"With all my heart I still love the man I killed!"
The Letter (1940)
B & W, Drama, 95 minutes
Released by Warner Bros.
Directed by William Wyler
Screenplay by W. Somerset Maugham and Howard Koch
Bette Davis . . . . . . . . . Leslie Crosbie
Herbert Marshall . . . . . . . Robert Crosbie
James Stephenson . . . . . . . Howard Joyce
Frieda Inescourt . . . . . . . Dorothy Joyce
Gale Sondergaard . . . . . . . Mrs. Hammond
Bruce Lester . . . . . . . . . John Withers
Victor Sen Yung . . . . . . . Ong Chi Seng
Elizabeth Inglis . . . . . . Adele Ainsworth
Cecil Kellaway . . . . . . . Prescott
It's safe to say that for a few years, Bette Davis was the reigning queen of the Warner Bros. studio. Consequently, when plans were laid to film a new version of W. Somerset Maugham's steamy melodrama The Letter, there was little doubt that Miss Davis would be assigned the plum role of Leslie Crosbie. A plum role it was, too, well suited to the famous Davis acting style. Indeed, once you’ve seen the movie, it's difficult to imagine any other actress in the role. Barbara Stanwyck, perhaps, but she'd have brought a hardness to the character that might have been a bit much; and Joan Crawford, unless she received careful direction, would have been prone to go over the top.
The Letter garnered seven Academy Award nominations (including a fourth nomination for Davis as Best Actress), but failed to win in any of the categories. No matter – the film has stood the test of time and is today regarded a classic of film noir moviemaking. The original book was said to be 'hard to put down', and the movie is no less gripping. It grabs you within the first few minutes with its famous opening sequence, and doesn't let go until the surprise ending.
The scene is a rubber plantation somewhere in "The Orient", where bored housewife Leslie Crosbie lives with her long-suffering faithful husband. The story revolves around Leslie's cold-blooded murder of her lover and her efforts first to conceal, and then deny, the deed. Throw in a family lawyer willing to jeopardize his career to protect Leslie, and the vengeful Eurasian wife of Leslie's lover, and you have all the ingredients needed for a suspenseful night at the movies.
Originally a 1927 stage production, The Letter was first filmed in 1929 with the great Broadway actress Jeanne Eagels in the title role, and a 1982 television remake starred Lee Remick. While both are fine films, it’s the Davis version that most remember. Under the direction of William Wyler, Miss Davis turned in a performance that's not quickly forgotten.
The Internet Movie Database
.<http://www.imdb.com>. (March 2005).
Dirks, Tim, "The Letter", Greatest Films
. <http://www.filmsite.org/lett.html> (March 2005).