Best Shot: On The Letter (1940) and The Compassion of Bette Davis
I think it is fitting to write about Bette Davis on my 25th birthday. Since first witnessing Bette on-screen in my late teens in All About Eve, I have been obsessed with her going as far as creating the term “Cinematic Spirit Sister” to describe how deeply connected I feel to her work. Bette represents the kind of woman we’re told not to be. She’s quick to anger with strong appetites, she’s willfully defiant, bold, passionate, prickly. When describing herself she once said, “I’m just too much”. She is too much, in the most glorious way possible. She is female anger incarnate.
I have always considered Bette Davis a cinematic Medusa. Bette while still one of the more well known actors from old Hollywood is also one of the most misunderstood. Unlike Katharine Hepburn she hasn’t been reclaimed by feminists or used in a bevy of conversations by layman to signify being against the grain in an era when women seemed to be voiceless glamor dolls. Maybe it is because her films exist as the question “can women have it all?” only to answer them in a way modern women may not be too fond of. Maybe it’s because she never had a great love story in real life to bolster meta-textual interest in her. Her cinematic love stories seem more interested in delving into a woman loving herself and rarely have happily ever afters, Now Voyager being a bittersweet example of this. Maybe it’s because she excelled at playing characters like Leslie Crosbie.
In the 1940 noir The Letter, Leslie is a liar, a woman fueled by a hunger for autonomy and power and twisted love to the point that she makes a fake rape accusation to justify the cold blooded murder of the man who spurns her. The Letter opens with Leslie killing her former lover, Geoff Hammond. Her face still as she empties bullets into his back until he tumbles the ground and finally dies. She isn’t hysterical if anything she seems to know exactly what she was doing. The film is ultimately about the narratives we build around our lies that eventually consume us. The narrative Leslie builds is unable to save her as a letter she wrote to Geoff is revealed to her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) creating a chain reaction that briefly gives Leslie some sense of freedom only to have it snatched away in death. The ending of the film is a bit disconcerting since it would have been a more fitting punishment (and have greater depth) if Leslie survived and had to live with the memory of everything that has transpired realizing her marriage and lies have created a prison for which the only escape would be death. But the Hays Code would of course want Leslie dead since she transgressed certain societal moral codes.
While The Letter is ultimately a noir, by centering it around Bette’s character Leslie it lends the darker impulses of the genre to delve into a twisted narrative not too far off from a women’s picture about the ways a woman corrupts and is corrupted by her own desire. In the shot below, the idea of imprisonment (by desire and the lies she spins) takes a literal form in how the sharp lines of shadow and light frame her.
Bette Davis plays Leslie full tilt. But there are moments (like in all of Bette’s best performances) of remarkable silence which William Wyler seemed particular good at getting from Bette. Their collaborations brought out some of Bette’s most dynamic and interesting performances. While The Letter is arguably the most beloved, I am more drawn to The Little Foxes. Wyler and Bette had a passionate relationship on and off set. There is a film or a book waiting to be written about these warring artists and the reasons why they never married and the circumstances surrounding each of the films they made together. Wyler said at the American Film Institute tribute to Bette Davis, She was difficult in the same way that I was difficult. She wanted the best.
Bette once wrote about losing battles with Wyler on set saying,
I lost it to a genius. So many directors were such weak sisters that I would have to take over. Uncreative, unsure of themselves, frightened to fight back, they offered me none of the security that this tyrant did.
Bette is at her best in The Letter in quieter moments, particularly during and right after her final confrontation with her husband. In these moments she lets her body (most vividly her eyes) communicate for her better than any line of dialogue can. Even with a striking voice that seemed almost incongruous to such a petite woman, Bette is first and foremost a very visual actress. Wyler smartly takes advantage of this.
But the best shots in The Letter are when we don’t see Bette’s face.
The shadows in noir take on mythic proportions. So, what does it say that in the shots we understand Leslie greatest we are seeing her shadow not her face?
Bette made a career out of playing women like Leslie. Women who are violent, selfish, and self-destructive. Women yearning so deeply for power and autonomy it leads them to ugly yet very human actions. These women tend to do rather despicable things to create their life in the image they feel they deserve. But I feel Leslie is one the hardest of Bette’s characters to find a sense of kinship with. Part of it is the film itself. As much as I find The Letter’s synthesizing of noir with the emotional underpinnings of the women’s picture exemplary, the directing stellar, the acting a master class…I can’t ignore the racial issues. The lynchpin of these issues is Gale Sondergaard playing Mrs. Hammond, Geoff’s widow. We are supposed to believe that Mrs. Hammond is Eurasion, which means we have to deal with Sondergaard (who was very much a white woman) adorned with all the old Hollywood markers of generalized Asian femininity. Her otherness is mostly characterized by her primarily silent nature and extravagant costuming. She is the exoticized other.
The fact that Bette is able to make us understand and even sympathize with Leslie is a testament to her abilities as an actress to bring compassion to her characters. There is a sense that Bette doesn’t judge these characters as she brings them to life but seeks to understand the underpinnings of their impulses.
The war between control and submission, the matters of the heart and the high-minded desire for career success is common to the narratives centering on women in the 1940s and 1950s. Bette excelled at creating layers of compassion and transgressiveness in narratives that could easily turn misogynistic or maudlin without the right touch.
Today, on my 25th birthday, I am savoring every moment. One of the things I have been working on is to be as brave in real life as I am in my writing and to finally put my work out into the world (my longer form essays and screenplays). Bette Davis represents the joy of being an artist, of synthesizing your inner life in an outward manner. For her it was acting, for me writing. I aim to be as fearless and passionate and unapologetic as she was in films like The Letter and her life in general.