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USA 1940
Directed by
William Wyler
95 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Letter

Based on a Somerset Maugham short story that in turn was based on real life events, William Wyler’s film is set in contemporary Singapore and tells story of plantation manager’s wife, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), who shoots and kills a man claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), hires friend and attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. During the trial an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie's story comes to light and the two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man's widow (Gale Sondergaard).

Maugham had turned the story into a successful play which was filmed in 1929 (Herbert Marshall played the man Leslie kills) and it is indeed intriguing material for its chilling central character.  Davis who had been directed to Oscar success by Wyler in Jezebel two years earlier (as a result of which they become lovers) is perfect in the role as a woman at once emotionally on a knife's edge and coolly calculating and it is the tension between these two aspects of her personality, brought out by the nicely developed narrative that makes her lawyer rather than her rather dim-witted husband her moral counterpoint, that sustains the film.

By today’s standard Leslie’s attitude towards the Eurasian wife of the dead man would probably arouse accusations of racism (Leslie describes her as having eye like a cobra) and needless to say the casting of Gale Sondergaard, a popular actress of the ‘30s and ‘40s, in the role doesn’t cut the mustard but leave these distractions aside and the film is tidy little melodrama albeit with a remarkably abrupt ending (probably designed to satisfy the Production Code).

FYI:  Davis was Oscar nominated for this performance and was the punters' choice but somewhat unfairly lost to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle).




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