THE LETTER

The Letter (1940)

The Letter (1940) Warner Archive

I doubt an opening scene in any film pulls you in quicker than Bette Davis storming out of a house while unloading an entire clip into a man, seemingly without any remorse. Directed by William Wyler, ​The Letter​ is, in my opinion, the finest of the three collaborations between Wyler and Davis. Here we have a plot based on Somerset Maugham’s 1927 short story of the same name, which was, in turn, inspired by the real-life scandal of the Ethel Proudlock case of 1911​.

The film takes place on a British rubber plantation in Malaya, making it one of the few Hollywood films set in Asia. After killing Geoff Hammond in the opening scenes, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) approaches her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) for help, pleading the murder was an act of self-defence. Here Leslie claims that the dead man was about to rape her as she wins Robert’s support. Meanwhile, as Leslie awaits trial, the local disdain for the dead man further enhances her credibility. Everything points towards a speedy trial for Leslie, one where she will quickly walk free.


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However, Leslie seems almost too calm and collected throughout the events at play. Her emotions locked away and only released when asked to describe Hammond’s Eurasian wife: “Horrible. She was all covered with gold chains and bracelets and spangles, her face like a mask.”  These comments foreshadow the two women’s inevitable face-off later in the film. It is essential to state that Wyler’s representation of Asian characters and culture is both outdated and offensive due to its age. Here, Gale Sondergaard portrays Mrs Hammond, a Danish-American actress with no Asian roots whatsoever.

But back to the plot, In a delicious twist, Leslie’s attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), learns about the existence of a letter, the contents of which were written by Leslie to the deceased Hammond on the day of his murder. Here the letter holds strong evidence against Leslie and points to a deeper mystery. Fearing its contents, Leslie quickly persuades Howard to buy it from Hammond’s widow, using his savings.

However, in a twist, Hammond’s widow is only willing to sell the letter on the condition that Leslie collects it personally. Here the scenes where the two women meet are visually stunning as the widow is framed to make her superior to Leslie. Hammond’s widow is the only person who can counter the manipulation Leslie wields as she demands she take off her shawl to reveal her face before making her pick up the letter she had tossed on the floor.


THE LETTER
THE LETTER (1940)

Of course, Leslie finds herself acquitted in court, but when her husband demands to see the letter’s content, Wyler’s film twists further as the truth outs that Leslie was having an affair with Hammond. It becomes clear that Leslie killed Hammond in a fit of raging jealousy as he refused to leave his wife. Robert is devastated, but naively, he is also ready to forgive Leslie; if she swears, she still loves him. This leads to the most cathartic scenes in Wyler’s film, as Leslie agrees, only to break down and confess, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!”

The ending of Maugham’s original short story is ambiguous; however, The Hays Code would not permit any adultery or murder to go unpunished on screen. Therefore, a final scene was constructed for the film, as Hammond’s widow murders Leslie. These changes to the book diminish what would have been something far more powerful, Leslie, living with her guilt while being tied to her husband for her freedom.


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Wyler’s film is an exciting mix of genres and is clearly a forerunner of film noir, which officially started with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon a year later. Here the lowkey lighting of Tony Gaudio’s cinematography is coupled with camera angles and full moon illumination. However, one of the reasons The Letter is rarely discussed as the start of Noir is the plot. Here Wyler’s narrative does not follow the conventions we would come to know as Noir.

Film noirs are almost always defined by their urban setting where a femme fatale seduces a loner, usually a burned out male. However, in The Letter, Leslie’s actions are not part of a well thought out plan to kill Hammond. Here her primary motivation is jealousy. Essentially, Hammond – while not appearing in the film (apart from the first scene) becomes a rarely portrayed archetype: the male femme fatale or ​the homme fatale. This archetype can also be found in ​Gaslight (1944), ​Night of the Hunter (1955) and ​Born to Kill (1947).

There is also deep symbolism in ​Leslie’s love of lacework​ throughout the film. Her white and delicate creations are wrapped in her claim that “it soothes her nerves.” Of course, lace traditionally symbolises innocence and purity. This is ultimately a cover for Leslie’s guilt and a tool of her fake innocence, as she covers herself as she meets Hammonds widow. But, the widow quickly sees through this facade, asking her to remove the false clothing.


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There is a fascinating ambiguity at the heart of our protagonist, especially in an era when The Hays Code demanded characters be morally distinguishable as good or bad. Here, Leslie is portrayed as a potential victim of rape and celebrated for ‘taking out’ her abuser. Here she bravely goes through the events leading up to the murder in detail, replaying the painful events. Leslie evokes sympathy from her husband and attorney in the process while also manipulating the audience.

However, the story then takes a turn as doubt enters our minds. Here we learn that she had deliberately lied about the letter’s existence before casually downplaying its content. Then we learn Leslie was an adulteress who had carried on an affair with a married man for years before murdering him. This is a woman willing to lie to everyone around her to save her skin. But, despite these lies, she cannot fake her love for her husband.

Bette Davis is one of the greatest actresses of the Golden age of Hollywood; however, here, her ability to evoke sympathy for an evil and morally rotten character like Leslie Crosbie elevates the film to iconic status. Over the years, Maugham’s story has remained a source of material​ for countless filmmakers, from Jean de Limur’s 1929 Paramount film to Kira Muratova’s Russian movie ​A Change of Fate in 1987. However, Wyler’s 1941 masterpiece is undoubtedly the most enduring adaptation of them all, and that is thanks to Davis.


Director: William Wyler

Cast:  Bette DavisHerbert MarshallJames Stephenson, Frieda Inescort, Gale Sondergaard, Bruce Lester


Watch The Letter now on Amazon Prime Video