William Wyler, 1940
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson
In the jungle of Malaysia, Leslie Crosbie shoots an acquaintance, Geoff Hammond, as he is fleeing her bungalow home. Locals fetch her husband, a planation manager, along with the family lawyer. Leslie explains that Hammond came to visit that evening and made numerous advances and then tried to rape her, so she shot him. While her husband believes her unquestioningly, their attorney, Howard Joyce, is not quite as sure. As a formality, she is arrested and tried. Her trial goes through without a hitch, until Joyce’s Malaysian clerk shows up with an incriminating letter that Leslie wrote to Hammond. Hammond’s bitter widow is willing to sell her the letter, but for a steep price.
Though it seems to have been forgotten alongside many other films from classic Hollywood, The Letter is the finest collaboration between director William Wyler and star Bette Davis, and may be the latter’s best performance. Wyler and Davis also worked together on Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941). He also promised the lead role in Wuthering Heights (1939) to her, but it went to Merle Oberon, perhaps due to the end of an affair between Davis and Wyler. Wyler made a number of classics, such as Roman Holiday (1953) and How to Steal a Million (1966) with Audrey Hepburn. Other noir-like films include Detective Story (1951) and The Desperate Hours (1955), as well as the incredibly creepy The Collector (1965).
Based on a short story and then a play from W. Somerset Maugham, this is a compelling mix of film noir and melodrama. Though this was released a year or so before the film noir cycle officially began, The Letter is linked to the style/genre by its dark thematic content and impressive visuals. There are numerous shots of Davis in the shadows – moments of shadowy bars across her body or her face obscured by darkness – that betray a lot about her guilt and her real role as murderess.
Somerset Maugham would recycle some of the themes from The Letter throughout his incredible novels – the exoticism of foreignness, sexual intrigue, and marital difficulties. Some of his works had autobiographical elements and he incorporated his wide travels in his fiction. Apparently The Letter was based on the real case of a woman who shot and killed a male friend in Kulala Lumpur. He allegedly attempted to rape her, though her story fell apart and she was found guilty, but saved from execution. This wasn’t Davis’s first turn starring in a Maugham adaptation, as she also appeared in Of Human Bondage.
The opening is one of the most powerful in all of ‘40s cinema. The jungle is dark, but idyllic, and Malay workers are sprawled across the seen, sleeping. This calm is broken by gunfire, as Leslie follows the dying Hammond out of a bungalow and continues shooting him. The silvery, shining moon is ever present and the film’s almost constant shots of the jungle are eerie and surreal. Wyler highlights this sense of unease with the delicate, but persistent sound of wind chimes. Apparently he aimed for a sense of the surreal and the mysterious, which he deftly accomplished.
Davis and Wyler’s romance was allegedly more serious to Davis than it was to Wyler, no doubt to her abortion. Despite this, she remained a professional and continued to work with Wyler. Her portrayal of a broken hearted woman is certainly convincing, but she always claimed that Wyler was responsible for her finest performances; her work here as Leslie certainly ranks among her best. While Davis was known for playing this type of character – independent, though perhaps immoral women that reflected the period’s changing gender roles, this is one of her most tightly controlled performances. It proved she was capable of far more than histrionics. Leslie’s repression, control, and boredom are all associated with lace, which she meticulously creates throughout the film. This symbol of femininity, fragility, and decorum, is ultimately betrayed by her true nature, though she conceals this from herself and others as long as possible. In the pivotal scene, where she reclaims the letter, she wears a large, exotic-looking white lace veil, but is forced to remove it by Mrs. Hammond, just before kneeling, debased, at the other woman’s feet.
The rampant racism will bother contemporary viewers, but keep in mind that this is light years ahead of something like The Mask of Fu Manchu. The Malaysians are notably skeptical of the white characters – with good reason – and their reaction to the murder is fascinating. Alternatively, and whether or not Wyler intended this, the British/white reaction to the Malaysians is ridiculous, with their blatant short-sightedness, longing for “civilization,” and racism. Mrs. Hammond is the most troubling character. In the novel, this character is a Chinese mistress, not a wife, and the madam of a local brothel. Due to the Hays Code, she was transformed into a Eurasian wife, played by Gale Sondergaard. Sondergaard was an American born to Danish parents. Bafflingly, Warner Oland, a Swedish-American, became famous for playing both Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. If, for a moment, you can brush aside the casting of dark-haired Scandinavians as Asian people, you might be able to ignore the obvious “yellow face” given to Sondergaard. Pretend that she’s actually Asian and her performance is starling and effective. I won’t ruin the ending, but it is quite a surprise. Mrs. Hammond is a stereotypical “dragon lady” of film noir and racist Hollywood movies poorly portraying Asians. Though she is given no dialogue and hazy motivations, she is hypnotic and demands attention in each of her scenes.
Though this is clearly Davis’s film, all the performances are top-notch. Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent) is excellent as Leslie’s loyal, oblivious husband, who doesn’t find out the truth until it is too late. British theater actor James Stephenson is excellent as the hardnosed lawyer. Stephenson was allegedly fed up with Wyler’s intense, frustrating style and only stayed on at the behest of Davis. After the film’s completion – and his Best Supporting Actor nomination – he was grateful she convinced him to finish the film.
Incredibly building tension that never lets up, despite the film’s quiet tone and deliberate pacing, the only real flaws are the changes forced on the film by the Production Code. In Maugham’s original story, Leslie leaves her husband and goes off to live alone, forever mourning the man she loved – and killed. The Hays Code could not allow a woman to go unpunished, so Leslie was forced to meet death or imprisonment. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is surprisingly brutal.
Even the unnecessary changes imposed by the Hays Code can’t ruin this spectacular, sadly neglected film, which comes highly recommended. The Letter is available on DVD and all fans of film noir, dark melodrama, and of course of Bette Davis and Somerset Maugham will fall in love with it.