Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Letter

The 1940 film with Bette Davis, that is.

I rented it in preparation for seeing Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout's new opera, which is based on both the Somerset Maugham story and the film. It is, um, a period piece in so many ways: a transparent plot and astonishingly racist. I'm so curious to see how the composer and librettist dealt with the latter aspect of the source material.


Anonymous said...

To tell you the truth, I can't remember--the score's by Max Steiner and I've done my best to ignore it.

But the direction, by Walter Wanger, knocks me out. The way he uses space--inside the planters' house, outside in the dangerous world of the "natives," and the uncertain borderland between them--is terrific. Even the opening shot, in which the sleeping laborers are awakened by the sound of gunfire from the house, follows this pattern.

I agree the plot's transparent; still, it's not meant to be a mystery but a comment on planter society and its susceptibility to moral decay "out East." Maugham suggests that just as Europeans succumb to tropical diseases, they also succumb to tropical passions that destroy them. Asians are morally lesser creatures than Europeans, whose code is at risk of breaking down when their own desires find means of expression. It's racism, sure, but--I think--of a complicated sort.

Anonymous said...


Don't you mean William Wyler?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I do. Damn aging anyway. (Do I get partial credit for the initials?)

Patty said...

I never saw the movie, but knowing about the upcoming opera caused me to read an entire book of short stories by Somerset Maugham. From there I moved to Graham Greene. And ... oh dear! I can't remember who ... another British author. Lots of racism in much of the writing, I found.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yeah, not a surprise. I'm trying to figure out who would complete the triumvirate of Maugham/Greene/someone - Waugh?