It sometimes catches me off-guard when it turns out a favorite movie was adapted from a short story or novel. Many of my favorite writers had their books turned into film more frequently than I think (or knew, or remembered); and more films were based on books and short stories than people remember or think. I knew, for example, that Now Voyager was a novel before a film; so were Stella Dallas, Flamingo Road, Laura, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and so forth. I also know W. Somerset Maugham had written Of Human Bondage (the film of which made Bette Davis a star) and the short story “Rain” (filmed with first Gloria Swanson and remade with Joan Crawford). I’d never read Maugham, but I know of his work; it was only recently, however, that I discovered that one of my favorite Bette Davis films, The Letter, was a Maugham short story he himself adapted into a play. Leslie Crosbie is one of Davis’ best performances, opening on a Malaysian rubber plantation with the sound of gunshots, as a man staggers down the front steps of a bungalow-style plantation house, with Bette Davis grimly following, gun in hand, and when he collapses onto the ground, she stands over him and fires four more bullets into his prone body at her feet. It’s an incredible opening, and a remarkable scene for Davis to play. The determination, the anger, the you so deserve worse than this look on her face–yes, she earned an Oscar nomination for that scene alone.
And once I knew (or was reminded; I may have known at one time it was a Maugham story and simply forgotten), I had to read the story.
Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog-trot and shouted to the passer-by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones. But inside the office of Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor it was pleasantly cool; it was dark after the dusty glitter of the street and agreeably quiet after its unceasing din. Mr. Joyce sat in his private room, at the table, with an electric fan turned full on him. He was leaning back, his elbows on the arms of the chair, with the tips of the outstretched fingers of one hand resting neatly against the tips of the outstretched fingers of the other. His gaze rested on the battered volumes of the Law Reports which stood on a long shelf in front of him. On the top of a cupboard were square boxes of japanned tin, on which were painted the names of various clients.
There was a knock at the door.
A Chinese clerk, very neat in his white ducks, opened it.
“Mr. Crosbie is here, sir.”
He spoke beautiful English, accenting each word with precision, and Mr. Joyce had often wondered at the extent of his vocabulary. Ong Chi Seng was a Cantonese, and he had studied law at Gray’s Inn. He was spending a year or two with Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor in order to prepare himself for practice on his own account. He was industrious, obliging, and of exemplary character.
“Show him in,” said Mr. Joyce.
He rose to shake hands with his visitor and asked him to sit down. The light fell on him as he did so. The face of Mr. Joyce remained in shadow. He was by nature a silent man, and now he looked at Robert Crosbie for quite a minute without speaking. Crosbie was a big fellow, well over six feet high, with broad shoulders, and muscular. He was a rubber-planter, hard with the constant exercise of walking over the estate, and with the tennis which was his relaxation when the day’s work was over. He was deeply sunburned. His hairy hands, his feet in clumsy boots were enormous, and Mr. Joyce found himself thinking that a blow of that great fist would easily kill the fragile Tamil. But there was no fierceness in his blue eyes; they were confiding and gentle; and his face, with its big, undistinguished features, was open, frank and honest. But at this moment it bore a look of deep distress. It was drawn and haggard.
“You look as though you hadn’t had much sleep the last night or two,” said Mr. Joyce.
Mr. Joyce noticed now the old felt hat, with its broad double brim, which Crosbie had placed on the table; and then his eyes travelled to the khaki shorts he wore, showing his red hairy thighs, the tennis shirt open at the neck, without a tie, and the dirty khaki jacket with the ends of the sleeves turned up. He looked as though he had just come in from a long tramp among the rubber trees. Mr. Joyce gave a slight frown.
“You must pull yourself together, you know. You must keep your head.”
“Oh, I’m all right.”
“Have you seen your wife to-day?”
“No, I’m to see her this afternoon. You know, it is a damned shame that they should have arrested her.”
“I think they had to do that,” Mr. Joyce answered in his level, soft tone.
“I should have thought they’d have let her out on bail.”
“It’s a very serious charge.”
“It is damnable. She did what any decent woman would do in her place. Only, nine women out of ten wouldn’t have the pluck. Leslie’s the best woman in the world. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. Why, hang it all, man, I’ve been married to her for twelve years, do you think I don’t know her? God, if I’d got hold of the man I’d have wrung his neck, I’d have killed him without a moment’s hesitation. So would you.”
“My dear fellow, everybody’s on your side. No one has a good word to say for Hammond. We’re going to get her off. I don’t suppose either the assessors or the judge will go into court without having already made up their minds to bring in a verdict of not guilty.”
As you may have noted, Constant Reader, this story was written during a time when casual racism was not only accepted but was par for the course. Maugham wrote during the first half of the twentieth century primarily; “The Letter” was certainly set during the time of decline for the worldwide British Empire (“the sun never sets on the British empire”); an empire that was built on the backs of its enslaved and conquered peoples, and justified its abuses and colonialism and exploitation with the typical white supremacy. The Empire didn’t survive the second World War–the Japanese in particular shattered the Empire’s Asiatic pretensions–but all the worst of British racism and classism and misogyny is there on display in this story (this sentence: Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones–in particular), and really is terribly dated in that regard. The story is also problematic in that it also upholds the standard misogynist trope that a woman will easily and without qualm accuse a man of rape to cover up her own crimes. So, it’s easy to see how such a story could spring from the mind of a gay man in that time period; my gay brothers can make the worst misogynists, I’m ashamed to say, and written during a period when misogyny was so incredibly rampant…yes, I can see it.
The story is vastly different from the film. The film obviously centers Bette Davis; it’s one of her finer performances, and the character of Leslie Crosbie; the story itself is entirely told from the perspective of her attorney, Mr. Joyce. But the bottom line of the story and film are the same: Leslie Crosbie murdered Geoff Hammond; the question is why? Mrs. Crosbie’s story is that he showed up at her door late at night and tried to rape her, and she killed him in self-defense, protecting her honor. The only problem is that she fired four more bullets into his corpse when he was already dead, from close range; this doesn’t sound like self-defense. Mrs. Crosbie herself claims she doesn’t remember any of that; and given that she’s a white woman, her story is she was defending her honor against a rapist, and the victim had taken up with a Chinese woman and was no longer received by honorable people (oh, the racism!), Mr. Joyce has no doubt that Mrs. Crosbie will neither hang nor go to jail; popular opinion in the ruling class is heavily on her side. But it turns out there’s a letter in existence, in her handwriting; begging Geoff Hammond to come see her at her home while her husband was away. Leslie explains this away quickly; in the hubbub of the shooting and its aftermath, she’d quite forgotten she’d invited him over to help her buy a gun as a gift for her husband, and once she hadn’t told the police, and remembered, she couldn’t tell them without making herself look bad. The Chinese woman Hammond was sleeping with has the letter; and wants money for it. Mr. Joyce explains to Mr. Crosbie…who comes up with the money, and then bitterly says to Me. Joyce: “the reason I was away was because I had gone to buy myself a new gun.”
Leslie had lied about her reasons for inviting Hammond over; what else has she lied about? But once the letter has been destroyed, and the jury sets her free–Mr. Joyce asks her one more question–and Leslie explains her truth: she’d been having an affair for years with Hammond, but the Chinese woman–whom he had loved when he was younger–had come back to his life and he no longer wanted anything to do with Leslie. Leslie was furious–bad enough to be thrown over, but for a Chinese woman? She deliberately invited him over that night; he told her he hated her and wanted nothing to do with him, and to her–this justified not only killing him, but her desire to get away with murdering her lover…and, because of racism and misogyny and class, she does.
It was an interesting–if dated–read, and while I winced away from the horrific racism (much worse than the misogyny of how courts always treated upper crust white ladies with such gentility, allowing them to get away with their crimes, and even cheering lustily their acquittals), I’m glad I read the story. I’ll probably read more of Maugham–I’d read Of Human Bondage when I was a teenager and hated it; I should probably reread it through the lens of Waugham’s homosexuality and how that main character’s relationship with toxic Mildred was undoubtedly shaped by his own denial of his sexuality; I’d probably enjoy that more now–and most definitely want to read “Rain”, to see how Sadie Thompson fares in her creator’s words, as well as to see how misogynistic Maugham was in creating her…it seems to me, in the works of his I’ve read, that his female characters were a lot darker and definitely more noir, than I might have thought before.
It might be interesting to retell “The Letter” entirely from Leslie’s point of view. Hmm, now there’s a thought.