Bette Davis commits cold blooded murder.
Bette Davis teamed for her second of three movies with director William Wyler for this adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham play The Letter. It was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, Actress and Director. It features some noir style black and white cinematography and a memorable musical score by Max Steiner. All of these ingredients combined for a classic murder melodrama.
The opening scene is one of the most unexpected and intriguing in movie history. We see a full moon then the camera pans down to a rubber tree with a sign identifying our location as Singapore. The camera then continues across some plantation workers lying in hammocks and finally we see the open front door of a large bungalow. A gun shot is heard. A man staggers out the front door of the bungalow. A woman follows him with a gun in her hand. The man falls to the ground as the woman repeatedly fires at point blank range until the gun chamber is empty.
Leslie Crosbie is one of Bette Davis’ great villains. She tells her husband that the man she killed, a family friend, had tried to rape her and she shot him in self defense. He buys it and a lawyer friend takes on her case. But then evidence against her, in the form of an incriminating letter she wrote to the murder victim, surfaces. Without her husband knowing the full story her lawyer buys the letter and Leslie is subsequently acquitted of murder. Eventually her husband finds out what the letter said and that Leslie was indeed having an affair with the man; and what’s more shot him in a fit of jealous passion when he tried to end it. Her husband forgives her and asks only if she still loves him. She struggles for a moment and then gives one of the great line readings of her career. “With all my heart I still love the man I killed!”
This movie is brilliantly acted and directed. Watch how Davis tells her first version of the murder. She is confident but is clearly acting. By that I mean the character is acting her lie. Later when she tells the true version of what happened she is much more relaxed and the truth pours out naturally. Wyler makes master use of his camera movement. He uses shadows and lighting contrasts that are very much film noir at the dawn of that genre.
There are only two flaws worth mentioning. One is the casting of Gale Sondergaard as the Asian wife of the man Leslie killed. Her makeup is garish and since all the other Asian characters are played by Asians she stands out. The other even bigger flaw is the ending that Hollywood censors imposed. In the stage version the curtain falls right after Leslie’s big line. But here she has to pay for her sins. Therefore a somewhat ridiculous ending was tacked on where Leslie purposely walks out into the moonlight knowing that her murdered lover's wife is waiting in the shadows with a dagger.
Despite these flaws The Letter is a great movie.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures (1940)