William Wyler directs The Letter, a 1940 film noir based on the 1927 play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. The screenplay is by Howard E. Koch and the picture picked up a bundle of Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.
The Letter boasts the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Tony Gaudio, who worked with star Bette Davis on 11 movies. The lighting and production design contributes to the overall style, with darkness swept aside by the dim arrival of outside suspicion. Bars and slatted doors play a big part, with fractured light washing over Davis’ femme fatale.
Davis stars as Leslie Crosbie and the picture opens as she’s shooting a man. She’s the wife of Robert (Herbert Marshall), a British plantation manager. Robert returns home to his wife with his attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) and a district officer (Bruce Lester). Leslie explains what happened, claims that the man was someone she knew. What’s more, he was trying to rape her.
After hearing her account, Robert and Howard get to work on crafting her defence. She is placed under arrest as she awaits trial. Soon, a mysterious letter surfaces. Howard’s clerk Ong (Sen Yung) turns up with a deal to procure the letter, claiming that the information in it could damage the appearance of Leslie’s innocence. Howard handles the letter and justice is done.
There are many interesting elements at play in The Letter and it all kicks off during the opening frames. Gaudio’s camera sways through a collection of native workers in Singapore and music is played, with the labourers taking a load off after a long day. The gunshots blare through the calm scene and drive the workers to their feet.
The sequence confirms that Wyler means business. It also solidifies Davis’ Leslie as a character worth paying attention to. There is no mystery about the act, just the motivation. A man is shot and she’s doing the shooting. She plugs him with six slugs and drops the revolver, the lens cruising to her face in a glorious zoom.
It’s telling that Leslie’s initial account feels like a performance and Davis does a bang-up job cementing this. Watch her face as she sits down at the sweeping dénouement of her tale. Witness how she re-enacts the event, back to the camera. And check out the swing to subjective point-of-view, with the melodramatic testimony coming to an end.
The mystery deepens with the onset of cultural considerations. The suggestion of an all-white jury plays to Leslie’s favour in the trial, especially as Howard excavates the shocking taboo of the victim’s marriage to a Eurasian wife. Said wife, played stunningly by (Gale Sondergaard), lives in the Chinese quarter and plays a vital role.
With so much sweltering material in the rubber trees of Singapore, leave it to Wyler’s picture to add more heat. The revelations of the letter suggest something depraved, something Howard seems to be nudging up against each time he hears Leslie’s tale. At one point, he says he thinks she must have an “extraordinary memory” for never changing the wording of her account.
Is there something more to this woman’s ordeal? Was it an ordeal at all? Is it possible the victim is capable of deception, even in the radiance of her beatific womanhood? The Letter is incrimination itself, with the daring words of the titular revelation leading to the erosion of credibility.
Davis’ portrayal of the woman at the core of this moral tempest is striking. She accomplishes so much with so little and her performance is tucked with little movements, expressions, gestures. Her eyes tell a remarkable story and line the way to her full evolution into one of the genre’s first femme fatales.
From the inaugural blasts to the concluding moonlight, The Letter tells a complete story of deception, justice and revenge. Wyler has created a well-designed motion picture and his footprints through noir are deeply felt. He effectively expands the unknown without tying it in knots and Davis is more than game to play along. It’s a shocking, compelling, rather lovely film noir.