The wife of a rubber plantation administrator shoots a man to death and claims it was self-defense. Her poise, graciousness and stoicism impress nearly everyone who meets her. Her husband is certainly without doubt; so is the district officer; while her lawyer\'s doubts may be a natural skepticism. But this is Singapore and the resentful natives will have no compunction about undermining this accused murderess. A letter in her hand turns up and may prove her undoing.
Bette Davis ... Leslie Crosbie
Herbert Marshall ... Robert Crosbie
James Stephenson ... Howard Joyce
Frieda Inescort ... Dorothy Joyce
Gale Sondergaard ... Mrs. Hammond
Bruce Lester ... John Withers
Elizabeth Inglis ... Adele Ainsworth (as Elizabeth Earl)
Cecil Kellaway ... Prescott
Victor Sen Yung ... Ong Chi Seng (as Sen Yung)
Doris Lloyd ... Mrs. Cooper
Willie Fung ... Chung Hi
Tetsu Komai ... Head Boy
Among the three Wyler-Davis\' collaborations (the others being \"little foxes\" and \"Jezebel\" ) \"the letter \" is their triumph.The repugnance that most of the French critics feel for the great Wyler is one of their major flaws (coming from \"les cahiers du cinema \" and the stupidity of the nouvelle vague ravings).
\"The letter\" is a splendor.A screenplay so simple and so effective it\'s a wonder it grabs us till the last pictures.A first sequence to rival the best of Hitchcock.A feverish sticky deadly atmosphere from the mysterious garden where a malefic full moon shines on Davis\' inscrutable face to the seedy place in the Chinese quarter where they smoke opium and where Gale Sondergaard spins a web :in this memorable scene when she forces Davis to kneel down,she almost surpasses the star,which will seem an impossible task to some,and yet..Every time Sondergaard appears on the screen ,she\'s absolutely terrifying.I was saying that the screenplay was simple ,but that kind of simplicity takes genius and I wish today\'s stories had this implacable logic.As always in Wyler\'s works of that era,the ball sequence is a recurring theme (see the admirable scenes of \"Wuthering Heights\" and \"Jezebel\" )Thus,the finale scenes revolve around a ball,beginning with Davis\'s entrance and ending with a view of the dancers from the outside ,à la \"Wuthering Heights\" .Excellent performances by the whole cast,fabulous directing,particularly in these last pictures ,where Davis is walking through the garden ,under a bad moon rising..You must see \"the letter\".
In \"The Letter,\" (1940) Bette Davis & director William Wyler are collaborating again (they did the Oscar-winning \"Jezebel\" together in 1938). This movie earned 7 Oscar nominations: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Bette Davis; Best Actor in a Supporting Role, James Stephenson; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Tony Gaudio; Best Director, William Wyler; Best Film Editing, Warren Low; Best Music, Original Score, Max Steiner; Best Picture. The plot is about an adulterous woman who murders her lover, then lies about it. But, there is a letter that could prove a murderous truth.
Davis (Leslie Crosbie) is the wife of rubber plantation administrator, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall). Mrs. Crosbie unloads a pistol shooting one of their friends & her adulterous lover, Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell). Summoning everyone she can to his death scene, Mrs. Crosbie claims it was self-defense because Hammond was trying to rape her. Because her poise, graciousness, and stoicism impress nearly everyone at the scene & during the investigation, it seems as if Mrs. Crosbie is going to get away with murder. Her husband is certainly without doubt; so is the district officer; while her lawyer\'s doubts may be a natural skepticism.
However, the murder happens in Singapore, where the resentful natives do not hesitate to expose the unaccused murderess. Her attorney\'s legal aid cleverly presents him with a bribe for a love letter in Mrs. Crosbie\'s handwriting that could prove she\'s anything but innocent.
Wyler\'s feeling for the bonds of people within their culture is remarkable for the period of this film. After all, this film was shot during WWII, when Asians of any kind were being oppressed by Americans. Instead of portraying Asian characters as \'primitive\', Wyler reveals an early cinematic feeling for ethnic diversity sensitivity, without taking traditions of Singapore out of context. Plus, Mrs. Crosbie murders a white English man who is married to an elegant Singapore woman. Their inter-ethnicity is down played as if a cross-cultural marriage was not an issue, at that time, in the least.
Davis\' performances directed by Wyler are always stunning. Wyler has a way of bringing Bette\'s many character facets out. \"The Letter\" contains such a complex mix of emotions. Wyler & Davis obviously could bring out the best of emotional artistry in the film cast & crew! That\'s what made them the greatest film-making collaborators.
Only a few classic movies have unforgettable openings. Alfred Hitchcock\'s \"Rebecca\" and Orson Welles\' \"Citizen Kane\" come to mind. But none matches \"The Letter\" when the camera spans beginning with a rubber tree dripping sap, then slowly over sleeping Asian workers. Suddenly shots ring out. A man obviously dying stumbles out the door of the plantation house then down the steps. Close behind is Bette Davis, gun in hand, still pumping lead into the body even after it comes to rest on the cold ground until the last bullet is spent. Now if director William Wyler didn\'t get your attention, you must also be cold on the ground. Added to the masterful direction is Tony Gaudio\'s cinematography with emphasis on the full moon and the clouds. I have never seen anything as foreboding and ominous, not even in film noir classics. How he got this magnificent effect must have been kept a secret for there is nothing close to it in any other film.
Even with the superb direction and cinematography, \"The Letter\" could have easily descended into soap opera melodrama save for the exceptional acting by the entire cast, even poor David Newell who makes the most of his dying role at the beginning. The late Don Adams (Maxwell Smart) used to have a joke about his part in an upcoming Hollywood film. \"It\'s a very small role,\" he quipped. \"I\'m the guy who gets killed before the picture begins.\" Bette Davis is the very essence of fained innocence coating evil inside. Equal to Bette Davis\' magnificent acting is that of James Stephenson. The court room scene where he has to ask the jury to find his client innocent knowing that she is guilty is one of the finest performances I\'ve seen on the screen.
The line most quoted from the film by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) to her husband, \"With all my heart, I still love the man I killed,\" is justly famous but has become trite. There are many other wonderful lines in a script based on W. Somerset Maugham\'s play. Maugham\'s work has not sustained the test of time as well as others from the period such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, but at the time this movie appeared he was considered a literary equal to them.
Many, including Bette Davis and William Wyler, were extremely upset with the ending forced on them by the Hollywood puritans of the day. Actually, because Wyler was able to make the best of an unhappy chore with such skillful actresses as Bette Davis and Gale Sondergaard the final scene is fairly effective, perhaps even less melodramatic that the ending Wyler and Bette Davis desired. It certainly keeps with the theme of the movie, that life has a way of getting even with evil people who pretend sometimes unconsciously of being righteous and good. The truly kind and considerate one, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall)does triumph at the close, even though he still loved his wife and forgave her.
* The ending is different from the original play because the Production Code refused to allow a film let one of its characters be seen to get away with adultery and murder.
* Merle Oberon and Walter Huston had starred in a Lux Radio Theatre version two years before.
* Herbert Marshall, who plays the husband here, had previously played the lover in the 1929 Jeanne Eagels version.
* Cecil Kellaway is listed in the credits but can only be glimpsed in a long shot during a party scene. His scenes were drastically cut for the final release print.
* Jack L. Warner originally asked William Wyler to test James Stephenson for the role of the lawyer. Wyler was surprised at how suited Stephenson was for the part and then was astonished when Warner balked at casting him, worrying about the stock player\'s lack of name recognition. Wyler insisted on keeping him, putting him in the odd position of having to fight to cast an actor that Warner had originally suggested.
* Sixteen years after he directed this version of \"The Letter,\" William Wyler made his television debut directing a live version of \"The Letter\" featuring Siobhan McKenna, John Mills, Michael Rennie, and Anna May Wong in the roles taken earlier by Davis, Marshall, Stephenson, and Sondergaard. Some of the censorship that had affected the 1940 version was eased for this TV version. (For example, Hammond\'s \"Eurasian wife\" in 1940 was permitted to be, as in the play and 1929 film, his Chinese mistress.)