Tuesday, April 15, 2014

With All My Heart, I Still Love Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Leave it to Bette Davis, an actress who made a career of bringing compassion to prickly women, to make a murderess, adulteress, and, let's face it, a bit of a racist as someone worthy of sympathy. Even making her likable. It's her trick as an actress. Playing Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a wealthy rubber plantation owner that shoots her lover cold blank one moonlit night in William Wyler's The Letter (1940), Davis achieves just that–Luring us in with her tales and lies and somehow making us empathetic as we begin to understand her motives. And so we find Bette and Leslie at the center of scandal and, more importantly, the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

And those tales that Leslie tells are not only the center of the film's plot, but what I've chosen to discuss as my best shot(s). After the tranquility of the Malayan night is disrupted by Leslie's gunshots as she empties a revolver into a faceless man, her husband, her lawyer, and the doctor are assembled in the house to get to the bottom of what happened. Leslie, lying down on the couch, holding her husband's hand, begins to relive the events of the evening. Hammond, a friend that knew both Leslie and her husband Robert, came to see her...only to profuse his love for her and try to force himself upon her. But as she continues to recount the night's incident, she stands up and like an actress on the stage begins to reenact the situation. The camera does something almost unheard of for a film with such a huge star as Bette Davis, it lingers for minutes as her back is turned toward the camera. This is an actress whose eyes alone inspired a hit pop song decades after her reign as Hollywood royalty had faded. To not show her face for so long seems crazy. And yet, as she begins to weave the fabric of her story she draws us in with just her voice and back.

"I got up from that chair there. And I stood in front of the table here. He rose and came around the table and stood in front of me. I held out my hand. 'Good Night,' I said. But he didn't move. He just stood there looking at me. His eyes were all funny. 'I'm not going,' he said. Then I began to lose my temper. 'Poor fool, don't you know I've never loved anyone but Robert? And even if I didn't love him, you'd be the last man in the world that I should care for.' 'Robert's away,' he said. Well, that was the last straw. I wasn't the least bit frightened–just angry."
Best Shot:

As she continues, the camera pulls away from the rest of the men in the room, to focus on Leslie. We're transported to earlier in the night when it was just Leslie and Hammond alone in the house. And as she continues to speak the phantom of Hammond appears before our eyes in that door frame. Although Hammond's face is never revealed once in the entire film, just looking at the above shot, I swear I can see him. We are witnessing a flashback–that cinematic devious utilized so often in film–occur in the present without leaving the scene.
" 'If you don't leave immediately,' I said, 'I shall call the boys and have you thrown out.' When I walked past him to the veranda to call the boys, he took hold of my arm and swung me back. I tried to scream, but he flung his arms around me and began to kiss me. I struggled to tear myself away from him. He seemed like a mad man! He kept talking and talking, saying he loved me...it's horrible. I can't go on..."
But go on with the story she does, but now the action of the story builds and Wyler uses yet another ingenious technique to tell the tale. Without even relying on any part of the actors bodies at all now and abandoning the earlier stillness, we begin to see the action unfold. This time the camera swoops and glides about as if the tussle is still taking place right before our eyes. After establishing tension with just the back of a head and empty space, Wyler builds excitement with the camera as it darts about the room. It seems to be moving with as much energy as a handheld found-footage horror film of today would. Jostling about as we follow the two to the climax.

"He lifted me in his arms and started carrying me. Somehow he stumbled on those steps. 

We fell and I got away from him. Suddenly I remembered, Robert's revolver in the drawer of that chest. 
He got up and ran after me, but I reached it before he could catch me. I seized the gun as he came toward me. I heard a report and saw him lurch toward the door. 
It was all instinctive–I didn't even know I fired. Then I followed him out to the veranda. He staggered across the porch, grabbed the railing, but it slipped through his hand and he fell down the steps.
 I don't remember. Just the reports, one after another, til there was a funny little click and the revolver was empty. It was only then that I knew what I'd done."

Although we've already seen the body of Hammond lying in this exact spot earlier, the image of the dirty ground with his imprint seems more ominous than if we were still looking at his bullet-riddled body. It's as if her words have resurrected his body to only shoot it down a second time for our benefit.

We later learn through the titular letter that the events Leslie just described really didn't take place in that way at all. It was she that invited Hammond and when he refused her advances because of his marriage to a Eurasian woman (whom Leslie hates as much for her foreignness as she does her marital status), she did the only thing she thought plausible and shot him dead. If she can't have him, no one can. But her story is so convincing and Bette and Wyler tell it so compellingly that I'm willing to buy this early lie. As the film progresses, Leslie tells her husband that she's never loved him and, more poignantly, that with all her heart she still loves the man she killed. With as much passion as she put into her previous story, I'm willing to believe her. After all this is a woman that, like a magician, is able to conjure men out of thin air.


  1. Marvelous post. Love the shot selection too! I love seeing how varied these posts are and how many different ways there are to reflect on a particular scene. Great job.

    1. thank you! i was just blown away by this scene. it was such a creative way to execute a big chunk of exposition and just seemed so modern and unique.