To bring back Hit Me with Your Best Shot after a one-week hiatus, Nathaniel at The Film Experience hit a home run in picking out a title, and I don’t care if it was largely by accident. The Letter, from 1940, is a damn-ass goddamn masterpiece: the best movie ever made by William Wyler – love ya, Dodsworth, but not quite enough – boasting the best performance by Bette Davis in her ingenue phase (and, for my money, she only ever topped herself with her godlike turn in All About Eve), and stunning chiaroscuro photography by Tony Gaudio.
It’s a tremendously great film and a tremendously visual one; the story is built around the repeated use of moonlight to symbolically reveal the main character’s inner self: this is, you see, the story of how Leslie Crosbie (Davis) killed a man and then concocted a story about how he tried to rape her; her husband and all the rest of the British colonists in Malaya believe her on the spot, but the natives, especially the victim’s wife (Gale Sondergaard), have their doubts. And to prove just how cold-blooded Leslie really is, there’s a letter written by her to the victim, clearly contradicting her defensive story. More generally, the film is about Leslie’s constant attempts to hide and cover up, with the truth constantly threatening to bubble up and call her out.
Too many possibilities for a best shot in all that: Davis, one of the most visual performers of the sound era, offers up an entire film’s worth of great expressions, and the language of shadow and light throughout is flawlessly exact and purposeful. And just the symbolic use of straight lines, be they shadows or be they part of the sets, to “imprison” Leslie, could support a few thousand words and half a dozen shots in and of itself. But I knew what scene I wanted to focus on: the confrontation between Leslie and Mrs. Hammond, the mixed-race widow of her victim. In which Leslie attempts to pantomime her innocence in a ridiculous lace veil as she goes to retrieve the letter from her rival, whose sub-zero expression makes clear how much she has no use for Leslie’s increasingly sweaty lies. In which the accumulation of half-lit bric-a-brac suggesting some overblown art director’s notion of “Asian” in 1940 creates a space of profound discomfort and disorientation for Leslie, whose self-serving whiteness has never seemed so feeble and shallow as it does in this room. Here, anyway, was my shot:
That’s Sondergaard on the right, having just demanded that Leslie doff her veil and step forward. In another moment, Davis will be standing beneath a light that harshly and bluntly flattens her and takes away all the protecting shadows, but I picked this shot because of the perfection of Davis’s expression: no other major star of that period was so willing – so eager, really – to make herself look awful as often as possible, and while nobody in their right mind would call the woman in that frame “ugly”, something between the stressed-out lines around her eyes and the utterly despondent cast of her mouth and eyebrows makes it really darn hard to call her “pretty”.
This is Leslie in a moment of utter, pathetic subjugation: hopelessly overpowered by the giantess staring down at her (Sondergaard was taller than Davis anyway, but the framing and eyeline here make the former actress look like she’s got a solid three feet on the latter). She’s outmatched and outwitted and she knows it, and in her animalistic desire to save her hide, she’s got absolutely shame about telegraphing it visually. In a fatalistic movie (with a censor-madated ending that pushes fatalism to an absurd, but not ineffective degree), this is among the most helpless, disempowered moments. For a film that prefigured the moral toxicity of the nascent film noir movement so well, I could not bring myself to go with anything less punishing.