“The Unfaithful” (1947) is a superior movie to “The Letter” (1940).
I just wanted to get your attention. I’ve been away from this blog for a long time. I’m still here.
But seriously, I really do prefer “The Unfaithful” to the much more well-known and deservedly lauded “The Letter”. Pour yourself a cuppa and I’ll tell you why. You don’t mind spoilers, do you? I didn’t think so.
The original story, you’ll remember, is set in a Malaya rubber plantation. “The Letter” stars Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall in the story of an unfaithful wife, who murders her married lover, and then must hide the truth from her husband and the police. The device that seals her fate and proves her guilt is a letter written to her lover. Gale Sondergaard, who strikes fear into the hearts of everybody, not just in this movie—she probably struck fear into the hearts of people just walking down Wilshire Boulevard—is the dead man’s wife who holds the whip hand over Bette Davis.
But for me, the film is a marshmallow: all air, sticky, and without nourishment. Even the impressive Miss Sondergaard reminds me of The Dragon Lady in the old Terry and the Pirates comic strip, and so the “mysterious orient” clichés that abound in this movie strike me as somewhat cartoonish. I prefer “The Unfaithful” for several reasons. Here we go:
We start with a happy Miss Sheridan speaking on the phone with her husband who is away on a business trip. We see she is in love, and eagerly awaiting his return the next day. We do not suspect her of an adulterous affair. What we do learn about her comes through twists and turns, and by the end of the film, we see we do not know her at all. In comparison, Bette Davis comes off as transparent, and I find her brittle rigidity, though compelling psychologically, still two-dimensional, even if we are shocked by her declaration at the end of the film.
Any movie with Eve Arden is always better than a movie without Eve Arden. Our Eve has a good role here. We first meet her as a new divorcee who throws herself a Happy Divorce Party. All her friends are there, and one who is not her friend: her ex-husband shows up, drunk and angry, and vents his bitterness before he is dragged away. Douglas Kennedy has this small role. We saw him previously in “South of St. Louis” (1949).
Miss Arden is raucous, crude, loud, and tasteless in the early part of the film, but she keeps popping up from time to time, and each time we see her, a little more of her hard shell gets peeled away and we discover by the end of the film she’s really a sad and lonely person, and a mensch. She turns out to be a real pal to Sheridan and her husband, played by Zachary Scott, when they really need her.
Though I love Herbert Marshall, and though we feel great sympathy for him as the cuckolded husband of Bette Davis, we also can’t help but regard him as a sap. She’s playing him like a fiddle. The story, and the director, allows us to see right through Davis, but he has no such advantage and we may wonder how he could be so dense.
Mr. Scott is nobody’s fool, an enterprising builder taking advantage of the post-war boom. He’s devoted to Sheridan, but when the clues of her guilt wipe the scales from his eyes, he’s determined to dump her and see her rot. How quickly, and stunningly, love turns to hate. It’s all passion in one form or another.
Most especially, I love that “The Unfaithful” is frankly and most purposefully without that fantasyland setting of the tropics. It is set in a mundane and more familiar time and place. (Although, I confess, as a New Englander, I find palm trees, even lined up in front of a shopping mall, extremely exotic.) This is a setting we recognize; these are people with whom we are familiar. It brings this tumultuous story down to earth, with consequences that are real. We must take their troubles more seriously because they may be our own.
It’s got all the details. The narrator tells us as the camera pans from the home of Sheridan and Scott to the palm-tree lined roadway, “The problem with which it deals belongs not to any one town, city or country, but is of our times.” In this respect, the movie is less like “The Letter” and more like “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
The “problem,” it seems, is that so many marriages begun in haste during the romantic and rushed war years are ending in divorce. Lew Ayres’ clients are mostly women seeking divorces, and he has mixed feelings about that: a desire to be successful, and yet a sense of disgust for his clients. Eve Arden is his latest client and his latest victory in the courtroom.
Ann Sheridan is the opposite of Eve Arden: she is a loving wife who waited patiently for her husband to return from war, who still waits patiently for him to return from every business trip. She waits around a lot. She and Eve Arden are not close friends; they are too different. One is a lady and one is…not.
She arrives home from Eve Arden’s divorce party, and parks her car in the back of the house. As she pulls into the drive, we see a man is watching her. Instantly the tone of the movie changes. She walks to the front of the house and we see her silhouetted in the mist. We watch her walk towards us, knowing the man is hiding, also watching her. At her door, the man attacks her, pulls her into the darkened house. We watch through the windows, from the street, a scene of terror and the sounds of struggle, and screams. We don’t know what’s happened, but we’ve imagined the worst.
It’s the next morning and Zachary Scott lands at the airport, wondering why his wife isn’t there to pick him up. I like the way the director, Vincent Sherman, takes his time and lets this scene play out. He’s very good at developing these very tense scenes from ordinary situations. Your stomach tightens when you see Ann Sheridan walking at night in her own driveway. Your stomach tightens when you see Zachary Scott get bad news. We’ve been there. This is a large part of why I prefer this movie to “The Letter”—it brings high drama to smallest, quietest elements of what we know as “real” life.
Because he’s closed the door of the booth, and because there are constant announcements on the public address system about flights, we barely hear his voice. We strain to hear him—a nice dramatic touch over not hearing him at all. It makes us an active participant. We don’t know what he’s saying—just like we couldn’t see the attack except from yards away and through curtains. By his expression, we realize somebody on the other end told him shocking news, and he rushes to find his checked luggage and get a cab.
The phone, we learn, was answered the by the police, and we see when he arrives that his home is chaotic with reporters, and police all around. For the first time we learn that Ann Sheridan is well and survived the attack, but that her attacker lies dead on the living room floor with an ornamental knife in him that Mr. Scott had brought back from Japan during the war. That’s about all of the mysterious orient you’ll find in this movie.
We knew Bette Davis’ distress was just an act, but Sheridan’s horror is real. The million-dollar question is asked of her “Had you ever seen him before?” She answers no, and we have no reason to doubt her. Neither does her husband or her lawyer pal. The police detective, played by John Hoyt, remains cynical, but that is his job.
matching plaid chair and curtains. See this previous post on my fascination for such stupid things.
The detective tells us that the dead man has no criminal record, that he was a sculptor. His mind, and ours, turns to the question, why did he go to her house? If robbery wasn’t his motive, we are left with a question of attempted rape, though nobody uses the word. Ann Sheridan’s expression is our first clue that she’s not being completely honest, she’s withholding some information, but we have to find out the hard way.
It was sculpted by the dead sculptor guy. The face is Ann Sheridan’s.
Ann lied. The dead scupltor obviously knew her and she knew him, because we are told that this kind of piece would have to be modeled from real life. He didn’t sculpt it from a photo of her. I find Ann's scatterbrained, guilt-driven, panic-induced deceit much more understandable and appealing than Bette Davis' psychotic, chilly posturing, but that is not to say that one actress is better than the other in the role; it's just a preference for characterization.
The art dealer is attempting to blackmail Mr. Ayres’ client, but our noble Lew isn’t having any of it. He brushes off the smarmy art dealer and goes straight to Ann, who, reluctantly, relents and confesses she did know the dead guy. It was during the war, and she hired him to do the sculpture, but after a few sittings, he got too personal and creepy and made her feel uncomfortable, so she avoided him and never went back. He stalked her a few times, but when her husband came home from oversees, it scared the guy off.
Now Lew has to hammer home to her that what people say is not the problem. The problem is if she knew the guy, a jury might think she let him into the house and murdered him, that it was not self-defense. She’s frustratingly slow on the uptake about this.
Unless there's more to it that she isn't saying. And there is.
Then Ann goes to the smarmy art dealer herself to pay the blackmail, but the widow doesn’t want her money. She wants her to go to jail.
Then Ann goes to the smarmy art dealer herself to pay the blackmail, but the widow doesn’t want her money. She wants her to go to jail.
Ann goes back to Lew Ayres in a panic, getting herself in deeper and deeper, and finally Lew understands, as do we, that she had more than a professional relationship with the sculptor. She had a fling with him.
“You’re no different from all the other cheating, conniving women who parade through my office.” Now he strips the final layer away: did she kill him on purpose to shut him up?
Smarmy art dealer still wants a cut of the blackmail money he thinks he’ll get, so he contacts Zachary Scott and meets him, like a spy movie, in MacArthur Park (no cake out in the rain here, so just never mind that), one of the many neato Los Angeles scenes we have in this movie. He takes him to the widow’s run-down apartment and meets Ann’s sculpted likeness as the art dealer hammers him with the old Othello scenario about the treachery of women. Zachary is crushed.
He goes home to have a showdown with Ann. She tries to explain her loneliness during the war. He blasts her, “Millions of women waited, they waited decently, loyally. They didn’t cheat.”
Mr. Scott wants a divorce, but just as he’s about to storm out, the cops show up at the door to arrest Ann on suspicion of murder. See, the cops discovered Zachary going to the widow’s apartment with the smarmy art dealer. They know about the sculpture now. The jig is up.
The trial sequence builds to a crescendo of self knowledge—of Zachary about Ann, and of about himself and his failings as a husband. We learn they knew each other two short weeks before they were married, and he was so eager to pursue his career on his return home, she became an afterthought. We also learn, somewhat surprisingly, that she was a fashion editor for a magazine before the war, yet we are given the impression she does not have a career now. She gave up a job like that to stay home and volunteer for the Red Cross? That is an interesting subplot that is not pursued, however.
Neither is it fleshed out the possibility that Lew Ayres may feel more than friendship and respect for Ann and could present as a romantic rival, which would have been intriguing, but no triangle happens.
What we do have is the crime of the century—not the murder, and not just cheating on her husband, but cheating on a vet in a postwar climate that revered them.
Jerome Cowan asks us, “Is this a woman you can believe?”
Mr. Ayres, from his own professional perspective as a divorce lawyer counters: “How many personal tragedies occurred far from the battlefield,” and “If there had been no war, she would not be in this court today.” So it’s the war’s fault. We see Zachary Scott mulling this over.
When the jury is out a long time, Zachary Scott goes over his cousin Eve’s house to wait. The merry divorcee is spending a quiet evening alone, with a book, the radio, and a box of chocolates, still wisecracking, but softer and sympathetic. Zachary tears up, and cries, and she softly replies, “I’m glad to see you acting like a human being for a change.”
Though she was never best pals with Ann Sheridan, whom she regarded as too good to be true, she defends her, and Zachary is upset. “Is it my fault I was sent overseas?”
“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.”
“She could have said no.”
Eve continues her sane, and somewhat shocking for the times, rebuttal: “When the band was playing? Listen, I was there. I saw you making with that uniform and that ‘today we live’ routine. And then you were off.”
Production on this movie was begun in late 1946. Just a year after the war, and we’re already negating all that movie patriotism and sacrifice that got us through the worst of it.
Then a phone call lets them know that Ann has been acquitted by the jury. Mr. Scott quietly says, “Oh.” So that we are still not sure how the ending will be played.
We are left with an indictment not of Ann Sheridan, but of the era, and that gave the audience then, and gives the viewer now, something to think about.
“With all my heart, I still love the man I killed” is just a cheap thrill in comparison.
And the ending of “The Letter” where Bette Davis is murdered was not in the original story. This was tacked on by the stalwart keepers of the Production Code to see that a murderess and adulteress was punished.
Ann Sheridan, in “The Unfaithful” remarkably gets away with both a killing and adultery, and still holds our sympathy. She’s rebuked, but still noble. Way to go, Ann. It would have been a great scene for the movie if Ann had discussed her affair, what attracted her to the man and why she needed to be with him. Perhaps the intimacy of her face and body being so closely studied in creating the sculpture was what seduced her. But I guess you can push the Hays Office just so far.
You may now rebut.