultery weren’t left unpunished).

The Letter 02

Much like the epigraph from Grand Hotel, Puig here emphasizes the melodramatic register of Wyler’s The Letter while downplaying the more noir-like elements of the film that netted Bette Davis an Oscar nomination. In fact, Davis’ performance carries much of the film, being equally adept at playing cold and collected during her early investigation and slowly unraveling as her secret tryst may be revealed in time to indict her in the form of a letter that gives the film its title. Davis’s restraint throughout the film is what makes Leslie a peculiar femme fatale; in the early scenes when she’s playing off the murder as just a self-defense impulsive action, it’s her cool that sells the story while betraying enough to make characters and audiences (though, unsurprisingly never her husband) doubt the motive and murder itself. Wyler’s film not only continues the curating exercise we’ve been tracing in Puig’s novel — adding Bette Davis to the pantheon of screen goddesses alongside Garbo and Dietrich), but it nicely encapsulates the tone of  The Buenos Aires Affair which opens with a potential kidnapping and is littered with crimes of passion, though between men. Like Wyler’s film, Puig’s novel is a noir in tone but a melodrama in practice, with a cunning protagonist at the center whose passion overwhelms their own better judgment. And just like Leslie, they meet an untimely end. This despite Puig not needing to appease a censor though perhaps unwittingly belying his own censorious attitude towards his characters — while we open with a careless mother ignorant of her daughter’s kidnapping, we end with a caring surrogate mother who stops a potential suicide — we end then with a family restored and unconscionable actions punished.

The Letter 03

Mondays with Manuel Index:

Chapter I: Camille (1936)
Chapter II: The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Chapter III: Humoresque (1946)
Chapter IV: The Shanghai Express (1932)
Chapter V: Red Dust (1932)
Chapter VI: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)
Chapter VII: Marie Antoinette (1938)
Chapter VIII: Algiers (1938)
Chapter IX: I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Chapter X: Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Chapter XI: The Letter (1940)
Chapter XII: The Hamilton Woman (1941)
Chapter XIII: Dishonored (1931)
Chapter XIV: Tender Comrade (1943)
Chapter XV: Grand Hotel (1932)
Chapter XVI: Gilda (1946)