Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Letter (1940)

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The Oscar-nominated performance by Bette Davis is the inspiration for the selection of this William Wyler film as this week’s entry in the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, which in case you didn’t know, is hosted by the great Nathaniel Rogers over at The Film ExperienceI had never seen The Letter, which ended being a pretty solid movie. Bette Davis is great as a woman charged for murder. As is James Stephenson as her doubtful attorney. But the focus of the series is, of course, the visual style of the movie, so let’s talk about that.

Tony Gaudio (who was in charge of the magnificent technicolor of The Adventures of Robin Hood) was the director of photography. Most of the interiors of The Letter look, in my opinion, very much in-style with the time the movie was shot, which is to say they don’t seem all that singular or impressive, but I think the Gaudio’s work on the exteriors (or more accurately sets that must pass off as exteriors) is rather fantastic. I love his shadowy rendering of the narrow streets of Singapore, and the lone plantation house in the middle of the jungle. As for my favorite shot in the movie, I’m afraid it might be one that many people will choose, but there’s no denying the beauty of it.

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The shadows of blinds in the protagonist’s face might be something that we now immediately associate with film noir, almost the point of regarding it as a cliche, but every time I see it, I can’t help but find such shots simply beautiful. In this case, it’s also worth noting, that the shot comes at a perfect moment in the narrative. We have seen Davis’s character shoot a man, and we have heard her claim he attacked her first, but something feels off and we are not convinced. In this scene, she comes out of her house to look at the sky and contemplate the idea that she might be sentenced to jail (or maybe even death). This is usually the moment when we sympathize with our heroine, but in this case, the pattern in her face fractures her between light and dark, and instead of providing us with the comfort of knowing who we are supposed to be rooting for, we get more doubt. To cap things of, when her husband walks into the room, she turns around as if she were doing something suspicious. “How am I supposed to feel about this lady?” is one of the more entertaining questions of film noir, and The Letter knows it.


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