Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Symbollic Lacework in "The Letter" (1940)

I’m going to return back to early film history, to one of my favorite classic film genres- the Film Noir era of the 40s and 50s. One of my favorite, early, noirs is the 1940, Bette Davis classic, The Letter. The Letter and even its leading lady have become fairly obscure in recent years. If people today know Bette it’s because of her work in the ‘50s, especially All About Eve (read my post about the Sarah Siddons statuette here. However, I have a pretty special place in my heart for The Letter, because it’s a fairly beautiful little plot with some very intense moments and some really great cinematography.

The movie starts explosively, when Bette’s character, Leslie, is seen viciously shooting a man running out of her East-Asian plantation home. Leslie claims that he was attempting to take advantage of her and that it is an open shut case of self-defense. Because she is beautiful and charming, her story is immediately accepted. Though she is believed by the European community, she is still arrested out of routine and then the plot begins to thicken. Soon it becomes clear that Leslie may not be so innocent.

Gradually, she reveals to her husband’s best friend and lawyer that she had an affair with her victim. The plot becomes further complicated when the titular letter, proving the existence of her affair (and thus creating doubt about her “innocence”) falls into the hands of her lover’s terrifying Eurasian wife. She becomes desperate to seize the letter, uphold her image, and do anything to achieve these goals. The ending is really great and unexpected and Bette really was at the top of her game-playing a cunning, shrewd woman.
In this movie, Leslie is often seen tatting (creating lace). She begins the night of the murder, continues in jail and by the time with her covert meeting, is a beautiful shawl. Lacework is certainly an art, albeit a home art and one that is hugely unappreciated. Consider the massive discipline required to achieve such complex and beautiful patterns. I’m also fascinated by such home arts, because they’re so often not appreciated even though they require the time and the talents of your traditional arts.
The lacework, besides being a prominent work of art in the film, is also an incredible and deep thematic symbol. First, the lace represents Leslie’s false façade. On the outside, she is simply a lovely, underappreciated woman, much like the lace she wears and creates. In actuality, her personality and her lace is as complex as the lies she weaves. The lace also represents the lie she creates to defend herself. In the beginning of the film, Leslie begins tatting and begins creating her lie at the same time- very symbolic in my mind. By the time of the climactic meeting scene, her lie is completely formed (and believed by most) just as is her lace shawl is finished (due to all her extra time in prison- but whatever). By this time in the plot, the lace has become very intricate, but also extremely delicate. If the letter is revealed to the public, disproving Leslie’s innocence will be as easy as destroying her lace.
Another aspect of art in this film is the incredible filming. There are many very intense camera angles and imagery created by the director. In one of my favorite scenes (reminding me a little of the cinematographic treatment of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon- click here for my post on the Falcon), Leslie stands in front of a window with blinds- creating jail-bar-like shadows across her face- representing her doomed nature and her underlying guilt that has brought on her damnation.
I don’t know who created the lace. I do know that Bette Davis was actually an avid crocheter- believe it or not. While it would be very interesting if she made the prop- I find it doubtful. Most likely, the artisan who created it will never go down in infamy- unlike Leslie’s character and of course, the immortal and beautiful Bette Davis.


  1. The shawl itself is either a very good machine lace piece or a mid 19th c Brussels bobbin lace applique on machine net. It is not a tatted piece, and if it is handmade, it would have been made in a factory setting with specialists working each different step of the process. Better to have had Ms. Davis working at a bobbinlace pillow for technical accuracy. The technique of this lace is very, very far from tatting.

    1. Thank you for the information!! I really know nothing about lace except for the verb "tatting" (as strange as it sounds). Despite my lack of knowledge, it's an interesting movie prop that acts as a potent symbol throughout the film- that's why I (attempted) to attack the analysis of it. It's interesting to know about the intricate process behind creating such a beautiful piece. Thanks for the info and I hope you follow the blog!

  2. Absolutely love that lace shawl. Wonder whatever happened to it. I can't believe that there is no information on where it was made or where it is now. Wish there was a way to find out.

  3. Bette seem very astute in the crochet process as well agreed it's essential to the film. Intagral to the film im amazed that no evidence to the actual lace work is unavailable . Should any info becomes to fruition would love some answer!

  4. Bette does not create the shall, the lace she works in the film is for the bed and I think that the meaning of the lace represents a sort of web, like a spider she catches her victims one by one.


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