“This letter places an entirely different complexion on the whole case.”
When the wife (Bette Davis) of a plantation manager (Herbert Marshall) is accused of murdering a man (David Newell) who tried to rape her, a family-friend lawyer (Joseph Stephenson) is determined to get her acquitted; but when he learns from an envoy (Victor Sen Yung) about a letter possessed by Newell’s wife (Gale Sondergaard) — supposedly sent to Newell by Davis on the day he was murdered — circumstances suddenly become much more challenging.
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “second film adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s play” — originally starring Oscar-nominated Jeanne Eagels in a 1929 silent version — features a “fine performance by Davis”, who he argues is better than all other actresses “at playing characters who act their way through life”; indeed, thanks to superb direction by Wyler (with whom she had a close romantic and professional connection), Davis never hits a false note in her portrayal as an endlessly deceptive woman whose true motivations and loyalties we’re kept guessing about until the very end. However, Peary accurately points out that “perhaps the most interesting character is Stephenson, who despises Davis yet commits a crime for her… that could ruin his career”. Peary argues that “obviously, [Stephenson] finds himself intrigued by [Davis’s] wicked nature because that’s what makes her special and excitingly different from his conventional wife”; however, it’s equally plausible that Stephenson merely feels loyalty to his long-time friends, and dedicated to carrying out his promise of acquittal.
Character motivations aside, the film itself remains a wonderfully produced and directed piece of exotic noir. As Peary writes, “Wyler’s direction is moody” (I would use the word “atmospheric” instead), and “there are long passages in which dialogue is sparse or nonexistent and the erotic tension is built through Max Steiner’s music, shadows, sounds (wind, wind chimes), the moon floating through the clouds, character movements and expressions”; Tony Gaudio’s stark cinematography contributes as well to the film’s sense of mystery and menace. However, while Peary argues that “the worst aspect of the film is the embarrassingly invidious portrayal of the non-white characters, which almost justifies the colonialists’ matter-of-fact racism”, I can’t really agree with this assessment. True, it would have been better to cast an Asian (or Eurasian) actress in Sondergaard’s role, but her performance as a bitter woman grieving her murdered husband isn’t particularly offensive (I don’t blame her for feeling vindictive!); and Victor Sen Yung’s portrayal as her deceptively obsequious courier is far from dumb or demeaning, instead effectively demonstrating alternate forms of power played out by savvy non-Europeans in a neo-colonial arena. (Click here for an interesting set of perspectives on this issue.)
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Bette Davis as Leslie (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
- James Stephenson as Howard
- Victor Sen Yung as Ong
- Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
- Wyler’s confident direction
- Evocative sets
- Max Steiner’s score
Yes, as a genuine classic.