24 October 2008

"With All My Heart I Still Love the Man I Killed."


You did not just say that, Bette.

But she did. And to her husband, no less! In William Wyler's The Letter (1940) the late oh so great Ms. Davis gives one of Hollywood's greatest performances. It doesn't seem the slightest bit subjective to write that. She is transcendent.

How to do describe Davis' character, Leslie Crosbie? How about utterly shocking? Totally audacious. Amoral. Calculating. Deceitful. With such a proper veneer no less. One that no one can seem to see through.

But how about this: Is Leslie Crosbie a cold blooded killer or hot with passions that lead to adultery and murder?

Has anyone ever lied so artfully, even at the point of being found out? Then played for sympathy so adroitly? We don't know whether to wish Leslie dead or every happiness. As Leslie, Davis bewitches the audience, even at the distance of 68 years on the relatively small screen of a TV set. Masterful is what it is, I tell you.

I watched The Letter for perhaps the fifth or sixth time just now and plan many more viewings. It's a mesmerizing film. But no performance, no matter how great can bring one back to a movie again and again. There's so much more to the film. For one, Davis draws great performances from her co stars such as Herbert Marshall as her cuckolded husband. The poor man takes everything at face value, has the Innocent and faith of a child on Christmas Eve. Marshall plays the poor sap perfectly but never drops the sophistication. A lesser actor would have made the man maudlin or cloying. But we needed to like the guy to make Davis that much more of an utter fink. Watch Marshall when informed of the cost of the letter. For several beats his face betrays nothing. He allows the shock to slowly settle in. Poor guy.

Gale Sondergaard is brilliant as the victim's Eurasian widow. So seemingly sinister, saying so much with her eyes while uttering nary a word. I don't recall any actress doing quite so much with so few movements in so little screen time.

Rarely talked about in discussions of the film is James Stephenson as the family friend and attorney. He's on to Davis early courtesy of the incriminating letter. He provides a moral center, despite betraying the ethics of his profession. His first duty is to save his client and his ability to compartmentalize the whirl of contrasting facts and emotions is astonishing. Stephenson plays him perfectly. He's all urbanity and practical wisdom.

But it is Davis around him all others orbit. It's a performance made grand by subtlety. The sly quick look. The slight pause the slighter inflection while concocting or confessing or just passing the time. But does Leslie Crosbie ever just pass the time? Davis gives meaning to all her words, all her moves.

When we first meet Leslie Crosbie she is emptying a revolver into a man who is tumbling down the steps of a veranda. Look at her face. Utterly passionless. Cold and hard. Soon she's swooning, playing the victim for the police, the lawyer and her husband. weaving her story so effortlessly. Gaining their immediate sympathy even respect.

In prison she is stoic but when confronted with the existence of the letter able to think on her feet and create anew, tossing in a literal swoon for good measure.

Davis must have realized that in Leslie Crosbie she had a role that she could sink her teeth into. But Bette likely knew how easy it would be to foul it up with board emotions. So she faced the supreme challenge of doing so much without seeming to do a lot. The character and her words were shocking. Davis had to let the words have power. She respected the words, the direction, the camera, her co stars. In The Letter Bette Davis embodied her character, that world, the milieu. She became.

Art is making something look as special as it is.

Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter is great art.

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