Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Two by William Wyler: The Letter (1940) and Mrs. Miniver (1942)

My Major Filmmakers class continues with these two films by Wyler, and while they are an arbitrary pairing, I like the contrast they provide between wonderful pulpy noir story and bloated wartime propagandist Oscar favorite. Made before Wyler became a name synonymous with deep focus cinematography, The Letter, even in its conventional noir trappings, is far more complex than the simpleminded Mrs. Miniver. A film about a married woman who murders her lover in a fit of passion and can only be convicted if a letter she wrote on the night of the murder enters the hands of the prosecution, The Letter has something interesting to say about the respected British citizens of Singapore and their feelings toward their native cohabitants. The glittery lavishness of the mise-en-scene and Max Steiner’s exotic score make them feel strange and otherworldly, while Wyler appears to implicate Davis’s character, part of whose motive was her rage over her lover’s daring to marry a native islander. Mrs. Miniver, meanwhile, conforms to a very banal ‘big picture’ model, depending on Theresa Wright’s perkiness, Greer Garson’s nobility, German caricatures, and pandering speeches about how it is everyone’s duty to contribute to the war effort, made by a priest no less, to rally the Allies in that particular moment in world history. Unfortunately, it is entirely hollow, and Wyler was right to conclude that his experience in the war gave him the proper experience necessary to make a truly relevant film about the effects of the war, The Best Years of Our Lives, which far surpasses the comparatively shallow exercise of Mrs. Miniver.

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