Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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1929's 'The Letter' a crucial piece of film history

Long overshadowed by William Wyler’s 1940 remake starring Bette Davis, the first filming, from 1929, of W. Somerset Maugham’s stage play The Letter has re-emerged, thanks to a new DVD edition from Warner Archive.

As the only surviving sound film of the radically innovative Broadway star Jeanne Eagels, the film is an important piece of theater history, preserving the performance style of a brilliant, eccentric, and spectacularly self-destructive actress (who would die of a drug overdose seven months after the film’s release).

But, stiff as it may be in cinematic terms, The Letter is also an important part of film history. One of the first talking films — or “audible photoplays,” as the New York Times then called them — to impress critics with the artistic possibilities of a technology still widely regarded as a gimmick, The Letter represented an important step on the way to the normalization of sound.

Eagels had scored a tremendous success as the South Seas prostitute Sadie Thompson in Rain, the stage adaptation of a Maugham story. But by 1928 her habit of missing performances had earned her a suspension from Actors Equity, preventing her from appearing on Broadway. She could still work for the movies, and Paramount’s East Coast production chief, Monta Bell, shrewdly cast her in The Letter, a Maugham play that had closed on Broadway after only 104 performances, with the regal Katherine Cornell in the lead.

Eagels turned out to be a perfect match for Maugham’s Leslie Crosbie, the unhappy wife of a dull British planter (Reginald Owen) stranded in the jungles of Singapore. At a time when stage acting was more often concerned with elocution than emotion (as the canned theatrical performances of many other early talkies testify), Eagels seemed like a raw nerve, a conduit of convulsive feeling.

Her ability to seize and stay “in the moment” — as generations of Method actors would later characterize it — is formidably illustrated in the scene in which she shoots her unfaithful lover (Herbert Marshall, who would play the betrayed husband in the remake). Completely unconcerned with her appearance (as if the camera, and its implied audience, weren’t even there), a wild-eyed Eagels fires again and again, thrusting the gun forward with each shot as if it were a knife.

Bette Davis is said to have greatly admired Eagels, and her breakthrough performance in another Maugham piece, Of Human Bondage (1934), already reflects Eagel’s influence: the sudden twitches, slashing vocal rhythms, the startling frankness of her big, bright eyes, switched on and off like the beam of a searchlight.

But as good as Davis is in the 1940 Letter, even she couldn’t let herself go to the degree that Eagels does in the climax of the 1929 film. Shot by the director Jean de Limur in what appears to be a continuous take photographed from three angles, the scene builds to an annihilating force as Eagels, slowly realizing that her husband has a dreadful punishment planned for her, strikes back as violently as she knows how.

Fixing her husband, and the audience, with a glare of pure hatred, Eagels spits out the famous curtain line — “With all my heart, and all my soul, I still love the man I killed!” — and then, clearly carried away by the passion she has summoned, repeats it to even greater effect. It’s a moment so sharp and vivid that it doesn’t seem like acting at all, but rather an intensified form of being.

The Letter is available for $19.99 at

French zaniness

Based on a witty and profane experimental novel by Raymond Queneau, Zazie Dans le Métro (1960) was the French filmmaker Louis Malle’s nod toward the New Wave, a movement from which he was excluded by temperament and training. But Malle found in the free-form stylistics of the New Wave filmmakers — the improvised, location shooting; the jump cuts and dizzy camera; the open acknowledgment of genre conventions and cinematic artifice — a functional parallel to Queneau’s slangy, allusive prose, and seemingly random narrative.

Today Zazie seems a little too studiously zany to work as well as it once did. Too many subsequent years of abuse have turned the film’s devices (like using sped-up motion to suggest silent-film comedy) into clichés, and there are times when the viewer feels trapped in a Gallic version of The Benny Hill Show. Yet the premise — a foulmouthed 12-year-old girl from the provinces (Catherine Demongeot) arrives in Paris to spend two days with her uncle (Philippe Noiret), a female impersonator — allows plenty of opportunities for Malle and his cinematographer, Henri Raichi, to depict a Paris, now lost, of neon signs, family-run cafes, and artisanal shops in the muted but flavorful Eastmancolor of the period.

That Eastmancolor seems more glorious than ever in the new Blu-ray edition of Zazie from the Criterion Collection, which for the first time in my experience makes it possible to appreciate fully the contribution of William Klein, the American-born photographer who worked as an artistic consultant on the film. The bold use of graphics, primary colors and distorting, wide-angle lenses give Zazie a zippy, Pop Art look that has no parallel in Malle’s career. Keep the remote handy, because this is one film that is much enhanced by a liberal use of the pause button.

Zazie Dans le Métro is available from for $29.95 and $39.95 (Blu-ray).

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