Filmsite Movie Review
The Letter (1940)
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Background

The Letter (1940) is a classic melodramatic film noir of murder and deceit, effectively directed by William Wyler. This was not the first time the subject matter was performed. The screenplay by Howard Koch was based on W. Somerset Maugham's mid-1920s London stage play (that featured Gladys Cooper in the lead role). Then, it was a Broadway play that opened in 1927 (with Katharine Cornell), followed by Paramount Studios' talkie of the same name in 1929 with Academy-Award nominated Jeanne Eagels (in her sound film debut) as the female protagonist Leslie Crosbie. [It was the first full-length feature made at Paramount's Long Island studio.]

This great Bette Davis/Warner Bros picture about a decade later, positioned between the star's All This and Heaven Too (1940) and The Great Lie (1941), was nominated for a total of seven nominations (with no wins): Best Picture, Best Actress (Bette Davis - her fourth nomination), Best Supporting Actor (James Stephenson), Best Director, Best B/W Cinematography (Gaetano Gaudio), Best Original Score (Max Steiner), and Best Film Editing. One of the trailers for the film provocatively asked:

What are the forbidden secrets in the letter? What is the strange spell that made this woman defy the unwritten law of the Orient?

The Story

The film's credits play above drawings of a tropical plantation company's compound on a sultry, moonlight night with banks of clouds in the sky. The setting of the film is a tropical Malayan rubber plantation (a sign reads L Rubber Co., Singapore, Plantation No. 1). The film's startling opening presents the film as a mystery - it is one of the most famous opening sequences ever produced. A tracking shot moves down a rubber tree where the precious substance drips into containers, across a compound's thatched hut where native coolie laborers listen to musicians, doze and play games after their day's work. As the camera moves further up and right, it moves past an exotic white cockatoo. In the background of the shot is the veranda of a colonial bungalow. One gunshot from inside the bungalow unexpectedly disturbs the silence and the cockatoo - the bird flutters and flies off.

Through the front door of the steamy colonial bungalow, a well-dressed Caucasian man staggers onto the veranda. There, a woman holding a smoking pistol in her hand calculatedly follows her victim and shoots him a second time. Dogs are startled from their sleep. The Malayans stir in their hut. As she pumps another bullet into his body, he slumps down the five steps and falls on the ground. With a cold-blooded, unemotional, and expressionless look on her face, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) pursues down the steps and fires three more times into his lifeless, still body until the gun clicks empty. By this time, dogs are heard barking and the workers' voices are chattering. She lowers and then drops the gun after a total of six shots. The camera tracks forward into a closeup of her face, but there are no clues or betraying emotions there. The question that remains for the rest of the film is: Why?

Faces of the workers reveal astonishment. The head boy (Tetsu Komai) gazes up into the night sky as the moon disappears under a cloud and suddenly darkens the setting. Leslie looks up to watch the moon reappear and illuminate the murder. The nervous head boy runs to the corpse and recognizes the body of neighbor Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell): "That's Mr. Hammond." She orders her colonial servant inside and inquires about immediately summoning the district officer and getting word to her husband, who is out examining No. 4 Plantation:

Tell him there's been an accident and Mr. Hammond's dead.

She locks herself in her bedroom, crying while awaiting their arrival.

When told that Mr. Hammond has been shot dead, rubber plantation owner/manager Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) contacts good friend and lawyer Howard Joyce (Robert Stephenson) in Singapore, instructing: "Tell him to meet up with his car at Lower Crossway as soon as he can." Mr. Crosbie and Joyce drive up to the bungalow, finding Leslie locked in her room. She emerges hesitantly and cooly claims that the drunken Hammond, a long-time, mutual friend of both her and her husband, had called unexpectedly, made advances, and tried to forcibly take advantage of her. Supposedly, she killed him in self-defense with Robert's pistol to defend her proper British honor: "He tried to make love to me and I shot him."

Although she feels "dreadfully faint," Leslie engages in pleasantries with Howard, asking about his wife Dorothy (Frieda Inescort) and his niece Adele Ainsworth (Elizabeth Earl), visiting from England. The respected solicitor is told by District Officer Withers (Bruce Lester) that Hammond's body is "riddled with bullets." All six chambers of the gun, used in the killing, are empty.

While Leslie lies recumbent on the couch with her believing, trusting husband at her side, attorney Howard requests that she tell "exactly what happened." Local official Withers urges that they won't question what she tells them: "Take your time, Mrs. Crosbie, remember, we're all friends here." With all of them listening, the unimpeachable wife of the plantation owner skillfully recites what happened. While working on her lace after dinner, Hammond (whom she claims she had not seen for at least three months) had unexpectedly and quietly arrived. He had told her that he was lonely and then began complimenting her physical features ("I think you're the prettiest thing I've ever seen"):

Leslie: I ate dinner rather late and started working on my lace. I don't know how long I'd been working when suddenly I heard a footstep outside. Someone came up on the veranda and said: 'Good evening, can I come in?' I was startled because I hadn't heard a car drive up.
Withers: Hammond left his car about a quarter mile down the road. Your houseboy noticed it as we were driving here.
Robert: Well, he probably didn't want anyone to hear him drive up.
Leslie: Well, at first, I couldn't tell who it was. 'Who is it?' I asked. 'Jeff Hammond.' 'Oh, of course,' I said, 'Come in and have a drink.'
Howard: Were you surprised to see him?
Leslie: Well I was rather. We hadn't seen him for ages, had we, Robert?
Robert: Three months, at least.
Leslie: I told him Robert was out at our No. 4 Plantation getting out a shipment or something. Was that it?...Well he said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry, but I was feeling rather lonely so I thought I'd come over and see how you were getting on.' I asked him how he'd come, as I hadn't heard a car. He said he'd left it on the road because he thought we might be in bed and didn't want to wake us up. Well, I put on my spectacles again and went on with my work. Well, we went on chatting and (pause) then real suddenly, he said something rather silly...It's hardly worth repeating. He paid me a little compliment.
Howard: I think perhaps you'd better tell us exactly what he said.
Leslie: He said, 'You have very pretty eyes. It's a shame to hide them under those ugly spectacles.'
Howard: Has he ever said anything of the sort to you before?
Leslie: Oh no, never, and I thought it impertinent.

Hammond persisted with more enumerations of compliments and further aggressive behavior, finally drunkenly declaring that he was in love with her:

Leslie: He tried to take one of my hands. 'Don't be an idiot,' I said. 'Sit back where you were and talk sensibly or I shall have to send you home.'
Withers: But Mrs. Crosbie, I wonder you didn't throw him out there and then.
Leslie: Well, I didn't want to make a fuss. You know, there are men who think it's their duty to flirt with women whenever they have the chance. I believe they think women expect it of them.
Howard: When did you first suspect that Hammond was serious?
Leslie: The next thing he said to me. He looked at me straight in the face and said, 'Don't you know I'm awfully in love with you?'
Robert: Swine!
Howard: Were you surprised?
Leslie: Of course I was surprised. We've known him seven years, Robert. He's never paid me the smallest attention. Didn't suppose he even knew what color my eyes were.
Robert: We haven't seen very much of him for the last few years.
Howard: Go on, Leslie.
Leslie: Well, he helped himself to another whiskey and soda. Began to wonder if he'd been drinking before. 'I wouldn't have another one if I were you,' I said. I was quite friendly, not the least bit frightened. It never occurred to me I couldn't manage him. He emptied his glass and said to me in a funny, abrupt way: 'Do you think I'm saying all this to you because I'm drunk?' I said, 'That's the most obvious explanation, isn't it?' Oh, it's too awful having to tell you all this. I'm so ashamed.
Withers: I wish there was some way we could spare you, Mrs. Crosbie.
Howard: Leslie, it's for your own good that we know the facts while you remember them.
Leslie: Very well, I'll tell you the rest.

As Leslie comes to the climax of her compelling, self-defense narrative, she rises theatrically and describes how she killed the "madman." She re-enacts the shooting - with her back to the camera and her audience - at one point, all four backs are composed within the frame. At the end of her account of the murder, the camera takes her subjective point-of-view. It tracks up the steps, then to the chest of drawers where the gun was found, and then to the front door, the veranda and the dirt where Hammond fell dead:

I got up from that chair there and I stood in front of the table here. He rose and came around the table and stood in front of me. I held out my hand. 'Good night,' I said. But he didn't move. He just stood there looking at me. His eyes were all funny. 'I'm not going,' he said. Then I began to lose my temper. 'You poor fool, don't you know I've never loved anyone but Robert? And even if I didn't love him, you'd be the last man in the world I should care for.' 'Robert's away,' he said. (She turns back to them) Well, that was the last straw. I wasn't in the least bit frightened, just angry. (She turns around again) 'If you don't leave immediately,' I said, 'I shall call the boys and have you thrown out.' When I walked past him toward the veranda to call the boys, well, he took hold of my arm and swung me back. (She faces them) But I tried to scream and he flung his arms about me and began to kiss me. I struggled to tear myself away from him. He seemed like a madman. He kept talking and talking and saying he loved me. Oh, it's horrible, I can't go on...He lifted me in his arms and started carrying me. Somehow, he stumbled on those steps. We fell and I got away from him. Suddenly, I remembered Robert's revolver in the drawer of that chest. He got up and ran after me but I reached it before he could catch me. I seized the gun as he came toward me. I heard a report and saw him lurch toward the door. Oh, it was all instinctive. I didn't even know I'd fired. Then I followed him out to the veranda. He staggered across the porch, grabbed the railing, but it slipped through his hand and he fell down the steps. I don't remember anything more, just the reports one after another till there was a funny little click and the revolver was empty. It was only then I knew what I'd done.

They believe her story of alien violation in a foreign land. Robert trusts his wife implicitly and hugs his "poor darling" wife, who clings to him for comfort - sitting on a striped chair. District Officer Withers feels the murder was justifiable self-defense: "May I say that I think you behaved magnificently. I'm terribly sorry that we had to put you through the ordeal of telling us all this...It's quite obvious the man only got what he deserved." Mr. Crosbie comforts her further: "My poor child...You did what every woman would have done in your place, only nine-tenths of them wouldn't have had the courage." Meanwhile, Withers and Howard have been led by the head boy into the shed where Hammond's body has been taken. Behind them, the head boy retreats and scurries off [to fetch Mrs. Hammond].

As if nothing happened, Leslie cooks and serves a "late supper or early breakfast" for everyone. She comments that it was "funny" that the head-boy ran off and was unavailable to serve as a domestic (a sudden, insignificant remark that has more significance than first thought):

The boys take such good care of us. Funny the head boy running off tonight.

Leslie asks about the consequences of her misdeed - with a pregnant pause: "Would I have to be - arrested?" Howard responds: "I think you're by way of being arrested now." She is informed that "as a matter of form," she must surrender herself up to the Attorney General in Singapore. She also inquires: "Shall I be imprisoned?" Howard indicates that she might not be released on bail by the Attorney General in a murder case:

Howard: It depends on what the charge is...Why, I think it not unlikely that he can say that only one charge is possible - and in that case, I'm afraid an application for bail would be useless.
Leslie: What charge?
Howard: Murder.

A stillness falls over the table. Apprehensive that she must be incarcerated before her expected trial for murder, Leslie's prominent eyes bulge as she anxiously looks over at Howard. Robert realizes he must hire Howard to defend her.


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