The Letter (1940) – Bette Davis on trial for murder

The Letter (1940) Warner Archive

I doubt there is an opening scene in any film that pulls you in quicker than Bette Davis storming out of a house while unloading a full 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. With a plot based on Somerset Maugham’s 1927 short story of the same name. Which is, in turn, inspired by the real-life scandal of the Ethel Proudlock case of 1911​.

The film takes place in a British rubber plantation in Malaya, making it one of the few Hollywood films of the era set in Asia. After killing Geoff Hammond in the opening scenes, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) asks her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) for help. Pleading with him that the murder was self-defence; his role as plantation manager, instrumental to her ability to walk free. Meanwhile, also claiming that the dead man was, in fact, trying to rape her. With Robert’s support, Leslie remains unconcerned when arrested; her trial scheduled to take place in Singapore. The local disdain for the dead man only further enhancing the couple’s status and Robert’s devotion to his wife. With many praising Leslie for her bravery and courage in the face of danger. Therefore, all indications point to a speedy trial; no more than a mere formality, where Leslie walks free.

However, despite the commotion around her, Leslie seems almost too calm and collected throughout events. 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.”  Foreshadowing the two women’s inevitable face-off later in the film. It is important to state at this point that due to its age, Wyler’s representation of Asian characters and culture is both outdated and overly simplified. Mrs Hammond portrayed by Gale Sondergaard, a Danish-American actress with no Asian roots whatsoever.

In a delicious twist, Leslie’s attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) learns about the existence of a letter. The contents of which are written by Leslie to the deceased Hammond on the day of his murder. The titular object holding strong evidence against her. But, Leslie quickly persuades Howard to buy it from Hammond’s widow, using his savings. Up to this point, Leslie controls every man she comes in to contact with. Effortlessly evoking sympathy in her husband and locals, even persuading her attorney to risk his disbar.

However, Hammond’s widow is only willing to sell the letter, on the condition that Leslie collects it personally; the scenes where the two women meet visually stunning and engaging. The widow shot from below, making her superior to Leslie. Her character the only one who can control the manipulation of the murderer. A fact made clear in the scene where she demands that Leslie take off her shawl, to reveal her face before making her pick up the letter she had tossed on the floor. The  tension culminating in a tense confrontation.

Leslie finds herself acquitted in court but, her husband now demands to see the content of the letter. At which point it becomes clear that Leslie was having an affair with Hammond. His eventual murder the result of jealousy due to him being unwilling to leave his wife. Robert is, of course, devastated but also ready to forgive Leslie; if she swears, she still loves him. Ultimately leading to the most cathartic scene of the film, where Leslie agrees, only to break down and confess “No! With all my heart, I still love the man I killed! ”

While the ending of Maugham’s short story is ambiguous, the ‘Hays Code’ in film’s did not allow adultery and murder to go unpunished on screen. Therefore a final scene was constructed, with Leslie being murdered by Hammond’s widow; originally his Chinese mistress but later changed to be his Eurasian wife due to the Code’s restrictions. These changes to the book diminish what would have been something far more powerful; Leslie living with her guilt while tied to her husband for freedom.

Wyler’s film is wrapped in an exciting mix of genres. Visually it is an obvious forerunner to film noir; a genre which officially started with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon made a year later. The lowkey lighting of Tony Gaudio’s cinematography coupled with tilted camera angles and the frequent use of the full moon for illumination. However, plot-wise the film does not follow the narrative conventions of the noir we would come to know.

Film noirs are almost always defined by an urban setting, with a loner, or burned out male protagonist seduced by the femme fatale into committing a crime. Leslie’s actions, however, are not part of a well thought out plan to have Hammond killed. Her main motivation jealousy, the murder spontaneous. Essentially, Hammond – while not appearing in the film at all (apart from the short first scene) becomes a rarely portrayed archetype. The male version of the femme fatale, ​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 heavy symbolism inherent in ​Leslie’s lacework​ throughout the film. Her white lace creation wrapped in the claim ‘it soothes her nerves’. White lace traditionally symbolizes innocence and purity, but in Leslie’s case, it is yet another symbol of her need to appear innocent. Even covering herself head to toe in a white lace shawl as she meets Hammonds widow. The widow, quickly seeing through her facade; asking her to remove the false clothing, the pretence of innocence laid bare.

But there is also a fascinating ambiguity in our protagonist, especially in an era when the ‘Hays Code’ demanded characters be easily morally distinguishable as either good or bad. Leslie is first pictured as a rape victim, celebrated for standing up against her abuser. She goes through the events leading up to the murder in great detail, bravely replaying what had happened between her and Hammond. In turn, evoking sympathy from her husband and attorney; the audience clearly manipulated as much as the characters on screen.

However, the story then takes a turn, as doubt, and new evidence comes to the fore. First, we learn that she had deliberately tried to lie about the existence of the letter, then casually downplayed its content. And second, she is an adulteress who had carried on an affair with a married man for years; eventually murdering out of jealousy. This is a woman willing to lie to everyone around her, not only about the affair but the details of how Hammond had died to save herself and her position. The only thing she is unable to fake is her love for her husband – which would assure her immunity – ultimately dooming her.

It goes without saying that Bette Davis is not only one of the most well known, but also one of the greatest actresses of Golden age Hollywood. However, here her ability to evoke sympathy for an evil and morally rotten character like Leslie Crosbie elevates the film to iconic status. Its place in cinematic history assured, despite its dated reflections of race, class and culture.

Maugham’s story remains popular source material​, with many adaptations in film, television and theatre. From Jean de Limur’s 1929 Paramount film to Kira Muratova’s Russian movie ​A Change of Fate in 1987​Meanwhile, TV adaptations have included a television anthology series through the 1950s and 60s and a made for TV movie starring Lee Remick in 1982. The short story even making its debut musical appearance in ​The Bloomers (2000). However, it is Wyler’s 1941 masterpiece that is undoubtedly the most enduring adaptation of them all.


Director: William Wyler

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


Watch The Letter now on Amazon Prime Video


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