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Bette Davis, The Letter (1940)

Bette Davis was the superstar of the Warner Brothers Studios, just like Joan Crawford for MGM (the two legends were rivals in real life, and they eventually got to make together a well-known film, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”). Davis made so many wonderful movies for Warner Bros., and one of them is certainly “The Letter”, a screen adaptation after the play by W. Somerset Maugham. The haunting musical score by Max Steiner is one of the film’s greatest assets, but the direction of William Wyler, that genius of the seventh art, together with the magnificent performance of Bette Davis, stand in front of all the others. “The Letter” was nominated for 7 Oscars, for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, and Best Picture. While MGM dominated the 30s with their most glorious, elegant, and entertaining movies, with more stars than in Heaven – most of them were very glamorous figures, like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, Robert Taylor, Norma Shearer, John and Lionel Barrymore… -, Warner Bros. dominated the 40s with their remarkable crime dramas and with an impressive assembly of powerful actors and actresses, like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall… The productions of Warner Bros. are not particulary beautiful motion pictures, literally, much less when it comes to the stories. They don’t have optimistic, idealistic romances, nor impressive sets and costumes, like MGM, but they do have masterful creations which are not superficial at all, and their entertainment is given solely by the tumultuous performances of the actors, in unusual and complex stories, some of them very realistic – perhaps much too realistic for the admirers of the MGM style. Let’s take as an example “The Letter”, this week’s recommendation for you. The heroine, Leslie Crosbie, is the murdered of her lover, at the same time being a married woman. She is an adulteress. With the support from a naive husband, played by the fine actor Herbert Marshall, and a good lawyer, played by the Oscar-nominated actor James Stephenson, she tries to escape from the punishment of Justice. She even takes a compromising letter from the wife of her former lover, an exotic presence, magnificently played by Gale Sondergaard. But the pangs of conscience, the remorse that she killed the only man she loved make her admit her guilt in front of her husband. Even if she is not sentenced to death by the Justice, she finds death by herself, in one of the most fascinating scenes in the film. The labyrinth garden, the hauting sky and music, the perfect combination between lights and shadows, the exotic background, and, of course, the mesmerizing performance of Bette Davis make the final scene all the more exciting and memorable to the posterity. “The Letter” is a masterful film noir and I highly recommend you to watch it. It will be an interesting experience, for sure!

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