1 September 2002 | bmacv
Preminger's Québecois noir, yet another unsung work by an underrated director
Nestled in the noir cycle is a trio of movies set in the Canadian province of Québec. Ozep's Whispering City and Hitchcock's I Confess make up the first two, followed by Otto Preminger's The 13th Letter. His strategy in setting it there was probably to preserve the Gallic ambience of the original, Clouzot's Le Corbeau (though that version is accounted more mordant and misanthropic).
Michael Rennie left a prosperous medical practice in London to set up residence in Canada after his unfaithful wife left him and later killed herself. He catches many an eye, as there are few marriageable men in the rural village, though Rennie keeps to himself and dotes on his collection of antique timepieces. But suddenly poison pen letters begin to circulate. At first they hint that Rennie is involved with the wife (Constance Smith) of a prominent doctor at the same hospital (Charles Boyer). Soon the letters take a more malicious turn, causing a young war hero to slit his throat by lying about Rennie's withholding a diagnosis of hopeless cancer. The police investigate, and the campaign of libel becomes a political cause celebre.
Rennie, meanwhile, slowly succumbs to the charms of Linda Darnell, who feigns ailments to coax him up to her rooms; beautiful but lonely, she's acutely sensitive when Rennie discovers the club foot she takes pains to conceal. She, too, falls under suspicion, along with many others as the letters continue to come....
Preminger handles the story with slow, modulated suspense, never resorting to shock tactics; his cast uniformly delivers restrained, effective performances (Rennie has never been so good). Distant thunder crackles constantly under the lowering skies, well shot by Joseph LaShelle, adding to the claustrophobic feel of provincial insularity. Yet this superior suspense film languishes in obscurity despite being one of the often dismissed Preminger's better works in the cycle, along with Fallen Angel, Where The Sidewalk Ends, Angel Face and of course Laura.