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For the article about the 1927 play from which this film was adapted, see The Letter.


The Letter is a 1940 Americanmarker film noir directed by William Wyler. The screenplay by Howard Koch is based on the 1927 play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, originally filmed in 1929.

Plot synopsis

On a moonlit night in the opening scene, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a British rubber plantation manager in Malaya, shoots and kills a man whom her male servant recognizes as Geoff Hammond (David Newell). She tells the servant to send for her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), who is working at one of the plantations. Her husband returns, having summoned his attorney and a British police inspector. Leslie tells them that Geoff Hammond "tried to make love to me" and she killed him to save her honor.

Leslie is placed under arrest and put in prison in Singapore as a matter of form to await trial for murder. Everyone believes she acted heroically, with the exception of her attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), who seems to be rather suspicious of her motives. Howard's suspicions seem justified when his clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) shows him a copy of a letter Leslie wrote to Hammond the day she killed him, informing him she would be home alone that evening and pleading with him to visit her. Ong Chi Seng tells Howard that the letter is in the possession of Hammond's widow (Gale Sondergaard), a Eurasian woman who lives in the Chinese quarter of town. Howard then confronts Leslie with the damning evidence and forces her to confess to Hammond's cold-blooded killing; but Leslie cleverly manipulates the attorney into agreeing to buy back the letter.

Having no choice but to draw the money out of Robert's personal funds, Howard gives it to Leslie, but Hammond's widow requires that Leslie come personally to pay the $10,000 for the letter so that she can see the woman who killed her husband. With the letter excluded as evidence, Leslie is acquitted.

During a celebration after the trial, Robert announces that he plans to draw his savings out of his account in order to buy a rubber plantation in Sumatramarker, Howard and Leslie are forced to tell him that his savings are gone, and that they have been used to buy Leslie's defense because of the existence of the letter. After demanding to see the letter, Robert is devastated to learn from Leslie that Hammond was her lover for years and that she killed him out of jealousy, but offers to forgive her if she can swear that she loves him. Leslie at first agrees and tells him she loves him, but she then breaks down and confesses "with all my heart I still love the man I killed".

In a dazed state after the pressure of the trial and her confrontation with Robert, Leslie wanders out into the moonlight and begins walking outside the gate almost as if she knows that someone is waiting for her. There she meets Mrs. Hammond and her henchman. Mrs Hammond kills her with a knife, after the henchman has overpowered her. As the two attemp to silently slip out, they are confronted by a policeman who question their whereabouts. The policeman tells the two to move along and both walk away from the scene. The clouds which hid the moons rays, darken the area where Leslie Crosbies body was killed. In the end, the clouds open and the moons rays shine at the area where her body lays but no one is there to see her body.

Production notes

In the original play, Leslie Crosbie lives out her life without her husband. However, the Production Code Administration rejected the original story that Warner Bros. submitted on the grounds that it contained adultery and unpunished murder, so a new final scene was added in which Leslie is killed. The character of Mrs. Hammond was changed from Hammond's Chinese mistress to his Eurasian wife to placate the Hays Office .

Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie
William Wyler and star Bette Davis, who had previously worked together on Jezebel, disagreed about the climactic scene in which Leslie admits to her husband she still loves the man she murdered. Davis felt no woman could look at her husband when she admits such a thing. Wyler disagreed, and Davis walked off the set. She later returned and did it Wyler's way, but ever after, Davis insisted her approach would have been better.

Wyler also argued with Warner Bros. head Jack Warner over the casting of British actor James Stephenson as attorney Howard Joyce. Warner originally had suggested Stephenson for the role, but after Wyler cast him, the studio head had second thoughts and thought the role was too important to cast an unknown in it. Wyler stood firm, and Stephenson's performance earned him an Oscar nomination..

Herbert Marshall also appeared in the 1929 version, in which he played the lover who was killed by Leslie.

Principal cast



Critical reception

In his review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed, "The ultimate credit for as taut and insinuating a melodrama as has come along this year — a film which extenuates tension like a grim inquisitor's rack—must be given to Mr. Wyler. His hand is patent throughout . . . Miss Davis is a strangely cool and calculating killer who conducts herself with reserve and yet implies a deep confusion of emotions . . . Only the end of The Letter is weak — and that is because of the postscript which the Hays Office has compelled".

Variety said, "Never has [the W. Somerset Maugham play] been done with greater production values, a better all-around cast or finer direction. Its defect is its grimness. Director William Wyler, however, sets himself a tempo which is in rhythm with the Malay locale . . . Davis' frigidity at times seems to go even beyond the characterization. On the other hand, Marshall never falters. Virtually stealing these honors in the pic, however, is Stephenson as the attorney, while Sondergaard is the perfect mask-like threat".

Time Out London says, "A superbly crafted melodrama, even if it never manages to top the moody montage with which it opens - moon scudding behind clouds, rubber dripping from a tree, coolies dozing in the compound, a startled cockatoo - as a shot rings out, a man staggers out onto the verandah, and Davis follows to empty her gun grimly into his body . . . [The] camerawork, almost worthy of Sternberg in its evocation of sultry Singaporemarker nights and cool gin slings, is not matched by natural sounds (on the soundtrack Max Steiner's score does a lot of busy underlining)."

Nominations



References

  1. The Letter at Turner Classic Movies
  2. The Letter at Turner Classic Movies
  3. New York Times review
  4. Variety review
  5. Time Out London review; Time Out Film Guide 2009, 2008, Time Out Group/Random House, p606


External links




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