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THE LETTER – Max Steiner


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1924 author W. Somerset Maugham wrote a short story titled “The Letter” based on a story he heard while traveling to Singapore. Impressed with its reception, Maugham adapted the story into a stage play, which resulted in 338 performances in London, and 107 on Broadway. Paramount purchased the film rights and produced a film in 1929, which underperformed. Warner Brothers believed they could do better, and so purchased the film rights from Paramount in 1938. Hal B. Wallis was assigned production and Howard E. Koch was hired to write the screenplay, and William Wyler was given the reins to direct. A fine cast was brought in, which included Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, Herbert Marshall as Robert Crosbie, James Stephenson as Howard Joyce, Frieda Inescort as Dorothy Joyce, and Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond. Of note is that Mrs. Hammond was changed from a Chinese wife to an Eurasian to satisfy the Hays Code, which prohibited miscegenation.

The film is classic film noir set in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, circa 1911, which explores the life of Leslie Crosbie who is unhappy and unfulfilled in her marriage to Robert Crosbie. She begins an affair with Howard Joyce who is himself married. Over time Howard grows tired of the affair, and declares to Leslie one night that he does not love her and is ending the affair. She pulls out a gun and shoots six rounds into him, which kills him. She is arrested for murder and a letter she sent to Howard offers damning evidence, which will lead to her conviction. Her lawyer dupes Robert into purchasing the letter, which takes all his savings, but leads to Leslie’s acquittal. Later when Robert discovers his life savings are gone, he demands to see the letter and is devastated to find out the truth. He demands to know if Leslie loves him, and is crushed when she states that she still loves the man she killed. Later at a party Leslie takes some air and is confronted by a man and woman who gag and stab her, only to be captured by the police who were surveying the house. Yet when the camera at last returns to the murder scene we see that Leslie’s body has vanished. The film was a commercial success, earning a profit of $689,000 million. Critics praised it for offering a well-directed, finely acted, story which could have been even better had the Production Code not censored a number of scenes. It earned an astounding seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Film Score.

Director William Wyler was very pleased with Max Steiner’s score to his last film “Jezebel” and believed his talents were ideally suited for the current project. Upon viewing the film Steiner understood that this was Bette Davis’ story, a Film Noir tragedy to which he would have to speak. For his soundscape he therefore drapes the film with dark and ominous auras, which are omnipresent and inescapable. To accomplish this, he augmented his orchestra with vibraphone, celeste, Bali bells additional harps and an array of exotic percussion. Oriental sensibilities were also sown into the score to reflect the film’s setting, as well as Howard’s Eurasian wife Dorothy.

His soundscape is supported by one primary theme and two motifs, including The Fate Theme permeates the film and embodies the guilt Leslie harbors for her willful, unrepentant murder of Howard. A full moon shone as she committed the murder, and we see there after Leslie avoid its luminescent, and revealing light, which reminds her of the murder. Steiner conceived the theme, as a molto tragico repeating triplet phrase, which would serve as an implacable reminder of her crime, for which she cannot assuage or escape. Two Oriental Motifs were created to infuse the Malayan-Singaporean soundscape with the requisite auras and rhythms of the region. Vibraphone, celeste, bells, flute, harp, flute, muted gongs and twinkling chimes were beautifully blended to create the perfect ambiance.

“Main Title” provides a score highlight where Steiner in a masterstroke captures the film’s emotional core. We open boldly with his iconic Warner Brothers fanfare, which supports the display of the studio logo. As the roll of the opening credits commences, we flow into a molto tragico statement of the Fate Theme. The background is the moonlit garden outside the plantation bungalow where Jeffrey will soon meet his end. At 1:01 we flow into the film proper where we see an open-air workers quarters with a native band playing, as men sleep in hammocks. Steiner sow somnolence, bathing us with exotic woodwind borne Malaysian auras, intangible textures, Bali bells, and subtle drum rhythms which shift to and fro atop the fragrant moonlit breeze. The musical narrative is severed by the sound of gun shot.

In “Shots Fired” offers another score highlight where we see the bungalow door open, with Jeffrey staggering out, and as he descends the stairs Leslie stoically fires her pistol’s five remaining bullets without mercy. Dogs are barking, the workers all wake up, and as the camera zooms in on Leslie’s face, she drops the pistol and the tragic strains of the Fate Theme envelop us as a dark pall of death descends after the moon passes away behind clouds. At 0:14 the theme resurges as the luminous moon reappears, its light revealing Jeffrey’s corpse as Leslie looks upwards at it in fear. A grim musical narrative unfolds as a crowd gathers around the corpse. At 0:41 the Fate Theme surges as her houseboy sees the pistol lying on the stairs. She is cool, calm and collected as she orders him to notify Mr. Crosbie and Mr. Withers, and then orders the crowd to leave. The music descends into darkness at 1:12 as Leslie walks into her bedroom and locks the door. The Fate Theme unfolds as a pathetique as we hear her sobbing in her room. At 2:12 strings energico propel flight music as we see Chi Seng on his run to bring news to Mr. Crosbie. We crest at 2:33 with his arrival where he delivers the bad news to Crosbie. Crosbie sends orders to notify and bring his lawyer Mr. Howard Joyce. We close intensely at 3:12 with dramatic phrases of the Fate Theme as Mr. Crosbie arrives home, ending with grim finality as he asks Leslie to come out.

“Leslie’s Story” reveals Leslie offering her false story, in which she asserts that Jeffrey’s social call turned into attempted rape, which forced her to kill him. Steiner sow a dark misterioso with the Fate Theme entwined within its fabric, which builds at 1:54 on a fervent crescendo. The crescendo does not crest, but instead dissipates as Leslie falls into Roberts welcoming arms. As Robert comforts her, the musical narrative darkens, full of foreboding as Withers and Joyce head to the shed to examine the body. “Howard Investigates” reveals the lawyer examining the corpse supported by a grim musical narrative once again with the ominous Fate Theme entwined. At 0:45 oriental textures support the troubled houseboy observing the examination, followed by his stealth flight away. “Charged With Murder” reveals the four dining with the discussion of driving to Singapore to present what happened to the Attorney General. When Joyce said charges will be brought, Leslie asks what type of charges? Foreboding music supports Howard saying, murder. A dark triad tolls as Leslie and Robert try to take in Howard’s words. At 0:19 a sky shot of the full moon elicits a declaration of the Fate Theme as a mesmerized Leslie stands transfixed looking at it. As it washes over her like with waves of guilt she returns to the bungalow, closes the door, and then the shutters to block out its light. At 1:10 a harp arpeggio ushers in a tender romanticism as Robert embraces Leslie and informs her that she is the best wife for which a man could ask.

“Shot In The Back?” reveals Howard preparing to escort Leslie to the car for the drive to Singapore. He asks her that his examination revealed that she must have shot him in the back as he lay on the ground. The Fate Theme washes in as an other-worldly misterioso as she explains that everything was confused and blurred, and that she did not know what she was doing. At 0:55 reassuring strings of comfort support Howard’s compassionate understanding, joined by a harp glissando as the exit the bungalow. At 1:11 she passes the spot where Jeffrey lay dead and dire horns declare the Fate Theme, which supports their departure. At 1:28 strings dramatico surge as we see Madame. Hammond, who has arrived with the houseboy to see the body of her dead husband. Steiner offers an exquisite rendering of the Oriental Motif, which drapes us with auras of sadness borne by celeste, Bali bells, woodwinds, and harp adornment. As she sees her dead husband at 2:24, strings affanato surge to express a romance for strings, which speaks to her heartache and profound sense of loss.

In “It Seems There Is A Letter” Howard’s law clerk Ong reveals the discovery of a letter from Leslie to Hammond, written on the day of the murder, which would seem to contradict her statement that she had not communicated with him for several weeks. The letter is damning and after Ong leaves Steiner sow tension atop repeating dramatic statements of Fate Theme as we see Howard’s obvious concern. At 0:40 the Oriental Motif supports Ong advising the departing Howard that he cancelled his appointment with Mr. Reid. A tense musical narrative with the Fate Theme supports Leslie’s walk to the private interview room to speak with Howard. “Leslie’s Explanation” offers a score highlight where Steiner demonstrates his mastery of suspense. It reveals Howard slowly probing her with questions to try to discern the hidden truth. Steiner masterfully sow an escalating tension with the Fate Theme driving the musical narrative. This crescendo dramatico crests darkly at 0:54 when he produces the letter. She denies writing it, yet he is unwavering, and so he prepares to depart. She feels exposed and the Fate Theme unleashes another crescendo at 1:03 by desperate strings appassianato, which crests at 1:18 and then dissipate into a well of sadness as she grudgingly admits to writing the letter. At 1:48 aggrieved woodwinds support her unbelievable, and blatantly transparent alibi. The Fate Theme joins and ascends with a rising desperation as Howard reads the letter aloud, debunking her contrived alibi. Now exposed, Howard offers her a sobering assessment of how damning the letter is, and how it aids the prosecutor. The Fate Theme descends with anguish and a sense of futility as she cannot bear what Joyce has told her, and so she faints.

In “Are You Going To Let Them Hang Me?”, Leslie manages to convince Howard in the infirmary to aide her by violating his professional ethics. She manipulates him to acquire the letter by advising that his friend Robert would be destroyed if she were hung. Steiner weaves a potent musical narrative of ever shifting emotions, all propelled by ever varying renderings of the Fate Theme. With each twist and turn of Leslie and Howard’s tête-à-tête Steiner’s music powerfully underscores Leslie’s sly manipulation, and Howard’s angst. There interaction is masterfully scored, elevating the scene in every way. In two unscored scenes, Ong has advised Howard that Madame Hammond has agreed to sell the letter for $10,000 with the condition that Leslie bring the money to her. To do this, Joyce gets Leslie released by the judge into his custody as her lawyer, and then convinces Robert to pay for the letter’s purchase. “Patio Scene” reveals the two couples planning her “Acquittal” party for Friday night. Joyce then asks Robert to take his wife to the movies so he and Leslie can prepare for her cross examination – a ruse to allow Leslie to deliver the money to Madame Hammond. Steiner supports the scene with gentile pleasantries, counterpoint to the plan Howard has prepared to purchase the letter. Yet the Fate Theme eventually seeps in, supported by dark chords to underscore the deception. The intrusion is fleeting and the pleasant musical narrative returns as Robert and the two Joyce women depart. We close with trepidation as Leslie and Howard prepare to execute their plan.

“Clandestine Meeting” offers another score highlight where Steiner masterfully enhances the film narrative in every way. It reveals Howard rebuking Leslie for her flippant, and cavalier attitude for the purchase, reflecting his own personal disappointment with his complicity in this shameful act. Steiner infuses dark chromaticism and strings tristi, which clearly emote from Howard’s perspective. At 0:35 the strings soften and warm, supporting her apology to him. He portends that he will pay a heavy price for what he does tonight and dire muted horns statements of the Fate Theme join to sow unease. At 1:11 a fleeting Oriental Motif enters to support Ong’s imminent arrival for their trip to China town. As they discuss Leslie’s lacework hobby the music again darkens with the Fate Motif as she states she does it to take her mind off things. The theme abounds with sadness with a descending contour as their tête-à-tête unfolds, with each of them probing to understand the motivations of the other. The music’s flowing river of sadness offers palpable tension, which carries their exit of the bungalow. The Oriental Motif joins at 3:16 as they board the car for the trip to China town. The theme surges with exotic vibrancy, emoting as a rhythmic danza orientale as they enter the bustling Chinese enclave. We close with a diminuendo of unease as they stop and prepare to walk the final leg of the journey. In “Chinatown Shop” Steiner creates a misterioso of Chinese textures by an ensemble of Vibraphone, two celeste, harp, bells, flute, and two pianos, which serves as a travel motif as the walk down the street to the shop. At 0:56 a dark diminuendo of unease supports their entry into the shop. A harp led misterioso orientale with flute adornment unfolds as Leslie examines a number of items, including a set of ornate Chinese daggers.

“Mrs. Hammond” reveals Ong leading them to Mr. Chung Hi’s chambers where the meeting with Madame Hammond will take place. Steiner bathes us in Chinese auras, immersing us in a misterioso orientale replete with soft gong accents. At 1:22 Howard asks for a window to be opened to clear the air of Hi’s pipe smoke. As Ong opens the window a hanging Chinese chime twinkles in the night breeze, joining with a vibraphone to create a restless glistening sea. Madame Hammond approaches and at 2:09 a gong strike supports her opening a beaded curtain. Tension rises as she stares at Leslie with contempt in her eyes. As Howard gives Ong the $10,000, Steiner sustains the oriental auras with minimalism. She refuses the money from Ong and demands that Leslie remove the shawl from her head and walk to her. As she removes her shawl at 3:53 the Fate Motif sounds as a testament of her guilt, and carries her with a molto tragico expression to Madame Hammond. As the two women lock eyes the twinkling Oriental Motif sow unease. She pulls the letter from her sleeve and cast it down at her feet, refusing to give it to her by hand – a Chinese cultural act of disdain. At 4:23 a tragic Fate Theme sounds as Leslie bends down, retrieves the letter, and offers a “Thank You”. Howard and Leslie then depart carried by the twinkling textures of the Oriental Motif, and we close darkly, and full of anger as Madame Hammond refuses the money from Ong, and directs him to give it to Chung Hi.

In “Leslie’s Confession” during the closing arguments at court Howard is visibly unsettled, by his complicity in the sordid affair, yet he manages to maintain his composure. The jury acquits Leslie and everyone is ecstatic except Howard. Music enters darkly as an orchestral pulse with echo, joined by the Fate Theme at 0:29 as he departs deeply disappointed in himself. The theme is sustained and joined at 0:56 by the Oriental Motif as Leslie passes by Madame Hammond, who glares with contempt. At 1:16 an impassioned Fate Theme ascends when Howard tells Robert that he cannot buy the plantation in Sumatra, as he was forced to pay $10,000 to suppress the letter to gain Leslie’s acquittal. Robert deduces that Howard did an illegal act and demands to see the letter. The Fate Theme writhes with pain, assuming a molto tragico expression as Leslie realizes there is no escape and tells Howard to give him the letter. After he reads it, he asks what it means, and she confesses that she loved Jeffrey and that they had been in a long affair. The Fate Theme assumes a heart wrenching iteration as she admits her shame and regret. Subtle oriental accents intrude when she discloses her anger that Hammond married a Eurasian woman and was spending less time with her. We close with a surge of anger on the Fate Theme as she admits that she killed him for abandoning her.

“The Warning” reveals Leslie dressing for her acquittal party and we see her houseboy through the window on the deck. We open darkly as she takes air on the deck and the Fate Theme sounds as she beholds the luminous full moon. At 0:49 the Oriental Motif enters followed by a foreboding drum roll as she sees at her feet one of the Chinese daggers of the shop glistening at her feet. She is unsettled, closes the door, returns inside, and a dark musical narrative infused with the Fate Theme and Oriental Motif carries her departure to join the party. “Party” reveals Leslie attending her acquittal party, yet we see that she ill at ease, while Robert is drinking a lot and telling stories about the plantation he plans to buy in Sumatra. Steiner offers musical counterpoint to this unfolding drama with festive source dance music.

“Retribution” offers a powerful score highlight. Leslie cannot bear to hear his stories about their new life in Sumatra and departs, returning to her bedroom. The source music is sustained, yet tension slowly swells as she tries to block everything out by knitting. Yet she cannot overcome her shame and the Fate Theme resounds at 1:10 as she turns away in anguish. Robert returns to the bedroom and she tries to pretend nothing is wrong as she discusses packing for their trip tomorrow. A pathetique unfolds as she says “It is no use, isn’t it? We can’t go on, can we?” He responds that if you love a person, you can forgive anything, which startles her. At 2:04 a crescendo appassionato borne by strings so full of longing swells as she runs and embraces him. She promises him everything, yet he asks her can she love him? She says yes she can and as they embrace, we crest powerfully at 2:21 with romantic ardor, which is severed as she turns away in shame saying “I can’t! I can’t!” She cries out that with all her heart she loved the man she killed, which shatters him. He departs and the music becomes molto tragico as she walks to the deck door to retrieve the dagger. The Oriental Motif supports the slow opening of the door, which reveals the dagger is no long there. As she gazes at the garden strings affanato speak of unrequited love, and of a life, which now offers nothing. Dark chords and the Fate Theme carry her into the garden, full of resignation as the Oriental Motif joins. The music despairs as she walks in the garden joined by the Fate Theme at 3:39 as the moon passes behind clouds. The Oriental Motif carries her out of the courtyard where she beholds herself confronted by Madame Hammond on one side, and her houseboy on the other. A crescendo dramatico swells at 4:32 as the houseboy gags her. Madame Hammond then pulls out a dagger and thrusts it into her chest at 4:49 as the Fate Theme resounds with retribution. The Oriental Motif supports their departure, yet a surge of danger at 5:32 supports a policeman’s arrival and his escort of them off the premises. We resume darkly with the Fate Theme as we see Leslie corpse alight in the moonlight, which the camera passes over, returning to the party at 6:00, once again supported by source dance music. We close the film with a shot of the luminous moon supported by a final grim reprise of the Fate Theme. “End Cast” is supported by two final declarations of the Fate Theme, which ends in harp glissando flourish.

I would like to thank James d’Arc and Ray Faiola for restoring Max Steiner’s film noir masterpiece, “The Letter”. The production team used optical music tracks and acetate sources, which were in fairly worn condition. The music is archival, monaural with significant audio imperfections. Nevertheless we are thankful for the effort and hope that in the near future a rerecording of the score with 21st century technology can be undertaken so we can truly appreciate the beauty of Steiner’s handiwork. This film noir was clearly Bette Davis’ story and Steiner in a masterstroke composed a theme, which fully embodied her guilt, tragedy, and retribution. Her willful murder of her lover Jeffrey took her down a path, which ultimately brought ruin to all. The unrelenting Fate Theme permeated the film’s narrative, an inescapable and implacable presence that demanded retribution. Time and time again Steiner’s music evoked her guilt, exposed her lies and ultimately, brought justice. What also stands out is how Steiner supported and fleshed out the emotional dynamics of Leslie and Howard’s two tête-à-tête. Leslie often expressed lies and a deceptive narrative, yet Steiner provided counterpoint revealing to us the truth. The story is a tragedy and in scene after scene Steiner’s music masterfully and poignantly emotes the pain, regret, shame and pathos of the actors. We feel deeply this sad tale because of the music, which I believe allowed Wyler to realize his vision. Lastly, the orientalism Steiner infused into his soundscape offered a perfect cultural juxtaposition, which spoke to the unspoken tension between the British colonials and indigenous Malays and Chinese immigrants. Folks, I believe this score to be one of the finest in the film noir genre, which succeeded on all levels, achieving perfection in both its conception and execution. I recommend you watch the film to truly appreciate Steiner’s genius and join me in calling for a film score label to re-record this masterpiece.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Main Title; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62O4zTJ8Meg

Buy the Letter soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:25)
  • Shots Fired (3:29)
  • Leslie’s Story (3:28)
  • Howard Investigates (0:57)
  • Charged With Murder (1:59)
  • Shot In The Back? (2:59)
  • It Seems There Is A Letter (1:20)
  • Leslie’s Explanation (4:07)
  • Are You Going To Let Them Hang Me? (3:33)
  • Patio Scene (1:55)
  • Clandestine Meeting (4:40)
  • Chinatown Shop (2:07)
  • Mrs. Hammond (5:54)
  • Leslie’s Confession (5:30)
  • The Warning (2:02)
  • Party (1:20)
  • Retribution (6:41)
  • End Cast (0:27)

Running Time: 55 minutes 53 seconds

Brigham Young Film Music Archives BYUFMAMS118 (1940/2007)

Music composed and conducted by Max Steiner. Orchestrations by Hugo Friedhofer. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Max Steiner. Album produced by James d’Arc and Ray Faiola.

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