Bette Davis in The Letter (1940)


(director: William Wyler; screenwriters: from the play by W. Somerset Maugham/Howard Koch; cinematographer: Tony Gaudio; editors: George J. Amy/Warren Low; music: Max Steiner; cast: Bette Davis (Leslie Crosbie), Herbert Marshall (Robert Crosbie), James Stephenson (Howard Joyce), Frieda Inescort (Dorothy Joyce), Gale Sondergaard (Mrs. Hammond), Elizabeth Earl (Adele Ainsworth), Cecil Kellaway (Prescott), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cooper), Bruce Lester (John Withers), Sen Yung (Ong Chi Seng), David Newell (Geoffrey Hammond), Willie Fung (Chung Hi), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cooper); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Lord; Warner Brothers; 1940)
“First-class cinema.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

William Wyler with great technical skill helms this classic melodramatic film noir of a murder and a cover-up that succinctly puts its finger on the hypocrisies of colonial justice. The film is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s mid-1920s London stage play and the screenplay is by Howard Koch. It was a Broadway play that opened in 1927 and was then followed by Paramount Studios’ talkie in 1929 with Academy-Award nominated Jeanne Eagels playing the female lead. It was nominated for a total of seven nominations (but showed no wins): Best Picture, Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actor (James Stephenson), Best Director, Best B/W Cinematography (Tony Gaudio), Best Original Score (Max Steiner), and Best Film Editing.

The film opens with one of the all-time great tracking shots of the moon peaking out from the clouds on a tropical Malayan rubber plantation, as the camera moves down a rubber tree where the rubber juice drips into containers and then across a compound’s thatched hut where coolies are relaxing after their day’s work. The camera moves past a white cockatoo that becomes startled and flies away as a shot rings out from inside the main bungalow disturbing the peaceful setting. A well-dressed Caucasian man staggers onto the veranda and is followed by an expressionless woman in a cold rage, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), who pumps more lead into the dead body until she empties her revolver.

Leslie later tells her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), the manager of the Singapore plantation run by a British company with a home office in Liverpool, that she shot Geoffrey, someone hubby never met but was a close friend of hers, because he was drunk and tried to make love to her after coming over unexpectedly. Their mutual friend Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) takes the case and is sure of an acquittal based on her version of the incident, as he advises her to turn herself over to the Attorney General in Singapore and remain in prison until the trial only because she fessed up to killing a man.

Things take a turn for the worse when Howard’s cunning native law clerk Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung) mentions that a friend presented him with a copy of a letter that Leslie wrote Geoffrey on the day of the murder, where she asked him to come over and spend the night because her hubby was away. The letter is in possession of Geoffrey’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard), and she’s willing to accept a payment of $10,000 to part with the original letter. We soon discover the dead man was Leslie’s lover for some time but recently married the native woman and abandoned the married woman of ten years, who was so obsessively in love that she couldn’t let him ago. The moral dilemma falls on the honest lawyer’s shoulders, someone who despises his client but has a sympathy for her kind-hearted hubby. After some deliberation, the lawyer risks being disbarred by securing the letter without notifying the court.

Censors forced a melodramatic ending to show Bette Davis get her comeuppance for her adultery, deceit and murder from the hands of the dagger carrying aggrieved party with the help of her servant. It made things too neatly concluded, as it took away a lot of the starch from Maugham’s emphasis on his cynical viewpoint of colonial rule. Nevertheless this is first-class cinema that offers a superb performance by the thoughtful James Stephenson, who wrestles with his conscience to do something that goes against his professional standards because it’s expedient not right. Bette Davis gives a marvelous performance as the woman who can’t help the way she is, and in an unforgettable scene gets to emotionally tell her hubby who is willing to forgive her discretion: “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!”