12 October 2001 | telegonus
Moon Over Malaya
William Wyler directs Bette Davis in a fine screen adaptation of a Somerset Maugham story. The plot is sheer melodrama and has la Davis in all kinds of hot water, legal and personal, in British Malaya. Wyler's pretentious direction works better here than elsewhere, and this is one of his finest films. The combination of the director's grandiose desire to turn everything into high art meshes nicely with Maugham's journeyman but psychologically complex, basically mediocre tale. Add to this a bravura performance from his star, and the result is a highly watchable and intelligent movie.
The tropics are nicely evoked without without drawing too much emphasis to the fact that everything and everyone seems to be wilting in the heat. Wyler and his screenwriters have clearly done their homework, and along with the cast present a believable picture of the closed society that was the essence of British imperial rule. These people are more snobs than not, but they are often decent snobs, good friends to one another in a tight spot, and carry themselves with a kind of quiet dignity that seems to have died with the empire. There are some fine performances aside from Miss Davis', notably from James Stevenson as her lawyer, who yet seems to be her lover, but isn't; and Herbert Marshall, who may as well her lawyer but is in fact her husband. The moon figures prominently in the film, seeming to hover over the action, perhaps even dictating it, and giving the movie perhaps a stronger resonance than its civilized melodrama deserves.