The Letter (1940) Poster

(1940)

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10/10
Chalk up another winner for the great Bette Davis
garrard4 June 2006
In a career that spanned almost six decades, it would be hard pressed to cite one definitive Davis performance. There are so many, and with the number of Davis fans worldwide, it would be redundant to list them here.

However, Davis's performance as adulterer/"devoted" wife "Leslie Crosbie" has to rank as one of her finest. Davis does more in the short span of ninety-five minutes (the film's running time) than an actor of lesser skill could do in an entire career. Her "Leslie" is delicate, yet demanding, appealing yet repulsive, and submissive yet authoritative. The character dominates every inch of the screen and the actress makes full use of those trademark "eyes" of which Kim Carnes sang.

The supporting cast is equally as brilliant, with Herbert Marshall outstanding as her loving (but dim-witted) husband, James Stephenson, suave and determined, as Davis's lawyer, Victor Sen Yung (later to achieve fame as "Hop Sing" on TV's "Bonanza"), and Gale Sondergaard, magnificent in the speechless yet captivating role of "Mrs. Hammond."

And praise of this film is not complete without mention of its score. Max Steiner contributed one of film's greatest musical accompaniments. So powerful is this work that Laurence Rosenthal adapted themes in his score to the television version, starring the late Lee Remick.
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10/10
Exquisite!!!!
RaiderJack21 May 2007
From the opening sequence where we see Bette emptying her gun on this poor unsuspecting soul, you become riveted watching one of Ms. Davis' all-time flawless performances.

In a nutshell, this tells the story of what happens when first we practice to deceive. Bette claims she was attacked by a friend she has seen only casually until she was forced to "defend" herself against his unwanted advances. Initially, it looks like a slam dunk but when the case is taken to trial, more and more, Bette's lies get the best of her.

Not a sympathetic character for the most part. There is one chilling scene where she, totally exasperated with having to remember so many lies, makes a confession to her husband. It is a fascinating scene for while you recoil at her seemingly selfish attitude, there is this underlying, reluctant admiration you feel for this woman's brutal honesty.

Excellent supporting cast all around, most notably, Herbert Marshall as the poor unsuspecting (it appears many men fall under this category when dealing with the Divine Ms. Davis!)husband whose main goal is to support his wife. Now whether she deserves this loyalty is another ugly story.

Excellent mystery with certainly enough twists and turns to keep you totally engrossed in a very good story.

*Just watched it again last night (10/8/2006) - I'm tellin' ya guys - after 900 viewings, the movie still rocks!!!!
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9/10
Bette Davis and William Wyler, a winning combination
FlickJunkie-29 May 2001
In `The Letter' William Wyler takes a predictable plot and turns it into a brilliant film with the help of one of the grande dames of film. For hell hath no fury like Bette Davis with a revolver in her hand.

The film opens with Leslie Crosby (Bette Davis) emptying her revolver into a man on her front porch, shooting him twice after he hits the ground. She tells the police she was defending herself against his sexual assault. She seems to be headed for an easy acquittal until (surprise) an incriminating letter surfaces that suggests that she summoned the victim to her house with the clear intention of murdering him.

Can the evidence be suppressed? Will she be acquitted? Was she really in love with the victim? The answers to these questions are obvious to all but the most naïve viewer. Yet, despite the transparency of the plot, this film works for two reasons: Bette Davis and William Wyler.

Bette Davis is arguably among the best actresses of all time. She was originally signed by Universal Studios, who dropped her because she didn't have the looks to be a movie star. Still, Warner Brothers decided to take a chance on her in 1932, signing her to a seven-year contract that would produce two Oscars. She was nominated for best actress eleven times, winning twice (`Dangerous', 1936 and `Jezebel' 1939). She was nominated five straight years from 1939 to 1943. This performance was in the middle of that run. It is classic Bette Davis, utterly in command of every scene. Her portrayal of Leslie is superb, a duplicitous and cunning woman who could manipulate any man to do her bidding. It took another woman to humble her. This is Davis in her prime and it is awesome to see her at work. She could make a dog food commercial exciting to watch.

What Davis was to acting William Wyler was to directing. (The two shared more than a professional relationship, and it was widely rumored at that time that they were romantically involved.) Wyler was nominated for best director twelve times winning three (`Mrs. Miniver', 1942; `The Best Years of Our Lives', 1943; `Ben Hur', 1960). Like Davis, he was also nominated for this film. Wyler's camerawork here is fantastic. In black and white films, lighting is critical, because the director doesn't have the luxury of relying on color to dramatize the images. Aided by veteran cinematographer Tony Gaudio, Wyler's use of lighting and shadows in this film is brilliant. It could serve as a primer for dramatic black and white cinematography. Gaudio was also nominated for an Oscar for this film, one of his six nominations in a forty-year career.

This film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture, but it was shut out. Despite a predictable story, I rated it a 9/10 on the strength of the acting, directing and cinematography. It is an excellent opportunity to see Bette Davis during her glory years in one of her many outstanding performances.
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White Mischief, 40's Style
dougdoepke31 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
No need to recap the oft-repeated plot.

Too bad Gale Sondergaard's evil dragonlady doesn't speak English and Davis does. I kept hoping for a verbal face-off between these two queens of acid tongue. There is the one scene, of course, where the dragonlady humiliates Davis's proper lady (well, not too proper) by dropping the incriminating letter on the floor so Leslie (Davis) has to stoop before her. But what does cool cucumber Leslie care now that she's got her get-out-of-jail-free letter.

These high-class British pictures always fascinate me with their refined ways and "oh so proper" conduct. It's fun to watch the characters shed their well-bred propriety for the animal instincts that finally bond us all. Too bad the suffocating Production Code wouldn't allow a peek into the hot and heavy affair Leslie was having. Seeing the uptight lady with her hair down would have been a revealing treat.

Still, it's that suffocating atmosphere of thwarted desires and broken dreams that lifts this 90-minutes above the ordinary. The lush studio jungle alone is enough to suck the air out of a dozen dirigibles. And what about the cloudy moon that finally registers Leslie's dark fate.

For once, the director's (Wyler) slow, deliberate pacing works because of the richly developed characters. I especially like James Stephenson's struggling attorney. He's so restrained on the surface while he watches his self-respect go steadily down the drain. Then there's Sen Yung's oily little functionary, all groveling politeness and calculating brain. What a fine, well-selected cast.

I like the movie's ending better than what I take to be the novel's. Poor lying Leslie can't stand herself anymore, so in a moment of rare honesty blurts out her true feelings and accepts her punishment. Note how quickly director Wyler skips over the colonial cop's presence in the final sequence. I expect he was as annoyed by Code requirements as anyone else.

Anyhow, this is old Hollywood hitting on all eight and in consummate b&w in ways you just don't see any more.
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9/10
Full moon fever.
dbdumonteil29 November 2004
Among the three Wyler-Davis' collaborations (the others being "little foxes" and "Jezebel" ) "the letter " is their triumph.The repugnance that most of the French critics feel for the great Wyler is one of their major flaws (coming from "les cahiers du cinema " and the stupidity of the nouvelle vague ravings).

"The letter" is a splendor.A screenplay so simple and so effective it's a wonder it grabs us till the last pictures.A first sequence to rival the best of Hitchcock.A feverish sticky deadly atmosphere from the mysterious garden where a malefic full moon shines on Davis' inscrutable face to the seedy place in the Chinese quarter where they smoke opium and where Gale Sondergaard spins a web :in this memorable scene when she forces Davis to kneel down,she almost surpasses the star,which will seem an impossible task to some,and yet..Every time Sondergaard appears on the screen ,she's absolutely terrifying.I was saying that the screenplay was simple ,but that kind of simplicity takes genius and I wish today's stories had this implacable logic.As always in Wyler's works of that era,the ball sequence is a recurring theme (see the admirable scenes of "Wuthering Heights" and "Jezebel" )Thus,the finale scenes revolve around a ball,beginning with Davis's entrance and ending with a view of the dancers from the outside ,à la "Wuthering Heights" .Excellent performances by the whole cast,fabulous directing,particularly in these last pictures ,where Davis is walking through the garden ,under a bad moon rising..You must see "the letter".
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9/10
The production code versus production values
AlsExGal20 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
This 1940 version of the film was made eleven years after the first sound version, but for what the film had to give up due to the production code, it more than made up in production values that weren't even possible in the 1929 version.

The production code version of The Letter is the slow peeling of a woman's plea of self-defense against an attempted rape into the cold-blooded murder of a lover who has become bored with her. Yes Bette Davis' Leslie Crosbie is peeled like an onion, but no tears are necessary.

Everyone fawns and gushes over Leslie and her plight of being arrested for the murder of a man who tried to rape her. The only one NOT falling all over himself over her is her lawyer. Howard Joyce (played by James Stephenson) has a rather cold, hard look like a leading man worthy of acting opposite the Warner Queen. He stands toe to toe with her. He asks questions that cast just a slight doubt as to the veracity of her story. He talks to the cop and asks him if attacking a woman sounds like Hammond's m.o. since he seemed to be a ladies' man. There's just enough doubt there give us pause.

I could talk about the lawyer's assistant who is intent on using blood money to subvert justice and rob an innocent husband, all so he can build his own law practice. Gale Sondegard's Eurasian widow never wanted the money, she just wanted the face off with Leslie. She has her own ideas of how to deal with her husband's death and it doesn't involve juries or blackmail. But, let's face it, Bette Davis owns this film. Slowly she reveals her true self and the truth of the events. Then she becomes the Legend we know her to be. She has a self-assured answer for everything until her lawyer brings up the letter. It's all in those Bette Davis eyes. She needs time to remember (to lie, she means). She faints when she runs out of excuses. Look at her tactic: she mentions how all of this will affect her husband. It's like a guy trying to get his wife to stay for the sake of the children. Her lawyer is her husband's close friend, and she correctly figures he'll do anything to protect the husband.

Now let's talk about Wyler's direction, particularly in that opening scene. Wyler could have used a series of cuts to show various aspects of the workers, but the flowing camera tells us that everything is connected together. It's almost like cause and effect. First the rubber tree, then those who work to harvest the trees, and only then the dramas of the owners. When you look at the film closely, you can't help but be impressed by Wyler's direction, which works hand in hand with Max Steiner's haunting score.

Now I'm also a big fan of the 1929 version of The Letter. But that film was made at the dawn of sound and is almost like this one in reverse. First the truth about Leslie Crosbie, then the subterfuge. In both cases her last words are the same - "With all my heart I still love the man I killed". But in this film it is the regret of a woman who realizes she is not good enough for her husband who loves and forgives her. In the 1929 version they are the words of a woman acquitted who is telling her bitter husband "If I am stuck with you, YOU are equally stuck with ME".

Watch this one. Over and over. You'll always catch something you missed before.
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10/10
Possibly Bette's peak, or close to it.
theowinthrop2 June 2007
Warning: Spoilers
If any film role of Bette Davis got permanently identified in the minds of the public with her career it was that of Leslie Crosbie in THE LETTER. For years, if people wanted to do a quickie "imitation" of Davis, they just had to say the line "PETER...GIVE ME THE LETTER!!" In actuality Davis does not say that line anymore than Jimmy Cagney said, "You Dirty Rat!", Eddie Robinson said, "SEE!!...YAH!!!", or Cary Grant said, "Judy, Judy, Judy!!!". It was a capsule urban legend style commentary on a speech pattern (supposedly) and an image of the actor/actress in a typical role.

Still the legend would not have begun except for the role and the film. THE LETTER is based on a Somerset Maugham short story, set in Malaysia in the 1930s. Leslie Crosbie is the wife of a hard working plantation overseer Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) who one night shoots one Peter Hammond, a well known member of the local British social set in the colony. She claims she shot him in self-defense because he was going to rape her. The British colonials rally around Leslie, and she engages Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) as her barrister.

Initially Joyce seems to feel this will be a simple case, but suddenly he finds that Leslie (on some minor details) is not consistent in her story about the shooting of the caddish Hammond. Then, Joyce's clerk (Victor Sen Yung) quietly drops a bomb of his own - the widow of Hammond, a local Malaysian woman (Gale Sondergaard) has some evidence that the defense may want: a letter written by Leslie to Hammond desperately asking him to come to Leslie's home that fatal night because she needed him. Stephenson taxes Leslie about this, and finds she has lied - she lured Hammond to the bungalow, he refused to desert his Asiatic wife for her, and she shot him in anger.

It is a fascinating film to watch because of the rich tapestry of characters involved. Leslie maintaining a near hysterical control over her emotions in the face of the murder she committed and the resulting trial. Joyce trying to do extreme damage control by purchasing the damning letter (and thereby ruining an unaware Robert Crosbie, not to mention threatening his own legal career by suborning evidence while an officer of the court). Mrs. Hammond, as controlled in her non-speaking as Leslie, but her face the face of retribution and hate. Maugham also showed a 20th Century realism in his handling of the relationships of the overlords of the colony with the Asiatics who live there. There is no real love for the colonial overlords, and the performance of Sen Yung is wonderful in it's polite but deadly malice.

The film's story is so well known I won't have to mention it's conclusion. The great question regarding the film was the conclusion. The story ended originally with her rejection of Robert's forgiveness because Leslie still loved Peter, the man she killed. Davis wanted William Wyler to end the film with this conclusion. Instead, the Hollywood Code required Leslie make a larger personal payment for her sin of murder. I have never had a problem with the ending Wyler put on, but Davis was right - the other ending would have been just as effective emotionally. But neither of these conclusions would have been good at all, had the rest of this film not been so splendid to begin with.
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10/10
A price to pay as Fate steps in
lora641 September 2001
I can't help comparing "Witness for the Prosecution (1957)" with this one "The Letter," as they represent a good study in contrast. The former I recall has many bouts of loud dialogue, in particular the courtroom scenes of constant shouting which reach fever pitch at times. Whereas in this "Letter" movie the atmosphere is ever so subtle, very subdued dialogue, and far more impressive because of it. I rather liken it to a warrior noisily clashing by day on the battlefield contrasted by another kind of warfare, that of stealth night fighting in shadows and lit only by moonlight. Both these movies deal with the guilt or innocence of the main character.

Bette Davis gives one of her great portrayals, and Herbert Marshall as the sympathetic husband is well suited to the role, with that wonderful voice of his too, what more could one ask! I don't really know James Stephenson in many roles but here he makes us feel how difficult the situation was for him to deal with -- truly a razor's edge for each and every one of the characters involved. I've seen this movie many times and it just gets better at each viewing, always most intriguing.
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9/10
The letter is "A"
Spondonman15 January 2005
What a wonderful film this still is, so long as you're not hamstrung with all the modern pc prejudices. Sadly I feel that one far-off day this film will be banned, when apparent white moral repugnance of the past overwhelms the remaining whites with shame. I've seen "The Letter" now maybe 12 times and it hasn't polluted my mind with imperialist or racial stereotypes, just filled it with pleasure that Wyler at Warners could make such an atmospheric studio-bound gem in 1940.

At the start woman shoots man - but was it murder or justified homicide? All of the cast are superb in their roles, Bette never looked sexier, Herbert Marshall never so realistic, and Gale Sondergaard never so sinister - but James Stephenson! He only made a few more films before his premature death but his understated sweaty performance as the lawyer in this electrifies me every time I watch - without him it might have a very different story! Although on a serious level it is (to me) typical Somerset Maugham fare, I haven't read any better from him as yet. Bette has some fine lines and scenes, and only occasionally hamming it up. Steiner's music is repetitive, but memorable anyhow, and the photography gleams well under the Warners arc-moonlight. But as near perfect in every department as it could get, it's still dignified Stephenson's film - he steals every scene he's in, come what or who may.

The Hays Office was the real uncivilised savage at the end, not the inscrutable "Orientals", but even with such a contrived messy ending it remains compulsive classic viewing for me, once every couple of years.
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9/10
one of Davis' best performances
MartinHafer17 May 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This was a pretty simple movie if you think about the plot and the few actors who star in this movie. However, despite such simplicity, this movie is exceptional throughout--particularly the incredible opening scene. In fact, this might just be one of the all-time best opening scenes as Bette Davis very coldly unloads all six chambers of her handgun into her now ex-lover. The utter coldness and thoroughness of this act is extremely shocking. You know that Bette is guilty of murder, but the movie shows how her ultra-decent husband has deluded himself into believing her innocence. And, along the way, a previously decent lawyer illegally helps her beat the rap. Nearly as exciting is the film's conclusion where justice is meted out to the sociopathic Bette.

The film has excellent acting and dialog, but to me the biggest stars are Ms. Davis and her excellent emotional range and the director, William Wyler, who framed and executed this film so well. So many camera shots are simply perfect. It's just an incredibly artistic and beautiful movie.
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10/10
Shadows and subterfuge...Lace and mystery
MarieGabrielle5 April 2007
the allegories here are effective and striking. Bette Davis is at her best, married in a passionless marriage, involved with a Malaysian. I do not think her character was simply "evil". There are many gray areas to the film. This theme goes along with the story, in keeping with a passionate affair, and subsequent murder.

Vicor Sen Yong and Gale Sondergaard hold the key to the mystery. "The Letter" must be retrieved. When Davis' husband, James Stephenson finds out about the affair, he is at first hopeful they can still move on, buy a large plantation in Sumatra.

The atmosphere is moody and classic. Mystery in the Chinese quarter; Chung Hi has something to sell everyone. At one point Davis picks up a set of elaborately carved ivory knives. Describing her love affair, Davis mentions, ..."even my agony was a kind of joy"... .

This film is proof that creativity and artistry can be submitted on film without obvious and blatant performances.I miss the subtlety and passion conveyed in these noir films.

Yes this is melodrama, in the best sense of the word. Would we ever see something this mood-inspired and effective today?. I highly doubt it. It is very telling that this type of film would be very hard to create today- and I cannot think of one actress who could ever convey the meaning and mood as Ms. Bette Davis. Perhaps that is modern society's loss. 10/10.
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Remarkable drama that begins with several literal bangs; we're fascinated from that moment until the last frame of film
J. Spurlin2 March 2007
The wife (Bette Davis) of a rubber plantation administrator shoots a man to death and claims it was self-defense. Her poise, graciousness and stoicism impress nearly everyone who meets her. Her husband (Herbert Marshall) is certainly without doubt; so is the new district officer (Bruce Lester); while her lawyer's (James Stephenson) doubts may be a natural skepticism. But this is Singapore and the resentful natives will have no compunction about undermining this accused murderess. A letter in her hand turns up and may prove her undoing.

This remarkable drama begins with several literal bangs, and we're fascinated from that moment until the last frame of film. Davis, with her precise and intricate manners that match her character's elaborate web of deceit (symbolized by her compulsive crocheting), gives a fiery, mannered, mysterious performance that may equal anything she's done. Marshall and Stephenson are both subtle in their acting and refined in their manners. William Wyler directs an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's play (Maugham provided the material for Davis's breakthrough role in "Of Human Bondage") and never makes a false move until the censor-imposed ending. Tony Gaudio's photography, with the light often hitting people from a full moon or through the slats of blinds, is splendid. Max Steiner's music, though repetitive, is very effective. A great film.
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9/10
Awesome Performance of Bette Davis
claudio_carvalho14 October 2005
In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of the administrator of a plantation field of a rubber company, shoots six times in Geoffrey Hammond.and pleads self-defense to her husband Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) and her lawyer and friend of the family Howard Joyce (James Stephenson). The case seems to be easy and simple, but a letter written by Leslie to Geoffrey and in the hand of the Hammond's widow may sentence Leslie to death by hanging. When the widow decides to sell the letter for US$ 10,000.00, Howard faces a dilemma between his friendship and his career.

"The Letter" is a great film-noir, nominated for seven Oscars, and with awesome performance of Bette Davis in the role of an evil and cold-blooded woman. The story and the characters are very well developed in an increasing tension. The direction of William Wyler is precise as usual, and uses long and low paced shootings along the scenario, giving a perfect view to the viewers. The use of shadows in the black& white cinematography is also amazing. I am not sure about the meaning of the full moon, but maybe it discloses the real feelings of Leslie, covered by the "clouds" most of the time while living with Robert. Anyway, the full moon has an important symbolic meaning in the film. James Stephenson, in the role of a honest lawyer living a dilemma between saving the life of his client and friend, or staining his career, and Herbert Marshall, performing a naive cuckold in love with his unfaithful wife, have also magnificent performances. My vote is nine.

Title (Brazil): "A Carta" ("The Letter")
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8/10
Moon Over Malaya
telegonus12 October 2001
William Wyler directs Bette Davis in a fine screen adaptation of a Somerset Maugham story. The plot is sheer melodrama and has la Davis in all kinds of hot water, legal and personal, in British Malaya. Wyler's pretentious direction works better here than elsewhere, and this is one of his finest films. The combination of the director's grandiose desire to turn everything into high art meshes nicely with Maugham's journeyman but psychologically complex, basically mediocre tale. Add to this a bravura performance from his star, and the result is a highly watchable and intelligent movie.

The tropics are nicely evoked without without drawing too much emphasis to the fact that everything and everyone seems to be wilting in the heat. Wyler and his screenwriters have clearly done their homework, and along with the cast present a believable picture of the closed society that was the essence of British imperial rule. These people are more snobs than not, but they are often decent snobs, good friends to one another in a tight spot, and carry themselves with a kind of quiet dignity that seems to have died with the empire. There are some fine performances aside from Miss Davis', notably from James Stevenson as her lawyer, who yet seems to be her lover, but isn't; and Herbert Marshall, who may as well her lawyer but is in fact her husband. The moon figures prominently in the film, seeming to hover over the action, perhaps even dictating it, and giving the movie perhaps a stronger resonance than its civilized melodrama deserves.
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10/10
Never Better than in The Letter.
nycritic11 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Bette Davis, late in life, told Boze Hadleigh in one of her numerous interviews with him that she could not be accused of repeating herself. Audiences who have seen at least half of her films can witness just how different her take on each role is, in each one giving powerhouse performances, and even if the movie in itself was less than stellar, she would make sure the viewer remembered her.

She wasn't averse to taking on roles in which she was required to be nasty and at times, unsympathetic, and in her most Oscar-lauded period, extending from 1934 to 1945, she immortalized a number of horrible females, none a copy of the other. This was not the first of one of her "bitches" (she had played several in her early years at Warner's) but is one that becomes burned into our minds. As Leslie Crosbie, the elegant housewife being blackmailed from the wife of the man she murdered, Bette is nasty like few actresses have dared to be, and her nastiness comes mostly from how genteel Leslie seems to be -- this is a woman who would not be out of place in Greenwich, Connecticut, throwing quaint dinner parties and playing bridge.

The very opening sequence establishes who her character is going to be and thanks to the vision and direction to William Wyler, we also see what kind of woman he wanted Davis to play from the very first scene: a masterpiece of suspense (despite this expression sounding clichéd). On a moonlit night in a Malaysian plantation, a shot rings out and breaks the calm. From the distance a man stumbles out, mortally wounded, and falls to the ground. Leslie, like a lioness, closes in from behind him and holding herself on the railing, staring right at this man, she shoots him five more times. She lingers on, as if studying what she has done, and makes no move to escape the scene. She already has her alibi and will use it to escape punishment.

She is well-matched, though, by another key performer in this movie. Gale Sondergaard, the actress whose likeness became the character whom we know as the Evil Queen from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, excellent in playing lugubrious women, steals the film right out from under Bette Davis' shoes with her short yet intense scenes as Mrs. Hammond, the scorned widow looking for retribution. With no lines in English, looking regal in her Malayan gowns, she is the person driving the plot to bring Davis down. However, I wanted more from her: she is riveting. Her hardened mask of a face, able to convey so much anger at Davis who seems like she will get away with murder, is so intense it seems like it must give way to fury.

While being a melodrama, the production values are first-rate and THE LETTER is more a suspense-drama. Leslie's guilt can't be in doubt, but the fact that she may get away, unpunished, is clear, particularly in one scene when she walks right by the place where Mr. Hammond's body lay dead and shows no signs of breaking down. Directed by William Wyler it seems as if he were playing with the viewer, wanting to get a reaction, wanting Leslie to be discovered. He brings out Davis' best in several key scenes and Wyler photographs her beautifully, showing her face masked with the shadows of bars in front of her, those huge eyes just staring ahead, thinking ahead of what we know. While there is one moment when the story somehow drags a bit as when Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) is trying to come up with a way to defend Leslie (despite the timely appearance of a damning letter), he manages to sustain the story's intensity as the noose tightens around Crosbie and threatens to swallow her whole. A performance for the ages, a movie that is perfect in almost every sense.
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8/10
Superb William Wyler-Bette Davis collaboration
vincentlynch-moonoi3 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
For me, the great Bette Davis performances began in 1939 with "Dark Victory". This film, just a year later, was another of the great Davis performances in this most productive period in her life when she was still getting top notch scripts.

What's interesting about this film is that at no point do we wonder if Bette Davis is innocent of murder. We know she's guilty...she admits she's guilty. But she and her husband (Herbert Marshall) seem to feel she deserves to be set free simply because she belongs to the upper crust of Malaya's expatriate community. So, the drama is not in the courtroom (and, yes, there is a courtroom scene). The drama is the disintegration of the marriage once Herbert Marshall realizes the full truth of his wife's unfaithfulness. The interesting question, however, is the ending. She knows if she walks out in the garden in the moonlight that there is great danger to her...that she has no means of self-defense. Yet, she goes out there. Was it suicide? William Wyler, the director, was nominated for the Academy Award for this film...and deservedly so. The acting cast is tremendous. Bette Davis is as good as she ever was in this film...and quite lovely. Herbert Marshall has long been a favorite of mine, and he is excellent here as the husband...although, at points of high emotion in this film he either turned away from the camera or covered his face with his hands; I wondered...does he have difficulty showing emotion, or was that what the director wanted? James Stephenson was superb as the lawyer who betrayed his own profession; this film was his "big break", and he was nominated for the Academy Award (supporting actor) for it; then, just as his late-in-life career was taking off...just 1 year after this film was made...he died of a heart attack. We'll I'll say this about Gale Sondergaard's role as a "Eurasian"...she didn't have to spend much time memorizing lines! But she was good at giving menacing looks. Victor Sen Yung as the lawyer's helper...well...so sleazy a role...I guess we all liked him better at Hop Sing many years later on "Bonanza".

This movie has a scene -- the opening scene, in fact -- that you never quite forget: Bette Davis walking down the steps of their bungalow, repeatedly shooting the man with whom she is having an affair. Classic Bette! Highly recommended as one of the best films of Bette Davis' career!
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10/10
Utterly moving, gorgeous, ominous
secondtake12 April 2010
The Letter (1940)

Another highly refined, gorgeously filmed, over-the-top melodramas with precursors of film noir in that 1940 cusp of Hollywood greatness. Yes, this is a terrific film. The way it is made, under director William Wyler, and the camera-work of Tony Gaudio, is breathtaking. The coming and going of the light, the movement of the camera through long, slow tracking shots, is engrossing, and almost famous in its own right. This is a year before Citizen Kane, and Wyler, in his consummate perfectionism, was surely an influence on Welles.

But this is an tour-de-force of acting and drama, too, with Bette Davis in one of her best straight roles (there are so many, I know, including her collaboration with Wyler in The Little Foxes the next year). She plays a woman who has committed a murder in front of many witnesses at a Singapore rubber plantation bungalow. And then the aftermath follows, a dark, dreamy, illicit world from both the native and the expatriate (British) populations, which intersect only warily, and with false smiles. The husband, played by Herbert Marshall, is a model of a man blinded by innocence, by a simple idealism that many viewers will share, and see the fault in. And the lawyer (James Stephenson) is amazing as a kind of prototype to the film noir hero, trying to negotiate a world that has flaws he can't get around, especially ones brought on by a woman, the Davis version of a femme fatale.

This isn't really a hard core noir except in the broadest sense. It has a murder at its core, it's dark and ominous, morality is under pressure, and people's loyalties are tested and paid for. For me it defines drama at its best, pure brooding, fast, beautiful beautiful drama.
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9/10
The Right Note
writers_reign16 May 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is a prime candidate for They-Don't-Make-Them-Like-That-Anymore nostalgists with several key ingredients present and accounted for; it was released in 1940, as close to the heart of the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood as makes no difference; it top-billed Bette Davis at the height of her fame and with not one but Two Oscars under her belt; it featured an exotic location - okay, it was shot on the Sound Stages and Backlot at Warners, but they specialized in creating illusions of exotica, remember Casablanca?; it was helmed by one Willie (Wyler) and adapted from the canon of another (Maugham) and it was a melodrama in the best sense of the word. Wyler sets the mood impeccably letting his camera explore the humid tropical night that could be anywhere South of Pago Pago then nailing it specifically with a shot of a rubber tree dripping its liquid gold into an applicable container. This image is more subtle than you might suppose because it is a visualisation of the first line of Cole Porter's great hymn to obsessive love 'like the drip, drip, drip of the raindrops ...' (Night And Day) and it leads us into a story of obsessive love whose strength is that nowhere are we SHOWN this affliction; where most movies would begin as this one does with Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) emptying all six chambers into a guy who was dead after the first shot and THEN treat us to a flashback showing just what led Davis to that ultimate step, here Wyler is content to let us IMAGINE the one-sided passion between Crosbie and Geoffrey Hammond. This is a world that Maugham made his own, where English expats feel naked in the tropics unless attired in full evening dress with a Pink Gin welded on to their hand. Poor Bart Marshall didn't fare too well with Davis; he was her (literal) long-suffering husband in Wyler's The Little Foxes and here he is the poor sap who she's been cuckolding - ironically, in a previous (1929) version of the same story Marshall played the victim, Geoffrey Hammond. On paper the acting honors should be Davis's by divine right but here she's given a run for her money by James Stephenson - who made only three more films, released the following year, before dying prematurely - and Gale Sondergaard who has the cards stacked against her by speaking only Malay and Chinese and is forced to rely on her face and eyes which luckily are the most expressive on display. Trivia buffs will relish the names Robert (Marshall) and Leslie (Davis) Crosbie though to be fair Leslie Townes (Bob) Hope had made only one 'Road' picture with Bing Crosby the previous year yet ironically it was The Road To SINGAPORE, and equally not too many people would have been aware of Bing's younger brother Bob (Robert) Crosby who led his own band. This is Davis at her considerable best and is a must-see.
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9/10
Good classic Bette Davis yarn
quin197430 January 2001
I must say that I was surprised at the audacity with which this movie was presented. The movie starts off right away like a good-sized rollercoaster from the first minute. Davis presents herself in such an unrelenting and unsympathetic way that it was almost scary, she would have gone over dead bodies to be acquited of the cold-blooded murder that she committed.

The acting was top-notch. Bette Davis delivers a very good stone-faced performance that is very believable, those eyes just seemed to not feel a thing. Now I know what people mean by "Bette Davis Eyes". But I think the male leads were even better. James Stephenson as the lawyer who has to live with the fact that for the first time in his career he has bend the law to save a client who is guilty was superb. The anguish of his conscience was readable off his face throughout the second part of the movie, after being the cool-headed councillor in the first part. The other exquisite performance was by Herbert Marshall, Davis' husband who is used beyond his knowledge in the scheme to get his wife off the hook. He is slowly but surely destroyed during the course of this movie and Davis doesn't seem to care a bit in the end. He is prepared to give her a second chance and forgive the whole thing, but she doesn't even spare him at this moment in the movie. She got what she deserved in the end.

The twists in the storyline were not the brightest in the movie business but still they were executed in such a manner that they presented a nice surprise every time one came around the corner. The "struggle" in the end was very stylish, and the sheer fact that Davis wanted to be with her lover rather that with her husband was a very bold step for her to take.

A big honorable mention goes out to the set decoration, these are so lavishly created that they didn't at all seem like studio sets. The Chinese quarter and the plantation sets were exquisite. The lighting of the several sets was very well established

Although sometimes this movie drops into the extreme melodrama that seems to haunt movies of that time, but this is all fine when you look at the big picture.

9/10
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Memorable & Very Well-Acted Melodrama
Snow Leopard17 February 2005
With a fine cast, an atmospheric setting, and a tight, tension-packed plot, this is a memorable adaptation of the Somerset Maugham story. Both the story and the film are well-constructed, and indeed both are also aptly titled, in that "The Letter" is what drives the characters and most of the action.

The opening sequence starts out with a languid look at the rubber plantation, immediately establishing the atmosphere, and then suddenly grabs your attention with the shooting. From then on, most of the suspense is psychological, and the scenario is very well-crafted, wringing everything it can out of the setup.

The cast is led by Bette Davis, who gives a vivid performance in the kind of role that she seemed born to play. Herbert Marshall is also excellent as the husband, using little mannerisms and gestures to complement his lines, as he convincingly portrays his earnest, naive character.

The supporting cast has many good moments of their own. James Stephenson's performance is essential to making the movie work so well. His portrayal of the anguished lawyer could not have been surpassed, as he flawlessly shows his outward restraint and inner torment. Victor Sen Yung also performs well - his oily character is perhaps somewhat uncomfortable to watch, but he is essential to the plot, and Yung plays him to good effect. Gale Sondergaard has very few lines, but she establishes an imposing presence all the same.

The British colonial setting, with its clubby atmosphere, its social inequalities, its opportunities, and its contrasting cultures, is done well, and even the tropical heat is believably rendered. Light and darkness are also used well - in addition to the frequent shots of the moon, the slats on so many of the windows not only make for attractive scenery, but at times they are also used creatively, as they let just a little bit of light shine on characters who themselves might not want too much light to come into their lives.

Everything adds up to a memorable melodrama with many strong features, well worth seeing both for the cast and for the story.
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10/10
Great Mystery Thriller from Bette Davis
suemartin2326424 March 2007
This is definitely one of Bette Davis's finest films. She gives what absolutely must be one of her greatest performances in her acting career.

The film literally starts off with a wounded man stumbling painfully out the front door of a house while Bette Davis shoots him until all the bullets have gone. Afterwards, she spins a tale to her husband and friends that he made a pass at her, and in the heat of the moment, shot him - six times! But then, her story is dishevelled by the existence of a letter, of which the dead man's widow has possession of. From there on, this film builds on suspension, until, in the final few scenes of the film, it's almost unbearable. But then, the inevitable finally happens, whether the audience wants it to or not.

This movie really makes for great viewing, so for fans of movies, I and many others would definitely recommend this one. Don't miss it!
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10/10
1940 Davis & Wyler Murder Collaborate in Singapore Suspense
semioticz18 October 2007
Warning: Spoilers
In "The Letter," (1940) Bette Davis & director William Wyler are collaborating again (they did the Oscar-winning "Jezebel" together in 1938). This movie earned 7 Oscar nominations: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Bette Davis; Best Actor in a Supporting Role, James Stephenson; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Tony Gaudio; Best Director, William Wyler; Best Film Editing, Warren Low; Best Music, Original Score, Max Steiner; Best Picture. The plot is about an adulterous woman who murders her lover, then lies about it. But, there is a letter that could prove a murderous truth.

Davis (Leslie Crosbie) is the wife of rubber plantation administrator, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall). Mrs. Crosbie unloads a pistol shooting one of their friends & her adulterous lover, Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell). Summoning everyone she can to his death scene, Mrs. Crosbie claims it was self-defense because Hammond was trying to rape her. Because her poise, graciousness, and stoicism impress nearly everyone at the scene & during the investigation, it seems as if Mrs. Crosbie is going to get away with murder. Her husband is certainly without doubt; so is the district officer; while her lawyer's doubts may be a natural skepticism.

However, the murder happens in Singapore, where the resentful natives do not hesitate to expose the unaccused murderess. Her attorney's legal aid cleverly presents him with a bribe for a love letter in Mrs. Crosbie's handwriting that could prove she's anything but innocent.

Wyler's feeling for the bonds of people within their culture is remarkable for the period of this film. After all, this film was shot during WWII, when Asians of any kind were being oppressed by Americans. Instead of portraying Asian characters as 'primitive', Wyler reveals an early cinematic feeling for ethnic diversity sensitivity, without taking traditions of Singapore out of context. Plus, Mrs. Crosbie murders a white English man who is married to an elegant Singapore woman. Their inter-ethnicity is down played as if a cross-cultural marriage was not an issue, at that time, in the least.

Davis' performances directed by Wyler are always stunning. Wyler has a way of bringing Bette's many character facets out. "The Letter" contains such a complex mix of emotions. Wyler & Davis obviously could bring out the best of emotional artistry in the film cast & crew! That's what made them the greatest film-making collaborators.
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9/10
a sweet black angel
andrabem7 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I was really impressed by "The Letter" It was filmed in studio but I was so immersed in the film that I forgot all about it. Bette Davis is wonderful with her big eyes and oval face - a sweet black angel.

The cast, especially the lawyer played by James Stephenson, is also very good. The wonderful cinematography and editing manage to transport us to Malaysia at the time of the British colonization - a rubber plantation, the residence, the jungle surrounding it, the Chinese quarter etc..

The story runs like this. In the first scene we see Leslie (Bette Davis), wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shooting a man dead in front of the plantation workers. She says she hardly knew him and had acted in self-defense because he was drunk and had tried to make advances on her. It seems that the trial will be just a formal procedure and she will be acquitted. And suddenly there appears a letter that sheds an entirely new light on what happened. The shadow of the gallows looms over her. What will be done? Many roads are still open. Money and the will of a woman can do wonders! Will it work?

Don't be mistaken. "The Letter" is not keen on denouncing the "evil" woman. It tells simply a story (inside the moral standards of the time), but doesn't try to pass judgement. So Leslie is shown as a woman, a complex human being and not as a "scarlet woman". The film shows her contradictions and shows us that there were not much choices in her life - married, staying inside the residence, learning to knit to overcome her boredom, waiting long days for the return of her husband.

"The Letter" is visually very rich, and the soundtrack helps to enhance the inner feelings of Leslie and the elements of nature take an important part in stressing her mood and feelings. This film is very absorbing. Near the end it becomes a bit melodramatic. The camera angles hint at what will happen - something lying outside the door, the clouds, the moon, the shadows and the soundtrack reveal us what will be. And what will be will be. There was no other way around at the time.
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8/10
The Letter
Fiahm21 November 2019
Such a great opening to a movie: the sound of the rubber tree dripping, the plantation workers drowsing in hammocks. The shots ringing out, a man stumbling out onto the veranda of the big house, the camera panning in to a woman gunning down the man over and over again, closing in on Bette Davis' grim mask of a face. The moon hides behind a cloud, then reappears to starkly light the scene of the crime, exposing what she did. The woman coolly instructs her men to send for the police and her husband, then retires to her bedroom. The muffled sound of her sobbing through the door.

The film never really matches the taut, detailed perfection of this beginning, and there are too few twists and surprises from here on out, but it largely retains the sultry, adult and intelligent mood up until the ending, which, although apparently added by the Hayes Office for the sake of morality, reintroduces the full moon, once again witnessing - and this time covering up - a death, in a satisfying, circular way that the play's original ending would have lacked.

I was struck while watching this what a "Woman's Picture" it is, with Bette Davis in almost every scene, and her face and name the only things one sees on the film posters of the time. It seems strange to me such a fuss is being made over women-led films today when there have been countless great movies with "strong female leads" all the way back to the silent days. To believe the effluence being squeezed out of Hollywood today is any great groundbreaking leap forward for women, one would have to believe we live in a *more* sexist, segregated and oppressive era than the time of the Suffragettes a hundred years ago. Do we?

The difference between the two ages really is how back then the sexes were presented as equal but different, the men and women interacting with one other in mutual respect, and easy, familial love and affection, whereas the female-helmed films today are, almost without exception, antagonistic, confrontational and belittling in regard to men. The films back then were all about the story, and transporting the audience to another world. Now, they are but tools for political propaganda, no longer fit for purpose as either entertainment or art.
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8/10
Her Eyes Did Deserve That Song
iquine9 March 2018
Warning: Spoilers
(Flash Review)

First time I've watched a film with Betty Davis. Now I know why Kim Karnes sang about her eyes in 1981 as they do convey much emotion without words. This Noir opens up with Davis literally holding a smoking gun with a dead corps at her feet. This is going to be difficult for her to weasel out of. Claiming self-defense as the man advanced on her with lewd intent, she had to use force to halt him. Yet, later on a letter (hint, hint) surfaces that she wrote inviting that man to her abode. Uh oh. Will she be able to overcome the new potentially incriminated evidence? Why did she write it? What will her actual husband think once he learns the full story? This was a well-acted and well-told story. Good drama, good twists and informative cinematography. Case in point, you can tell a lot by the black and white shades of her outfits to figure out the state of her character during the film. Not to be overlooked is the nice music score that adds impact at the right moments.
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