Tuesday, March 17, 2015

William Wyler | The Letter


Howard E. Koch (screenplay, based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, William Wyler (director)The Letter / 1940

The changes forced upon Americans films by the Hays Office and Production Code were generally dreadful, based as they were on absurdly limited notions of moral behavior and ethics. Indeed William Wyler’s 1940 version of W. Somerset Maugham’s story, The Letter seems a candidate for one of the worst intrusions into Hollywood scripts.

     In the original, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of British Rubber Plantation manager in Malaysia, is a murderer who, primarily because of racial attitudes and the class-conscious British community, gets away with the crime. The movie opens with a sensuous scene that only Hollywood movies could call up: a cloudy, moonlit night, the rubber dripping from the trees, and the native workers attempting to sleep in clapboard, open hovels surrounding the manor house on a hot night. A shot rings out, another, and we witness a man grasping his side, having been shot. He falls, and Leslie comes out of the house and shoots him several more times until she has emptied the gun’s cartridge.

      With cold-blooded lucidity, she orders the servant and others to bring back her husband, working at another nearby plantation through the night, and call for a doctor and her lawyer. She locks herself in her room, and the three come together, as she expertly tells the story that she will repeat several more times: a friend of her’s and husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), Geoff Hammond had tried “to make love” to her, and she has shot him in self-defense.

     Soon after, the couple and the lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) head off to Singapore, reporting the murder to the authorities, which lands Leslie in jail for a short period until the trial. All are quite certain, however, that justice will prevail, and she will found innocent. Leslie, in particular, does well in jail, spending her time as she has many a lonely night, knitting an intricate lace table cover. But Robert is depressed and worried, and moves in, temporarily, with the lawyer and his wife.
      A few days later, however, a young Chinese attorney, Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung) reports the existence of a letter written to Hammond by Leslie the day of his death. The existence of letter alone is troublesome, since Leslie has reported that she had not seen Hammond for some weeks before he showed up at her home to molest her, but, more importly, because the contents of the letter reveals that she has called for the meeting and hints that the two had been lovers. When Joyce notes the existence of the letter to his client, she at first denies its existence, but finally admits the truth; and soon after, he, a reputable man, is put in the unconscionable situation of having to buy the letter back from Hammond’s wife, an Eurasian woman in this censored version (while in the original was of Chinese extraction). To save Leslie and to protect his close friend Robert, however, Joyce agrees to the payment, withdrawing the sum of $10,000 from his Robert’s account.

      The plot grows a bit thicker when Hammond’s wife (an imperious Gale Sondergaard) demands that Leslie bring the money to her, an encounter which ends up with Leslie literally groveling at the woman’s feet to retrieve the letter.

      Despite Joyce’s struggle with his moral conscience, he, nonetheless, speaks eloquently enough in court to free Leslie, who returns to the Joyce home for a celebration with all their friends, as they joyfully great her back into their fold. Just previous to the event, however, Robert has become determined to move away from Malaysia to Borneo, where he plans to buy his own rubber plantation; Joyce and Leslie attempt to dissuade him, finally admitting that they have drained his bank account to buy the letter.
      Although he has known of letter’s existence, he has not read its contents, believing it was a simply friendly correspondence between his wife and the dead man. But now, shocked at the turn of events, he demands to read it, and Leslie is forced to admit the relationship, her jealousy of Hammond’s wife, and her murderous reaction. At the party, the formerly loving and gracious Robert becomes drunk and garrulous, spinning stories about his now impossible Borneo plantation.

     The film might have ended there, with Leslie having been exonerated and celebrated, while nonetheless, destroying all the men around her. But the Hays Office, determined to protect the American public from the possibility of a criminal escaping punishment from both adultery and murder, demanded that she be killed off. Accordingly, in an attempt to exact their own petty morality, they ruined the irony of Maugham’s story, which suggested that even seemingly good people, in their narrow prejudices and class systems, protect and even encourage evil acts.
     To solve the dilemma, the screenplay asks us to believe that this strong-willed murderess, evidently to atone for her crimes, walks off into the night prepared to be murdered by Hammond’s wife and her henchman—a seemingly ludicrous proposition.
     But, in fact, Koch’s change, in some ways, actually improves the original. The message of the story is still intact, while the new version, in which Robert is ready to forgive his wife for her sins if only she promises that she loves him, now reveals a new dimension. Leslie simply cannot bring herself to lie one more time, and adamantly admits that she still loves the man she murdered. Suddenly we realize, despite his kind gestures and love of his wife, just how boring and inattentive Robert has been. Leslie has been forced, night after night, to sit crocheting while he has worked on the extraction of barrels of the white, viscous substance, which film critic David Thomson argues, is inextricably linked by the viewer with semen in the film’s very first scene. Leslie is not even allowed in the kitchen; they have a servant for that. It is a man’s wolrd akin to the world of the sperm whalers portrayed in Melville’s Moby Dick, which has no place for a forceful woman. 
     The beautiful, vivacious Leslie has clearly sought out a more exciting world for herself in Hammond, a man whom even the males admit, was attractive to women and men equally. While the original tale pointed its finger at the society and Leslie as equally guilty parties, this new version points its finger at her husband and the society of men just like him in which women are left at home like beautiful objects, with no thought of their being needful, thinking, and desiring beings. Leslie’s murder of Hammond is triggered by her recognition that his rejection of her means that she, metaphorically speaking, must return to her lace, to live out the rest her days as old woman in glasses, crochet needles in hand.

      By rejecting her husband’s “forgiveness” and embracing the dark night with murder in the air, Leslie reveals her powerful strength as a woman, becoming a proto-feminist figure who is unafraid to take a direction different from the one her husband proffers. It is only just, after all, that she, who has destroyed her own alternatives, must be destroyed by the woman whose love was also taken from her. In a sense, they are similar: both women are forced by the society around them to wear a mask of femininity beneath which their power and vitality are necessarily hidden, much like the moon disappearing between the clouds, an image which brackets the beginning and the end of the film.

Los Angeles, March 17, 2065

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