The Story (continued)
The Letter (1940)
An unctuous Ong is waiting outside the infirmary for Howard, anxious to either turn the incriminating letter over to the public prosecutor - or to sell it for a mere $10,000. According to Ong, the amount of blackmail, the letter's expensive price, approximates the amount of Robert's savings account in a bank in Singapore. At first, Howard dismisses the threat and walks off, but then reconsiders: "Tell your friend to go to the devil...Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money, Ong, just to save some trouble." He promises to proceed to the club and speak to Mr. Crosbie about the issue. As part of the blackmail transaction, there are two mysterious, unusual conditions demanded by Hammond's widow:
- Leslie is required to personally buy back the letter
- She is required to deliver the blackmail money to Mrs. Hammond's house in Chinatown
Ong suggests that Joyce release Leslie from jail into his own custody, so that he can comply with Mrs. Hammond's demands. Howard's assistant admits receiving a commission:
Howard: Ong Chi Seng...what are you getting out of this?
Ong: Two thousand dollars, and the great satisfaction of being of service to you and our client.
At the club, Howard minimizes the letter's contents and importance to Robert:
It seems that Leslie wrote a letter to Hammond asking him to come to the bungalow on the night he was killed...She wanted his advice on something she was buying for your birthday...In the excitement, she forgot about the letter and then later on was afraid to say she made a mistake...This was a pretty serious mistake and she realized it....she (Hammond's widow) threatens to turn it over to the prosecution...Don't you see, Bob, that it might alter things a good deal in the minds of the jury if Hammond came to your house by invitation....I think we must get hold of that letter...I don't think it's right but I think it's expedient. Juries can sometimes be very stupid and it's just as well not to worry them with more evidence than they can conveniently deal with.
The husband is persuaded to authorize the acquisition of the letter - as necessary, without knowing its real nature, value and price. Robert doesn't yet know that he will bankrupt himself by producing the blackmail money from his savings.
On the eve of the trial at the Joyces' home, Howard's wife is already planning a celebration party in their home in anticipation of Leslie's acquittal. Howard explains how he must prepare his client for questions that she will surely face in cross-examination - as a pretext to convince Robert, his wife, and Adele to attend a film. Howard's nagging, guilty conscience festers within him:
Maybe it's my own sense of guilt, but I have an unpleasant feeling that I'm gonna be made to pay the piper for what I'm doing tonight. I'm jeopardizing my whole career and I have to rely on your discretion.
Howard astutely observes that Leslie wears glasses when she laces - an activity that takes tremendous composure and concentration - a quality that would aid a murderess:
Howard: It must take enormous concentration and patience.
Leslie: I find it soothing.
Howard: You mean it takes your mind off other things?
Leslie: Is that a legal question?
Howard: You're not an ordinary client, Leslie.
Leslie: You've been watching me all evening.
Howard: I'm responsible for you to the court.
Leslie: No, that isn't it. You've been, what, trying to read my thoughts.
Howard: I'm trying to understand you.
Leslie: Why? Because I'm so - so evil. That's it, isn't it?
He and Leslie (wearing her white lace shawl covering her head) are taken by Ong to the Chinese quarter and the curio shop of Chung Hi (Willie Fung). A sign is displayed: CHUNG HI GENERAL DEALER. In the shop, Leslie admires two encased daggers with decoratively-carved handles. They are escorted through a dark passageway to Chung Hi's smoky, inner living quarters (a brothel?), where Hammond's widow appears behind a doorway of vertical strings of beads.
In a dramatic, memorable scene, to prevent conviction on pre-meditated murder, Leslie meets a menacing-looking Mrs. Hammond - the possessor of the original letter. Ong interprets for Mrs. Hammond, who speaks only Chinese and Malay. Mrs. Hammond stares unforgivingly at Leslie, while Ong takes delivery of a wad of bills. The imposing Eurasian widow orders Leslie to remove the shawl from her head - her face (and guilt) are exposed. She also forces the white woman to approach toward her, and to stoop down in front of her and retrieve the letter - deliberately dropped on the floor at her feet. Leslie voluntarily debases and lowers herself - to deflect the danger of the situation and acquire the damaging evidence. She murmurs a quick "thank you" - and then hurriedly leaves with Howard.
In a brief trial scene, held in a sweltering court room with revolving overhead fans, Howard addresses the all-white, male jury in a final summation. He argues that the prosecution couldn't contradict Leslie's self-defense claims and - in a bold lie, that there's "not one whit of evidence" that could exist to refute her testimony:
No complicating motives, no possible pre-meditation. The jury is aware of the facts. And I'm convinced, gentlemen, there's no need for eloquence. If ever there was a simple, uncomplicated case, it's this one. Mrs. Crosbie killed a man, yes, but under circumstances where no courageous, self-respecting woman would hesitate for one instant to do the same thing. Nor is there need for me to extol Mrs. Crosbie's account. Her own testimony in the witness box, her bearing throughout this ordeal, stamped the character of this remarkable woman, more than any words of mine could possibly do. (He pauses, wavers, and then proceeds) As for the prosecution's case, not one whit of evidence has been produced to refute the defendant's testimony. No, because such evidence couldn't exist in the light of truth. Gentlemen, in full faith and confidence, I place Leslie Crosbie's fate in your hands in the sure knowledge that justice will be done.
As they await the jury's verdict, Leslie's eyes are hidden by her glasses as she intently does her lace work. After a half hour's deliberation in court, Leslie is speedily acquitted of the murder charge (by the white ruling class and its one-sided justice system) after perjuring herself and deceiving the jury. While leaving the colonial courtroom, the Crosbies walk past the wronged Mrs. Hammond and the head boy from the plantation. At the Joyce home on the night of the acquittal, the Crosbies immediately celebrate their victory with drinks. Sitting on another striped sofa between his wife and Howard, Robert elatedly announces his plans to take her away. He has already decided to withdraw his $10,000 savings (as a down payment), obtain a mortgage for $20,000, and invest in the ownership of a rubber plantation/estate in Sumatra: "We'd start a new life....this is a chance in a thousand." Dampening his enthusiasm, Leslie dismisses her husband's plan: "I think the thing to do is to stick it out here." And Howard concurs: "Anyhow, it's not a thing you want to rush into." He also reminds Robert of the "legal expenses" of the trial: "There are certain out-of-pocket expenses...the principal item is that letter of Leslie's I mentioned to you...I had to pay a great deal of money for it."
Robert confronts his wife about the contents of the expensive letter he purchased as part of the lawyer's fees with his life's savings: "But what was there in the letter?" Robert forces Howard to admit that the purchase of the letter to suppress evidence was "a criminal offense": "Yes, it was. I might be dis-barred for it." The wronged husband insists on seeing the letter: "I've got to pay ten thousand dollars for that letter, and by heaven, I'm gonna see it." In the same languid pose she assumed in the first part of the film when she fabricated a story, Leslie wearily agrees to show Robert the letter that reveals her passionate infidelity with Hammond. For the first time in the film, Leslie tells the truth about the damning letter. The sexually-hypocritically wife coldly tells her husband, while prowling around the room, that she loved her victim. When spurned, she shot him out of jealousy after he married the beautiful native woman and ended their affair:
Robert: What does it mean?...What does it mean?
Leslie: It means that I was in love with Geoff Hammond.
Leslie: Been in love for years.
Robert: I don't believe it.
Leslie: We used to meet each other constantly once or twice a week. Not a soul had the smallest suspicion. Every time I met him, I hated myself. Yet I'd live for the moment that I'd see him again. It was horrible. There was never an hour when I was at peace and I wasn't reproaching myself. I was like a person who was sick with some loathsome disease and doesn't want to get well. Even my agony was a kind of joy. Then there came a time about a year ago. He began to change toward me. I didn't know what was the matter. I was frantic. I made scenes. I threw myself at his feet...Then I heard about that - that native woman. Oh, I couldn't believe it, I wouldn't believe it. The last I saw her, I saw her walking in the village with those hideous bangles, that chalky painted face, those eyes like a cobra's eyes. But I couldn't give him up. I sent for him. You read the letter. Oh, we'd always been so careful about writing before. This time, I didn't care. I hadn't seen him for ten days. He came to see me. I told him I'd heard about his marriage. At first he denied it. Oh, I was so frantic. I don't know it, I said to him. I hated him because he made me despise myself. I insulted him, I cursed him. I was beside myself. At last, he turned on me. He told me he was sick and tired of me, that it was true about that other woman, that she was the only one that had ever meant anything to him. And that he was glad that I knew, because now I'd leave him alone. When he got up to go, I knew if he left I'd never see him again, so I seized the revolver and fired. I heard a cry...he staggered toward the veranda, and I ran after him and fired and fired and fired. There's no excuse for me. I don't deserve to live.
Spiritually and financially broken and emotionally distraught, Robert departs the room. Leslie and Howard both agree that Robert will ultimately forgive her:
Howard: He's going to forgive you.
Leslie: Yes. He's going to forgive me.
Later that evening, another moonlit night, a gala reception is held at the Joyce's compound to celebrate. Leslie opens her bedroom's slatted doors, finding an Oriental dagger with a gleaming blade lying on her porch. Drinking heavily at the bar during the party, Robert optimistically shares his plans with his planter friends to purchase the Sumatran plantation: "I always wanted a fine plantation, one that I could work for myself and for my family. This is the one I've been waiting for." With Leslie at his side, he boasts: "They'll be the two of us, but my wife's a good sport. I always can count on her. She's not afraid of anything. And we'll have each other. That's the important thing, isn't it?" But he knows that his idyllic plans have been shattered and are unachievable.
Retreating to her bedroom, Leslie is repelled by the thought of moving to Sumatra or spending the rest of her life with her husband on the plantation. At the conclusion of the party, Robert comes to her in the bedroom. She fully expects that he will dismiss and disown her for her infidelity: "It's no use. We can't go on, can we?...You are so kind and generous. You should have the sort of wife you really deserve. Through no fault of yours, I failed you. I wrecked your life. I can't ask you to forgive me." In a surprise turn-around, he expresses his unconditional love and forgiveness for her:
Robert: If you love a person, you can forgive anything. (She embraces him) So, what about you? Can you go on?
Leslie: I'll try. I'll really try.
Robert: That isn't what I was asking.
Leslie: I'll do everything in my power to make you happy.
Robert: That's not enough, unless - Leslie, tell me now, this minute, do you love me?
Leslie: Yes, I do.
She kisses him after accepting his forgiveness. But suddenly and instantly, she tears herself away and ungratefully betrays him a second time. She reaffirms her obsessive attachment to the man she loved and murdered. She can't face life without Hammond:
Leslie: No, I can't, I can't, I can't!!
Robert: Leslie, what is it? Leslie, what is it?
Leslie: With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!
In the final climactic scene, Leslie wanders outside to her porch. The dagger is missing. She is drawn into the dark, tropical garden filled with ominous shadows - again from a clouded moon as in the film's compelling opening. Retribution for her lies, faithlessness, and deception is delivered there. A vengeful Mrs. Hammond is standing and waiting for her. The two women silently stare at each other. Leslie's arms are grabbed from behind by the head boy and her cries are stifled and smothered while she is stabbed to death by the flash of a dagger in the hand of Mrs. Hammond. [The Hays Production Code required that the murderess's indiscretion had to be punished by her death.]
As the Eurasian woman and servant walk beyond the garden's wall, an officer spots them and takes them away. As the moon reappears from under clouds and illuminates the murder scene, the camera locates Leslie's corpse on the ground. The camera tracks over the wall toward the reception inside the Joyce's house, and then dissolves into her darkened bedroom (with slatted shadows on the floor cast by the moon's light) where her billowing lace shawl, draped over a chair, flutters in the tropical breeze.
Also Worth Your Attention...
AMC Filmcritic's Review of The Letter