Noir Off: The Letter vs. The Unfaithful
Remember compare and contrast? It still remains one of the most useful tools in the grade school era repertoire, and has lead the world to innumerable discussions on Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Paul McCartney vs. John Lennon, and Superman vs. The Hulk.
Film sequels provide a particularly apt opportunity to explore similarities and departures and, most importantly, lead to questions about why those decisions were made—both originally and the second time around.
Today, I’d like to riff on two films—one very well-known, the other not-so-much. If you haven’t seen either The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler and starring the formidable Bette Davis, or The Unfaithful (1947), directed by Vincent Sherman and starring the under-appreciated Ann Sheridan, you might want to go do that now … spoilers abound below.
The Letter is considered (by TCM and most critics) an “essential”, a masterpiece, a quintessential viewing experience. It’s a beautifully made, chilling film, and Wyler’s direction is sublime. The Unfaithful—which was, indeed, a remake of The Letter—isn’t considered much at all, except by noir aficionados, as it was made in the noir-defining post-War years, and that’s the category into which it is generally lumped.
The basic plot line both films share is a short story (1924) and self-adapted play (1927) by W. Somerset Maugham, addressing the eternally fascinating subject of feminine betrayal. You might remember the theme—it’s been around since before Genesis.
The creaky tale has been filmed a number of times, both in English and other languages, with the Wyler/Davis version receiving the most critical attention and praise. The Unfaithful is a reworking of the same story … but oh, what a difference a war makes.
Auteurism and Bette Davis fandom aside, let’s compare and contrast the plots of these two films. Here’s a breakdown of the basic plot of The Letter:
A bored wife (Leslie Crosbie) is stranded in a foreign (colonialized) country while her amiable but physically and emotionally distant husband travels to his various rubber plantations and leaves her at home. One sultry evening, she shoots and kills a man whom she claims was trying to force his attentions on her (the word rape is never uttered); the act is committed in front of the native workers on the plantation and in front of the film audience.
Unfortunately for Leslie, her husband’s clerk makes it known that he knows of a letter in which she pleads with, cajoles and threatens the dead man, begging him to visit her the night he is killed. The letter is actually in the hands of the dead man’s Eurasian wife, who is willing to sell it while the clerk acts as a go-between. The couple’s best friend, an attorney, arranges for the sale, which empties her husband’s bank account (he’s oblivious). Leslie is acquitted of murder, but when the husband finally realizes the money is missing, he confronts her and discovers that a) she was in love with the dead man and b) she killed him deliberately out of jealousy, and c) she still loves him and isn’t sorry for it.
Leslie wanders outside in a daze, where she’s knifed and killed by one of the natives at the behest of the dead man’s wife, who now has both money and revenge. [The fact that Leslie must be punished is not in the original story, but was insisted upon by the 1940 Hays Code.]
Rather noir, right? Yet The Letter is usually described as a melodrama (which it is), as if it could only be one or the other.
Now, let’s take a peak at The Unfaithful:
Chris Hunter is living in Los Angeles in one of those swanky new ranch houses, waiting for her husband to finally get home from one of his many business trips. She seems happy and is viewed as “too good to be true” by her husband’s cousin Eve (Eve Arden, in a delicious turn); Eve, in fact, is the kind of audacious broad that throws herself a “Divorce Party”, which Chris attends.
On the way home, as Chris is walking to her door, she’s attacked by a man in the shadows, his hand over her mouth, and pulled inside the house. We see in silhouette a violent struggle.
Cut to her husband Bob waiting at the airport; she was supposed to pick him up. He phones, and we see from his face that the news isn’t good. Bob arrives, relieved that his wife is all right, but unsettled by the fact that she apparently killed a man in self-defense. Their best-friend attorney Larry arrives (he’s actually Eve’s divorce lawyer). Chris tells the cops that she didn’t know the dead man; that he’d shown up and demanded her jewelry.
At the precinct, she is confronted by the dead man’s wife; he’d been an artist and a not-very-good husband, prone to wandering off and not telling his wife about it. Still, the wife violently reacts to the accusation of attempted robbery, and hysterically accuses Chris of murder.
A bit later, Larry (played by the wonderful Lew Ayres) is contacted by a smarmy art dealer, who offers to sell him a bust of Chris sculpted by the dead man; the artwork clearly proves she knew him and therefore lied to the police. Larry confronts Chris, who admits she posed for the man but stopped when he tried to get “too personal.” Terrified that a scandal would hurt Bob’s business, she lied. Larry advises her to come clean; instead, Chris tries to buy the statue for $10,000, only to find that the art dealer has given it to the sculptor’s vengeful wife.
The wife eventually shows the piece to police, who arrest Chris for murder just as she’s confessing to Bob that she actually did have an affair with the sculptor, but that he truly was trying to kill her—and that she’d been lonely after their two-week old courtship and wartime marriage. Bob refuses to forgive her as she’s hauled away to face trial.
Larry gives an impassioned defense of Chris, reminding the jury that she’s on trial for murder, not adultery. Eve explains to Bob that he’s being a jerk by not forgiving his wife. Chris is acquitted, and, through Larry’s machinations, it looks as though Bob and Chris will at least try to start over.
The Unfaithful is a terrific film, and arguably less “noir” than its predecessor. So, without further ado, let’s compare and contrast.
1. Message movie vs. escapism
We know we’re not on a Malaysian rubber plantation from the opening shot of The Unfaithful. A palm tree-lined suburban street accompanies an omniscient narrator voice over that tells us “The problem with which [the story] deals belongs not to any one town, city or country, but is of our times.” The most fundamentally significant thing about the film is that it is seeking to be topical and explicitly, rather than implicitly, moralizing. We are told by the Voice of Authority that something is wrong with our present society, and we are shown a street in “Anywhere, USA” to prove it.
The “exotic” setting (and the concomitant, underlying racism) of The Letter has vanished, as has the escapism of the earlier vehicle. Malaysia may as well have been Oz for most American movie goers, and there is an obvious connection made both in The Letter’s script and direction between the oppressive heat and foreign (read “savage”) surroundings as contributing to Leslie’s crime. The Unfaithful does not portray a Joseph Losey version of Los Angeles in which a quiet suburban street can provide the same link between crime and setting that Wyler’s film does (see The Prowler); that would come later.
The Unfaithful is intended to pack a message; The Letter is intended as escapism.
2. Race and Gender
The gender roles, actions and implications of The Letter are unexamined and taken for granted; rather, the cultural tensions and explorations revolve around colonial practice and race, and, on one level, can be seen as upholding long-held racist beliefs; the wife sins when she is taken away from white society and left alone in a “savage” environment. The dead man was married to an Asian woman (changed to Eurasian in the film, as mandated by the Hays code—the character was brilliantly played by Gale Sondergaard); this alone was enough evidence for Maugham’s generation to understand that the philanderer was a lowlife.
Race is jettisoned in The Unfaithful, and instead, we are led to examine the interactions of both genders. Instead of a cold Bette Davis mercilessly gunning down her lover under a moonlit, sweltering sky, Ann Sheridan’s character is actually attacked; the audience is party to her vulnerability, not her guilt.
In fact, the film obliquely refers to a problem of violence against women, especially sexual violence. Though written in 1946, the film wasn’t released until June, 1947—six months after the Black Dahlia killing. Given the Los Angeles setting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the dialog uttered by the detective was alluding to some of the crimes against women (i.e. Diane Sparks murder in 1946, etc.)
Maugham was uninterested in exploring issues of female frustration or loneliness or guilt and is, perhaps, most famous for one of the most misogynistic portrayals of a woman in the annals of literature—and that’s a lot of misogyny—in Of Human Bondage. Women in The Unfaithful move from centuries of blame and guilt to a more nuanced portrait in just seven short years.
3. Woman vs. Woman
In the 1940 film, Gale Sondergaard’s character has Leslie killed in retribution of the murder of her (cheating) husband. Before this, she humiliated Leslie by throwing the titular letter on the ground and making the woman pick it up.
The real dynamic here is woman vs. woman; they both loved the same weak and despicable man who was unfaithful to each.
There is no female bonding; no Letter to Three Wives and certainly no First Wives Club. There is just raw jealousy, depicted as an inherent state of female identity, leading to social chaos and murder.
The Unfaithful, however, offers a different dynamic in the character of the felicitously and symbolically named Eve. On the surface, she is bright and brittle, celebrating her new-found divorce and not particularly team Chris. She is perhaps the iconic woman, in contrast to the actual heroines of the story, who both bear names that could be either masculine or feminine (Leslie and Chris).
It is Eve who delivers the punch at the end, who provides the message we’ve been waiting for since the opening shot. It is Eve who offers a reasoned and reasonable explanation to Bob for his wife’s behavior, and it is Eve who tells him he needs to take some responsibility, too.
She is a woman who is defending another woman, just on the basis of being a woman in a difficult situation, not out of friendship (as does the attorney Larry); as such, it is Eve who is the clearest thinker and the most uncompromisingly moral voice—all this in the mouth of a (scandalous) divorcee.
4. Forgiveness Does Not Equal Weakness
Leslie’s husband in The Letter is a dope. He’s distant, he’s dim-witted, he’s a sap. He joins a long line of noir saps in being such a sucker for a dame that he’s willing to forgive and forget if she just tells him she loves him.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Bette confesses that she still loves the dead man.
Queue up Gale Sondergaard.
Zachary Scott excelled at playing sleazy, villainous types, but in The Unfaithful he manages to project just enough decency to convincingly play a man who eventually understands that forgiving his wife does not mean he’s a sucker. He’s helped greatly in this by the fact that Chris is no Leslie; she loves her husband and actually was violently attacked.
Forgiveness is a powerful, powerful message, and one that must have struck home with the millions of couples who married quickly and, post-1945, repented at leisure.
5. It’s the War’s Fault
If The Letter could be said to have a moral, it would be:
A. Don’t trust women.
B. Especially out of the country and among “uncivilizing” forces.
C. They are inherently overly emotional, conniving, and devious.
Ultimately, the explicit lessons of The Unfaithful are as follows:
A. Divorce is bad, forgiveness is necessary and you should try to work it out (the post-War attempt to stabilize a society reeling from cataclysmic social changes).
B. Women aren’t all conniving gold-diggers and cheating hussies. They have feelings, too.
C. Don’t blame each other; blame the war.
When asked if it was “his fault” he was shipping out to another continent, Eve upbraids Bob thus:
“You knew you were going when you met her. Let’s face it, that’s why you married her—what you wanted was a whirl and a memory.You wanted a beautiful woman waiting for you, and you didn’t want anyone making time with her when you were away, so you hung up a no trespassing sign, like you’d stake a gold claim. You didn’t marry her … you just took an option on her.”
Bob: “She could have said ‘no.'”
Eve: “Listen, I was there. I saw you making with that uniform and that ‘today we live’ routine.And then you were off.”
David Goodis, a brilliant noir writer, helped pen The Unfaithful, which could just have easily been titled “The Unforgiven”. But the messages are less in character with what we think of as ‘noir’ (especially the ‘femme fatale’ trope) than they are in The Letter, which is much more rooted in 19th century melodrama.
One sought to titillate an audience desperate for escapism; the other, to reassure and pacify the jangled nerves and chaotic social structure that was post-War America. In so doing, The Unfaithful became a rara avis itself, a modest crime thriller/film noir that did not demonize women, but, instead, offered a sympathetic and far more realistic portrait of infidelity and the female homefront experience.
If you haven’t seen it … I recommend it!