October 25, 2014

Bette Davis, The Letter

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Watching Bette Davis strut out onto her veranda, gun in hand, shooting viciously at a man who has scorned her love, her face stone-cold with loathing and eaten by the dark of the night...what more could a person who obsesses over actress possibly ask for? After having watched the 1929 version of The Letter, my anticipation was high for this one, because of all the major Hollywood stars at the time, Davis' brand of explosive treachery made the most sense for a character as dangerous and cunning as Leslie Crosbie, one of the most exciting female characters I've seen from the pre-code era. So I turned on the film and watched, and waited for Davis to allow the spirit of Jeanne Eagels to live on through her.

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By now I'm used to seeing Davis spewing out loads of dialogue in that ever-so vindictive tone of hers, and I had thought that this character had enough dark contempt in her such that it would be the perfect outlet for Davis' volcanic energy. I was thus surprised to see that Leslie Crosbie of all characters would serve as her most silent performance to date. Leslie doesn't ever have much to say in The Letter, and the entirety of Davis' performance is equivalent to the gradual uncoiling of a tightly wound object. It certainly provides for an interesting concept, and again Davis gets to put those raging eyes to work. The performance as a whole acts like an exercise in restraint, wherein Leslie has to communicate to the audience what she cannot reveal through words. But, what irks me the most about The Letter, while very clearly the far superior film to its 1929 predecessor, is that it chooses to go for the mystery angle, in which we the viewer aren't to discover Leslie's true motives until the end, as opposed to our knowing Leslie's motives from the get-go in the original and having to watch her crawl her way out of the consequences. This perspective in turn sacrifices a more absolute understanding of Leslie, and my sole issue here is that I was unable to connect with her, as fascinating as Davis may be. Because we don't "know" the true intent behind her crimes, we don't get to "know" Leslie, and Davis in turn is detached from the audience for just a little over two-thirds of the picture. Again, her expressions of fear in being found out is just as well done as her other pictures, and again Davis shows a slightly variated version of what we've come to expect from her. But I can't help but feel that 1940's Leslie Crosbie is a much less daring and menacing heroine to Jeanne Eagels' Leslie, that this Leslie is a muted diet-coke version to its precursor. Davis is excellent in her big reveal scene and even more so in that famous last line to her husbandin one instance and one line delivery one feels as though the fuse that had been lit at the film's beginning finally explodes, and Davis unleashes a cry that is intense as it is tragic. But how sad it is that 1940's Leslie had to be reduced to a tragic hero as opposed to 1929's fearless femme fatale; blame it on those damned censors I suppose. I'd be lying if I said the performance as a whole lived up to my expectations, but if anything, I'm more disappointed that the performance didn't live up to its complete potential.


  1. I think Bette Davis was able to be a very entertaining actress, mainly in her villains, but in my book she's a bit boring here.

    Ah... and be prepared for her exceptional performance in The Little Foxes <3.

    1. I definitely agree with your critique that she's boring. This Leslie isn't as overtly interesting as 1929's Leslie.

      As for The Little Foxes...I will go into it with caution. I've been anticipating the last 3 of Bette's performances and have exited more or less underwhelmed!

  2. I haven't seen this in a long long time, but it was never Top 3 of Bette's for me. (I think I might prefer it to Kate & Joan though).
    anyway, I think we've all oversold Little Foxes. If anything, when time comes, I think you'll at least appreciate that it's completely unlike her previous nominated performances.

    So far I'm doing fine with my predictions. Hope Rebecca doesn't crush the party in the acting categories (though it's such a captivating film/book) :)

    1. Hmm interesting that you prefer Bette to Kate and Joan, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised because you love Bette :D I've been waiting for that AHA! performance where Bette full on electrifies me to 5 statues but it hasn't come yet :\ I'm starting to wonder if it's because her kind of acting just do it for me, but she has done a pretty good job at differentiating her characters a little (evil and loud Bette, manipulative Southern-Belle Bette, sensitive dying Bette, evil but restrained Bette, etc...)

    2. Well, I for one never cheered for her in Dark Victory, I was just saying that the best (my favourites, at least) of hers are yet to come. Eve, Little Foxes and Baby Jane are easily my 3 favs from what I've seen of hers. :)

    3. 2017 edit:
      Strike that, she's fabulous :)

  3. I think Davis is rather good here, though I'll be damned if I knew that was an English accent until I read so after the fact. I just thought she talked funny. Anyway, her Leslie is no villain but she's one lousy liar. I didn't buy her early explanation, although I don't think we're meant to (other characters' comments inadvertently express ambivalence about it). In fact, I think ambivalence is the theme here. Davis is ambivalent about her husband and her crime, her attorney is ambivalent in defending her ... and her character induces ambivalence in the viewer. You can't hate her because she's not a villain but she's culpable in a murder so you don't fully sympathize either. It's a risky interpretation that I think Davis pulls off because she's not playing the obvious. Yes, it's low burner work without the typical Davis theatrics but, seeing as I dislike the typical theatrics, I'm fine with her here. It's not her very best but I think it's very good indeed.