Friday, September 23, 2016

In The Light Of Truth

For whatever reason I sometimes think of a declaration remembered from film school, maybe it was said by Dani Michaeli, but it’s so long ago now that who knows. It was a simple statement once while watching a film: “Pans suck.” That’s all it was, probably spoken during a film which contained a camera pan that most likely sucked. And I’ve always remembered that brief utterance, making me think of every bad pan I’ve ever seen, maybe some of them in the context of clunky student films and how false they were. Sure, you could bring up a million examples of good pans by Scorsese or whoever and, really, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this sort of thing. But maybe there’s some truth to it, that the falseness of a pan is something to avoid and you should find some other way to frame your shot until you’ve figured it out. The reason I’m saying all this is that recently I was watching THE LETTER, a William Wyler-directed Bette Davis vehicle released in 1940, one of those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that opens with the familiar Max Steiner fanfare and everything about it speaks to the quality you’d get from films that were churned out by the studio system. As I get older there’s something about those goddamn Warner Brothers epics that stands out—yes, the familiar actors, but also that studio’s particular type of storytelling, a stylishness which sets it apart from the silvery aura of Paramount or the glistening perfection of MGM. It’s an extremely well-made film, heightened by performances which match the story and tone perfectly. At one point I found myself drawn in and fascinated by the direction, the way Wyler was staging a certain key moment and how the impeccable camerawork added to the way the story was being told. There was an undeniable elegance to every single moment in the deliberateness of the framing that Wyler was bringing to this particular shot. What I’m trying to say, and maybe it says something about the film as a whole, is that THE LETTER has some really good pans.
Late at night on a Malaysian rubber plantation, a man is shot six times by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) wife of Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) the estate manager. The man is Geoff Hammond, another British local who Leslie claims entered her house with the intent to make love to her, resulting in what happened. No one disbelieves Leslie’s story and while she is arrested to go to trial no one has any doubt what the outcome will be. Until her attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) learns about the existence of a letter written by her to Hammond, begging him to come to her home that night. And that letter now belongs to his wife (Gale Sondergaard) who has certain demands, leading Howard to refrain from telling Robert what is in the letter while working with Leslie to do whatever he can to suppress it, allowing for her acquittal whatever the real truth may be.
It’s not all about pans, of course. Some might wonder why I’m writing about a Bette Davis film and not immediately focusing on Bette Davis since, after all, a film like this is presumably all about Bette Davis who represents the type of strong woman portrayed during this era, up against the men trying to understand them and the impossibility of it all. Bette Davis was the star, she was why the film existed. Not so much the director or the original source material and certainly not her co-stars who as usual are all dapper gentlemen (some with moustaches, some without) forced to eternally play second fiddle to her, those “he looks thirty-two” types Davis’ Margo Channing later referred to in ALL ABOUT EVE. And I have no problem with writing about Bette Davis. Or Joan Crawford, for that matter, but equal time for her will have to wait until I get around to AUTUMN LEAVES. So in comparison to the star power on hand, maybe pointing out something as presumably insignificant as a pan shouldn’t be that big a deal. That was the job of the people who made this film, after all, to make sure those touches added to making it as good as possible without anyone even dwelling on such things.
And THE LETTER (screenplay by Howard Koch, from the W. Summerset Maugham play and also previously filmed in 1929) is that good, I almost want to say it’s a “cracking good yarn” or something old school like that, as well as a reminder that William Wyler is one of those Golden Age directors not talked about enough anymore. After serving in the Air Force and directing several documentaries during World War II (like George Stevens, documented in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back) he returned home and took many of his feelings about the experience coming back from the war to make 1946’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That film won the Best Picture Oscar and is a confirmed classic by now but still feels underappreciated, its post-war context forgotten as other films, possibly made by more esteemed auteurs, have continued to be lionized. That one’s his masterpiece, not so much THE LETTER which may not even be the greatest film made by Warner Brothers during this period but of course they can’t all be CASABLANCA or TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. But I’ve been watching THE LETTER multiple times over the past few weeks getting lost in its sumptuous atmosphere and found myself with a growing “damn, this really is good” appreciation for what it does, weaving its story through a tight running time of around 95 minutes without an ounce of fat and yet infinitely complex on a thematic and visual level. Frankly, you’d think that’s what more films should be. It’s one of the best examples of this sort of filmmaking that doesn’t get talked about much anymore as the past recedes further into the distance. It’s a great film regardless of when it was made.
It’s also the moon. The moon stares down at the film’s star throughout, recurring in its imagery while silently judging and hiding all secrets. To bring up a film like CASABLANCA, directed by Michael Curtiz, it’s hard to imagine that director ever paying much attention to something as heavily symbolic as the moon. The directness of the storytelling is one of his strong points and in some ways is part of what makes his movies play so well today, almost modern at times. He had Bogart & Bergman in CASABLANCA, he had Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE, John Garfield in the sadly underappreciated THE BREAKING POINT. Compared with the emphasis on that star power, William Wyler’s directorial style in THE LETTER feels somewhat ornate and even a little stately, more about laying out the shots in an elegant way and placing his own leading lady within it. He explores that setting and what it means within the film’s world, allowing for moments where that setting is the story, including the opening which establishes the plantation setting, rubber dripping down while giving us a look at the workers living in their bamboo huts, all that tension hanging in the air.
Because of its appearances in Chuck Workman-type montages, THE LETTER is maybe best known today for the early shot of Bette Davis firing a pistol into her unseen victim as she moves down a small set of stairs, her face a mask of pure determination the whole time. But then beyond the fury of those iconic seconds the camera moves in slowly on her face, no rush to cut away from it, trying to get us to see what is really in there since the film is, after all, about what lies inside that stare. It feels like half the story of THE LETTER is told through those eyes and because of that specifics of plot machinations laid out through exposition don’t seem to matter as much. It’s her face and the people and places around her that matters, just like the deep focus in some of BEST YEARS’s most famous moments which link those characters together. Even during Bette Davis’ multiple lengthy speeches where she describes in detail the events that lead up to the shooting, whatever sort of truth we eventually learn they contain, it’s almost about how she’s saying it and how the men around her are listening as much as the specific words, however elegant the dialogue is. Anything she says, anything she wants others to think is almost covered up by the lacework she seems to spend most of the film busy crocheting, representing those lies that she tries to cover herself with, to avoid the truth of what was in that letter. There’s a clearness to the storytelling which focuses on all this behavior and the movie never wastes any time; even the crucial trial sequence, something that could easily drag down the middle section of the film, is condensed down to a few crucial moments. We don’t even see the cross-examination heard about in dialogue to reiterate what we’ve already heard, only the closing summation by her conflicted friend and attorney which focuses on his own doubts about what he’s being made to do by this woman.
Of course, since this is a film made in 1940 shot on the Warner lot in Burbank its version of Malaysia is probably more Generic Exotic Movie Setting than anything having to do with reality but still presents an evocative look at this place where the English live but in their veiled racism still dream of a more ‘civilized climate’, even as Bette Davis kills a man then proceeds to cook for everyone who’s come over to investigate. When they have to go to the Chinese quarter to retrieve the letter in question, Leslie speaks of never having been there, assuming that it’s ‘a bit creepy’, clearly more interested in being with her friends who seem to have nothing to do but flitter about planning parties. The locals are basically all treated as servants or worse, which becomes part of how it’s obviously dated but also an element of the subtext since it’s those locals treated with such disdain who always seem to be quietly one step ahead of the lead characters. It’s almost as if they’re quietly pulling the strings of the story, waiting things out until the final moments--Sen Yung as Howard Joyce’s clerk who alerts him to the existence of the letter admits to being motivated by money but there’s clearly something more than that being left unsaid. It’s as if the camerawork itself is affected by them, even those pans seem controlled by certain characters to shift the focus back over to them.
Since it’s her vehicle Bette Davis is just about the only character in the film who gets any close-ups—the only possible exception is Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond (it’s not much of a role beyond her physical presence but Sondergaard herself is an interesting figure, later blacklisted after taking the fifth when being questioned by HUAC), the only other female of importance in the film but one who only appears in a few scenes and with no spoken dialogue in English. She’s basically a stereotypical dragon lady, I guess meant to be Eurasian, with fuzzy motivations at times but it all gives the impression that what plays out between the women, between their stares, matters more than the men around them who talk about nothing but Plot. It’s the unspoken passion involving the man who’s been killed that matters more than the trial or dollar figures bandied about which in the end are really semantics. The men remain off to the side, fretting or drinking (“Mix me another,” one says to the servant as soon as a round arrives) while husband Herbert Marshall thinks a kiss on the cheek from him will make everything all right, trying to deny the obvious truth for as long as possible. He has no idea.
Bette Davis famously shot her big confession near the end for director Wyler under protest, saying no woman would ever look a man in the eyes while she said such a thing. My experience is generally that they have no problem with this when they finally reveal the truth and destroy you, but that’s an argument for another time and maybe that one last ounce of defiance from her is what’s needed here. Besides, that confession almost seems minor compared with the unreality of the final moments however the production might have been forced into such an ending by the production code. The last several minutes are essentially without dialogue, pure cinema, and Bette Davis’ frozen expression involving the mystery of a certain dagger’s return appearance seems to involve an acceptance of destiny. THE LETTER is possibly better as a goddamn Warner Brothers epic than a simple Bette Davis vehicle as if she correctly knew that would be better for her anyway to be part of this film as opposed to fashioning it entirely around her. The very last moments even seem to say that she’s not important anymore, the world has already moved on. As a certain party continues in the background, only the moon knows the real truth and as far as it’s concerned those secrets will be kept.
Bette Davis plays her role with every bit of intensity needed, since much of what Leslie is projecting is a performance anyway, her eyes forever searching for the next piece to keep her lies going, trying to avoid the glare of someone who may call her on it. It’s not about realism, no one ever said a Bette Davis performance had to be about realism anyway, it’s about what she’s trying to express up front while hiding behind that mask which seems to crack more as the film goes on through her own self-loathing and determination to make all this go her way since she can’t imagine any alternative. Herbert Marshall, playing the husband, has no real chance up against her; it’s sort of a thankless role anyway, waiting around to be devastated but he plays it with just the right pitch as if it never occurs to him to consider the real story. As her lawyer and confidant, James Stephenson finds the truth in what also might have been a normal supporting performance designed to fade into the background but he matches her and brings an extra level of tension all on his own, playing it with the unspoken belief that there’s more going on here than any of them can understand hanging through every line, becoming a lesser man than he was before but with no choice in the matter. Stephenson received a Supporting Actor nomination for his performance but unfortunately died less than a year after the film’s release—his one of seven nominations the film received, also including Davis, director Wyler and for Best Picture but all involved went home empty handed.
In the end, guilt matters. What you’ve done matters. Late at night that’s all there really is. Sometimes we gaze up at the moon, hoping for forgiveness and that the past might be wiped away. It doesn’t happen. I’m not sure why I decided to write about THE LETTER but whatever that reason is probably isn’t very important. There’s the skill behind it, the star power, the atmosphere it exudes, the wit in the dialogue. And those pans. Again with those pans. Not very much point in obsessing over pans. Just like there’s not much point in obsessing over the past but that never stopped me before. Sometimes when you try to figure these things out you’re just left with the film and whatever it is as you watch it, never fully understanding why beyond the fact that deep down for you it’s a good thing it’s there. It’s not an answer. Maybe you never get an answer. But it’s better than nothing.


aarkush said...

I recently spent some time researching and studying "The Letter" as I prepped a "Trailer From Hell" about it.Interestingly enough I came to many of the same aesthetic conclusions as you did. It's a very good movie made that takes place in that mysterious country of Hollywood USA. another great example of a movie from that country is "Only Angels Have Wings." don't know when the TFH will be posted but it should be soon.........AA

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks for checking in, Allan. It's nice to know that a few things I said may not have been entirely crazy! I look forward to when the trailer gets posted at TFH. And, come to think of it, it's been way too long since I saw Only Angels Have Wings...