There’s a reason Kim Carnes wrote a song about Bette Davis’s eyes. The song might be lousy, but it pays homage to a simple truth: Bette Davis had the best eyes of any post-silent film era actress. The intensity of her stare is startling, and she could move through the emotional waves of a scene without uttering a word. Not that she ever stayed still long enough in her early career for you to notice. Part of the genius of her partnership with William Wyler was his ability to tame her tics and focus her intensity through her already famous eyes. Wyler was a director for whom the filmmaking rule “Show Don’t Tell” was paramount, and he accomplished it through his camera and his actress in his second film with Davis, The Letter.
If I had any sense at all, I’d choose the first shot of this exotic noir as the Best Shot, but I have no sense (and I don’t like choosing opening scenes). Still, I want to take the time to glide through the opening:
The camera begins by meandering through the grounds of a moonlit sugarcane plantation. The camera glides lazily by shadowed, sleepy workers, and happens upon the mansion in the background, lit brighter than the dark shapes crowding it.
Chaos. Workers, dogs, everyone is awake. Still the woman says nothing. Suddenly, the moon comes out from behind a cloud. The crime and criminal are starkly illuminated, and the audience gets the first flash of who this woman is, without her ever uttering a word. Everything is in her eyes.
The Letter, despite its melodramatic plot, may be one of the subtler performances of Davis’s career. Leslie Crosbe is a woman with secrets to hide – letters and lovers and death. Unfortunately, when William Wyler controls the moonlight, it shines with the all power of a Hollywood spotlight. From this point forward, Leslie will hide from the moon. Her rawest scenes will be exposed by harsh moonlight. Every time she tries to hide, it will slip through cracks in the window and cracks in her facade. Moonlight isn’t for lovers anymore.