13TH LETTER, THE
(director: Otto Preminger; screenwriter: Howard Koch; cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle; editor: Louis Loeffler; cast: Charles Boyer (Dr. Laurent), Linda Darnell (Denise), Judith Evelyn (Marie), J. Léo Gagnon (Dr. Helier), Paul Guèvremont (Postman), June Hedin (Rochelle), Michael Rennie (Dr. Pearson), Françoise Rosay (Mrs. Sims), Constance Smith (Cora Laurent), Guy Sorel (Robert Helier), Ovila Legare (Mayor); Runtime: 88; 20th Century-Fox; 1951-B/W)
“Though not a complete failure, Preminger’s American version still managed to take most of the starch out of this bitter French thriller.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is a remake of the French director Clouzot’s memorable Le Corbeau. Though not a complete failure, Preminger’s American version still managed to take most of the starch out of this bitter French chiller and make it into a predictable mystery film. Even I guessed who was writing the poison letters, and I’m not especially good at being a movie detective. The film changes scenery from its original version in France. It now takes place in a small-town near Quebec, Canada, where the townspeople are receiving poisoned pen letters telling about a handsome young doctor, Pearson (Rennie), who arrived recently from London and who is accused of having an affair with the very attractive younger wife, Cora Laurent (Constance), of a much older physician, Dr. Laurent (Boyer).
The film opens by depicting Hollywood’s idea of what an ideal small-town looks like as the sun is shining, the mailman is cheerful, and everything about Main Street looks picture perfect. Dr. Laurent has returned from a medical convention in Montreal and rushes back to his house to see his gorgeous wife. But his wife is at the hospital talking to her older, angry sister Marie (Evelyn), who is a nurse. She is berating her younger sister for flirting with all the younger doctors on the staff telling her you married a good man, one who is respected in the community, you should be loyal to him. Cora responds, that she is jealous that Dr. Laurent broke off his engagement with her.
Next we hear that Pearson, Cora, and Laurent all received letters that tell of the affair, and the letter writer says that Pearson better get out of town. At the first confrontation, all the parties concerned take a civilized approach to the letters. Pearson says it’s nonsense. But Laurent takes a more cautionary approach saying, “You can’t dismiss these letters completely, they are written by a psychopath and they have been known to act against their own interest.”
More poisoned letters appear and everyone in town becomes a suspect, including the parties the letter is addressed to.
There is a war hero in the hospital recovering from wounds, who is a difficult patient for Marie to handle because he is paranoid. He also has a meddlesome mother, who constantly complains about the hospital care given to her hero son. On the night that Marie, Cora, and Pearson receive letters telling them to be at the church that night because the letter writer will be there — Marie, who is on hospital duty, sneaks off to the church. The hero patient receives a letter that night that says the doctors are lying to him, that he has not been told that he has an incurable cancer. With that bad news, he takes a razor to his throat and commits suicide.
Meanwhile Pearson remains aloof and puts all his energy into being a good doctor and into his hobby of collecting clocks. He is being pursued by an attractive lady patient, Denise (Darnel), who can’t understand why he doesn’t make a pass. He discovers that she has a clubfoot, which can’t be detected when she is wearing shoes. Evidently this must have turned him on, because the next thing you know the two of them are kissing.
Pearson explains how he married a pretty woman and spent so much time building up a booming gynecology practice, and that she met another man. When that affair didn’t work out and she wanted to come back he refused, causing her to commit suicide.
The most striking scene was at the church when out of the 18-member chorus, a poisoned letter falls into the pews. The mayor comes along and takes charge of the investigation, an investigation that was unofficially conducted prior to this by Dr. Laurent.
The result is that Marie is falsely arrested because her handwriting supposedly matches the one in the letter. But Marie goes free, as another letter is sent while she is in jail.
Warning: spoilers to follow. If you don’t want to know who the poison letter writer is, skip the remainder of the review.
Cora tells Denise that she is having an affair with Pearson. When Denise tells this to Pearson he goes to Dr. Laurent and the whole sordid truth comes out, of the old man dictating the letters to his younger wife because he was afraid he couldn’t hold onto her. He did it because Cora wrote the first letter and he was afraid she would be arrested, or placed in a loony bin, and he couldn’t bear to be without her. So he treated her psychological ailments himself, hoping that he could cure her some day.
The mother of the dead hero, gets wind of what Laurent did to her son and slits his throat with the same razor that her son used. This happens just as Laurent is writing a confession of his crime and his wife is being committed to a mental institution. So it seems as if the kindly doctor is not such a kind person after all. His wife comes off as someone who is more of a mixed-up person, one with a sexual problem that she can’t control.
It ends up more like a flat ‘whodunit’ thriller than a noir film. The force of its noir story never fully materialized under Preminger’s Hollywood-type of direction. The psychological motives of the couple were too murky to have much intellectual impact on the story. The best noir moment showed Pearson’s alienation after his wife left him, as the camera pans to his bare room except for his obsessive clock collection.
REVIEWED ON 1/13/2000 GRADE: C