The Story (continued)
The Letter (1940)
Later before packing, Leslie gazes up at the haunting moon from her bedroom's porch - shadows from the tropics' slats fall across her image, forming zebra stripes across her body. [Repeatedly throughout the film, shadows and stripes of light and dark crisscross or touch her face and figure and mark her.] Robert comforts and kisses her: "You've been the best wife a man could have...I've always loved you...Leslie, darling, if I could love you any more, I would now." Withers discusses Hammond's despicable character ("what a swine that man was") with Howard, discussing how he was a "good-looking chap" and "quite a favorite with the ladies." But Howard begins to doubt Leslie's account of Hammond and the murder:
Withers: You know the sort, very breezy, devil-may-care, generous with his money.
Howard: Did you like him?
Withers: He was the sort of chap you couldn't help liking.
Howard: Could you have imagined him doing anything like this?
Withers: Well, how can you tell what a man will do when he's drunk?
Howard: That's true.
As they prepare to leave the bungalow, Howard asks an additional question of Leslie - another of the many examinations of the witness:
Howard: When I was looking at Hammond's body...(Leslie freezes) Oh, I'm sorry, my dear, but this is a question that's bound to come up.
Leslie: Yes, Howard, what is it?
Howard: It seems to me that some of the shots must have been fired after he was lying on the ground.
Leslie: Oh, I know it was so terribly cold-blooded, but I was so terrified. Everything was confused and blurred. I didn't know what I was doing.
When Leslie sees the bloody place on the ground where Hammond fell, she pauses and then continues toward the car - her dark shadow crosses the scene of death. Watching them from the shadows, the face of Hammond's Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard) is illuminated by their headlights - her tigress visage is both inscrutable and exotic. Her eyes track them as they drive off to take care of legal matters. Accompanied by the head boy into the shed, she views her husband's body. In a stately closeup, she closes her teary eyes and utters an inaudible cry.
At the law offices of JOYCE & SPENCER, COUNSELLORS AT LAW, Howard is assisted by a smart, persistent, native law clerk, Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) - he is a "great help on the case, finds out everything, a perfect confidential clerk." Down-hearted, distraught, sleepless, and disheveled-looking, Robert blames himself for the ordeal (an inevitable trial) that his wife finds herself in "because she admitted killing a man." Howard invites him to stay at his place with his wife Dorothy while Leslie is in jail and awaits release on bail, to prevent him from feeling further loneliness at his plantation. Reassuring his client that his wife will be acquitted, Howard reveals the racist and prejudicial attitudes of a 1940s all-white jury that would condemn the deceased victim through his Eurasian wife. Hammond would be despised and judged for marrying a native woman - a colonial taboo:
Howard: It's strange that Hammond was able to keep his life so hidden. That gambling house he owned and especially the Eurasian woman. I think it was finding out about her that turned opinion so completely against him.
Robert: Will she be one of the witnesses?
Howard: I shan't call her. I'll just produce evidence that Hammond was married to her.
After Robert departs, Ong enters the law office, cooled by an electric desk fan and an overhead fan, and requests a "private conversation" about a "delicate" and "confidential" issue. The wily clerk describes how an unwelcome copy of a letter has surfaced through information brought by a friend [presumably the friend is the head boy who found the incriminating letter after Hammond was killed and delivered it to Mrs. Hammond]. The letter was written by the defendant - conclusive evidence revealing that she had actually invited the victim to the plantation on that fateful night when her husband would be away. The letter appears to contradict the defendant's testimony that they had not corresponded for several weeks. The original copy of the letter is in the possession of Hammond's widow, a Malayan woman:
Ong: A circumstance has come to my attention, sir, which seems to me to put a different complexion on the case...A friend has brought me information, sir, that there is in existence a letter from the defendant to the unfortunate victim of the tragedy.
Howard: That's not surprising. During the course of seven years, I've no doubt Mrs. Crosbie often had occasion to write Mr. Hammond.
Ong: But the letter, sir, was written on the day of the late Mr. Hammond's death.
Ong: As you will no doubt recall, sir, that Mrs. Crosbie has stated, that until the fatal night, she had had no communication with the deceased for several weeks.
Ong: In my opinion, this letter indicates that her statement perhaps was not in every respect accurate.
Howard: Have you seen the letter?
Ong: I have with me a copy, sir. The original is in (the) possession of a woman - she happens to be the widow of Mr. Hammond, deceased.
With a medium shot of his face, Howard silently reads the letter - masking his reaction to the clerk. He casually dismisses it, doubts its truth, and cautions Ong about accepting the letter's veracity at face-value: "It's inconceivable that Mrs. Crosbie should have written such a letter." When told the letter may be of "some interest to the prosecutor" in the case of The Crown v. Crosbie, Howard promises to give the matter his consideration. When the clerk has left, the shrewd lawyer reveals his real reaction - the letter is an incriminating, damning piece of evidence, a note of suppressed passion, and a revelation that the murderess had been having an affair with her victim. Max Steiner's score emphasizes this point with dramatic swells during a closeup of the piece of paper.
Leslie Crosbie is led from her jail cell to the Warden's office (with horizontally- and vertically-striped window blinds) by a sympathetic matron Mrs. Cooper (Doris Lloyd) - the accused defendant walks behind cell bars and stands under the blades of a revolving overhead fan on her way to speak to her lawyer. In the first of the film's two major confrontational and confessional scenes, he inquires about why her story never wavers from exactly the same words: "It suggests either that you have an extraordinary memory...or you're telling the plain, unvarnished truth." She positively confirms for him that she hadn't had any communication with Hammond for several weeks before the catastrophe, explaining that his newly-acquired wife ended their relationship. Howard confronts her with his knowledge of the existence of a letter that proves a different kind of relationship to the dead man:
Leslie: Well, I may as well tell you. We heard about his wife. And once, quite by chance, I actually saw her.
Howard: Oh? You never mentioned that. What was she like?
Leslie: Horrible. She was all covered with gold chains and bracelets and spangles, her face like a mask.
Howard: And it was after you knew about her that you stopped having anything to do with Hammond?
Howard: I think I should tell you that there is in existence a letter in your handwriting from you to Geoff Hammond.
Leslie: Well, I often wrote him a little note about something or other, or to get me something if I heard he was going into Singapore.
Howard: This letter asks him to come and see you because Robert was going to be away.
Leslie: Oh, but that's impossible. You see, I never did anything of the kind.
He reaches into his coat pocket and unfolds the letter. Leslie quickly denies that it is her letter: "But that's not my handwriting!" However, he adds that it's "an exact copy of one written on the day of Hammond's death." Looking guilty, she tries to explain it away, claiming that it's a forgery:
Leslie: What's it mean?
Howard: That's for you to say, Leslie.
Leslie: (rising vehemently and with her back to him) I didn't write it. I swear I didn't write it.
Howard: If the original is in your handwriting, it would be useless to deny it.
Leslie: Then it will be a forgery.
Howard: It would be difficult to prove that. It would be easier to prove it was genuine.
Leslie: It's not dated. It might have been written years ago. Oh, if you'll just give me a little time, I'll try to remember.
Howard: Leslie, the prosecution could cross-examine your houseboys. They would soon find out whether someone took a letter to Hammond on the day of his death.
Leslie: Howard, I swear to you. I did not write this letter.
Howard: Well, if you have nothing more to say to me, I'll get back to the office.
As he leaves, she summons him back. Unable to completely explain away the letter, she coldly confesses that she actually did write the letter but was afraid to mention it: "You see, I thought none of you would believe me if I admitted that he'd come there at my invitation." Howard presses further to inquire why she asked Hammond to come see her during her husband's absence. She manufactures a story about wanting Hammond's advice on buying a gun for her husband's birthday:
You see, I was planning a surprise for Robert's birthday and I'd heard he wanted a new gun, and oh, well I'm so dreadfully stupid about sporty things and, well I thought I'd talk to Geoff about it and ask him to order one for me.
Howard refreshes her memory about the tone of the letter and how urgently she implored Hammond to visit: "Perhaps you've forgotten what's in the letter." Melodramatically, he reads the letter out-loud:
Robert will be away for the night. I absolutely must see you. I am desperate, and, if you don't come, I won't answer for the consequences. Don't drive up. Leslie.
The incriminating letter urgently invited Hammond to secretly come to her (implying that she was desperately in love with him). Her conscience-stricken lawyer warns her not to tell him too much of the truth. If the genuine letter were to be read in court, it would destroy the credibility of her story and probably convict her of premeditated murder:
This letter places an entirely different complexion on the whole case. It'll put the prosecution on the track of - suspicions which have entered nobody's mind. I won't tell you what I personally thought when I read the letter. It's the duty of counsel to defend his client, not to convict her even in his own mind. I don't want you to tell me anything but what is needed to save your neck. They can prove that Hammond came to your house at your urgent invitation. I don't know what else they can prove, but if the jury comes to the conclusion that you didn't kill Hammond in self-defense...
Leslie has a fainting spell and collapses onto the floor - she is assisted by Mrs. Cooper and treated in the jail's infirmary. When she is left alone with Howard while lying on the examining table of the first-aid room, Leslie extends her arm and hand toward the wall as she admits: "I'm afraid I've made rather a mess of things...You distrusted me from the beginning." When she is told that the letter is in Mrs. Hammond's possession, her hand clenches. She implores him to help procure the original letter:
Leslie: (purring) Are you going to let them hang me?
Howard: What do you mean by that, Leslie?
Leslie: You could get the letter.
Howard: Do you think it's so easy to do away with unwelcome evidence?
Leslie: Surely, nothing would have been said to us - if the owner weren't quite prepared to sell it.
Howard: That's true. But I'm not prepared to buy it.
She lurches up from the table, suggesting that her husband's savings might help purchase it. Beyond the financial question, Howard wrestles further with his own conscience and talks of his commitment to honesty. He might possibly jeopardize and compromise his whole career and his ideals:
I wasn't thinking of the money. I don't know if you'll understand this, but I've always looked on myself as an honest man. You're asking me to do something which is no better than suborning [inducing someone unlawfully or secretly to perform some misdeed or to commit a crime] a witness...A lawyer has a duty to his profession and to himself.
She accuses him of being cruel and heartless for not meeting her desperate demands. And then, she pities her own naively-blind husband who would be destroyed by the truth: "Poor Robert, he doesn't deserve it. He's never hurt anyone in his life. He's so good and simple and kind and he trusts me so. I mean everything, everything in the world to him. It's gonna ruin his life. Oh, I know what you're thinking. You despise me." Howard suppresses an expression of disapproving contempt for his adulterous, murderous client. Attempting to keep his personal feelings out of the matter because they're irrevelant to the case, he promises to defend her. His shadow crosses back and forth across her face as he discusses purchasing the letter at a presumed, exorbitant value. Out of his long loyalty and friendship for the Crosbies - particularly Robert, Howard reluctantly decides to help save her life, even if it means committing the criminal act of buying the letter to suppress its use as evidence:
Leslie: You won't have to show Bob the letter, will you?
Howard: I'll do everything possible to prevent him from seeing it. He'll be an important witness and he should be as firmly convinced of your innocence as he is now.
Leslie: And after the trial?
Howard: I'm going to try and save your life.
Leslie: But if he loses his trust in me, he loses everything.
Howard: Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.