November 3, 2016
The Letter – US, 1929
Jean Di Limur’s The Letter is a shock to the system, a punch to the gut that for some time after the film was over I was unable to recover from. It’s as if the commandments that restrain so many films were completely lifted from this one and the world was allowed to be depicted as a particularly cold and overconfident one, one teetering on the brink of utter moral collapse. To truly understand the mad world depicted in the film, consider this: The only two remotely likable characters are a weak man utterly incapable of seeing his wife as deviating in any way from his stereotypically ideal version of the traditional wife - you know, the kind that will dutifully follow a man half way around the world and who always has a lit match ready when he wants to smoke his pipe - and a lawyer.
In all fairness to the lunkhead referenced earlier, the film’s lead character put on quite a performance. In the film’s opening scene, a masterful journey during which the camera seems to be sneaking from the seedy streets of Singapore’s Chinatown to the secluded confines of a married couple’s home, we first see Leslie Crosby in the living room knitting while her colonialist husband waxes on about how lucky he is. Look closely though and you’ll notice the way Leslie’s expression shifts with her husband’s attention. His eyes are on her, she is content; his attention goes elsewhere, her face becomes a combination of frustration and anxiety. Clearly, she is just barely holding it together, yet there is her husband extolling her virtues and practically proclaiming her the greatest wife that has ever lived. He gives credence to that old adage about love being blind.
And now I’ve come to a crossroads, for even though I have only described the first few minutes of the film, I’m at a point where to reveal more would be to risk weakening the film’s grip on potential viewers. At just sixty minutes, the film begins with a bang and then dashes along at breakneck speed, rarely letting up and never giving viewers an opportunity to side with any of the players involved in the drama that unfolds. To rob viewers of the joy of discovery – if that is indeed the right phrase –would be an injustice. I don’t even feel safe mentioning the fascinating, yet shocking themes that the film touches on. So, I shall just say this. There is a murder, a trial, and a letter. I feel safe in revealing these things, for even though these elements form the skeletal structure of what follows the moments described earlier, in fact, they reveal nothing. The film is about so much more, and nothing unfolds as if first appears it might.
Anchoring it all is Jeanne Eagles’s astonishing performance. As Leslie, she put on an actor’s clinic. It is not a typical “chameleon” performance, for Eagles did not change her physical appearance for the role, but to watch her facial expressions and body language is to see a character with the uncanny ability to become whatever she needs to in order to survive and an actress so in tune with what her character is thinking and feeling that it can be painful to watch. There are moments when Eagles squirms and fidgets in a way that betrays the utter contempt that Leslie feels for certain characters, and the way she delivers jaw-dropping lines filled with bitingly vile expressions as if they were matter-of-fact enunciations of truth amazes even as it shocks. Later she’s even asked to lay on the sweetness, and, darn it, it even got me believing that Leslie wasn’t all that bad. The performance is truly one for the ages, and were it not for Eagles’ death just six months after the film’s release, I have no doubt that she would be mentioned in articles devoted to the great actresses ever to appear on film.
The Letter is not always the easiest film to watch, but it’s a jaw-dropping experience that you’ll not soon forget. And it has an ending that smashes you over the head with raw emotion and some of the most hurtful expressions I have ever heard in a film. I don’t normally say this about a film described in this way, but I can’t wait to see it again. (on DVD as part of Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection)
*The film earned Eagles a nomination for Best Actress at the 2nd Academy Awards in 1930. She lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette.
*Eagles is credited with making just twelve films, four of which are shorts. Only The Letter appears to be on DVD. Two of her films are available for free on Amazon through Fandor.