The Bette Davis Project: The Letter (1940)

The Letter (1940)Synopsis:

In Singapore, the wife of a rubber plantation manager (Herbert Marshall, The Little Foxes), Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), shoots a man to death after he supposedly tried to rape her. However, a letter Leslie wrote the night of the shooting contradicts her version of events.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Based upon W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play, adapted by Howard Kotch (Sergeant York and Casablanca), and directed by William Wyler (Jezebel and The Little Foxes), The Letter is an impressive suspenser that still has much of its original power. This is a film I feel compelled to revisit often, and one movie that never fails to blow me away — it’s extraordinary in every possible way.

The Letter works on basically every level imaginable. It was so ahead of the curve, anticipating post-war malaise so well. The movie really makes you rethink the whole idea of film noir as a genre. Perhaps filmmaker Paul Schrader (Hardcore) was right after all. He insisted that “noir is not a genre, but rather is defined by more subtle stylistic qualities of tone and mood.” Even though The Letter is rarely placed alongside the greatest noir films, the movie is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of that style of filmmaking.

The challenge here was to turn a play into a valid cinematic experience, a daunting task that director Wyler approached with much enthusiasm and imagination. He was undoubtedly assisted by Tony Gaudio’s (The Old Maid) magisterial cinematography, Warren Low’s (All This, and Heaven Too) and George Amy’s (Yankee Doodle Dandy) clever editing, and Max Steiner’s (Dark Victory and Now, Voyager) atmospheric music score. Wyler has never been described as an auteur, but here he demonstrates what great craftsmanship is all about.

The Letter is full of intriguing touches. Especially brilliant is the opening sequence. It’s a very effective montage that has the effect of pulling you into the story right away. Leslie’s constant knitting (like a spider spinning a web), and her obsession with the moon (some people believe that the moon influences violent behavior) are fascinating elements that enhance the storyline.

And there’s Bette Davis. Critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Davis gives what is very likely the best study of female sexual hypocrisy in film history.” Leslie is definitely one of cinema’s most fascinating anti-heroines and Davis hits all the right notes. It’s a brilliant performance, one of her very best. Wyler clearly saw something in Davis that nobody else could see. Davis rarely moves her body and Wyler often shoots her from the back, yet she is able to project all kinds of complex emotions — Wyler understood that minimalist Davis is every bit as powerful and as effective as flamboyant Davis

In addition to Davis’s spellbinding work, there are two other performances that deserve to be mentioned. James Stephenson (Shining Victory) plays Leslie’s lawyer with quiet authority — he received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Gale Sondergaard (Anthony Adverse) barely speaks, but she is imposing as the Eurasian woman who blackmails Leslie. The cast includes Victor Sen Yung (Jimmy Chan in the Charlie Chan movies) and Frieda Inescort (Pride and Prejudice). Cecil Kellaway (Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte) has a bit role.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Letter is a superb thriller with one of Davis’s best performances. There are multiple film versions of Maugham’s story: Jean de Limur’s 1929 version, starring Jeanne Eagels, ABC’s 1982 TV remake, with Lee Remick as Leslie Crosbie, and The Unfaithful, with Anne Sheridan, a loose adaptation of the play. B&W, 96 minutes, Not Rated.

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8 responses to “The Bette Davis Project: The Letter (1940)

  1. I agree; one of her very finest and most compelling performances! I’ll have to watch it again and look for how she does not move much.

    I was a little taken aback by the ending. After she makes the dramatic announcement that she still loves the man she killed I was expecting her to live a long life with the despair conveyed in her voice and it felt like having her killed was something the code dictated to make sure she was punished, but also gave her an out from living with it.

    What a gorgeous movie, though! And the ending is still chilling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right about the ending. The 1929 version ends with the famous line “I still love …,” which is how the play ended. Unfortunately, the new ending tries a bit too hard to hold every person accountable for their actions as per code. That said, I thought Wyler did a fine job. As you said, it is still a creepy ending.

      Like

  2. A neat account of a great movie — many thanks! I’m not normally a huge Bette Davis fan, but I agree with you that she’s wonderful here. And I’m with you in regarding The Letter as a film noir, and one that should be more often credited as such.

    Liked by 1 person

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