The Letter is a 1940 American film noir directed by William Wyler, and starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson. The screenplay by Howard E. Koch is based on the 1927 play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. The play was originally filmed in 1929, by director Jean de Limur (The Letter).
On a moonlit, tropical night, the native workers are asleep in their outdoor barracks. A shot is heard; the door of a house opens and a man stumbles out of it, followed by a woman who calmly shoots him several more times, the last few while standing over his body. The woman is Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a British rubber plantation manager in Malaya; the man whom she shot her manservant recognizes as Geoff Hammond, a well-regarded member of the European community. Leslie tells the servant to send for her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), who is working at one of the plantations. Her husband returns, having summoned his attorney and a British police inspector. Leslie tells them that Geoff Hammond "tried to make love to me" and that she killed him to save her honor.
Leslie is placed under arrest and put in jail in Singapore to await trial for murder; that she killed a man makes such a trial inevitable, but her eventual acquittal seems a foregone conclusion, as the white community accepts her story and believes she acted heroically. Only her attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), is rather suspicious. Howard's suspicions seem justified when his clerk, Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung), shows him a copy of a letter Leslie wrote to Hammond the day she killed him, telling him that her husband would be away that evening, and pleading with him to comeâ"implicitly threatening him if he did not come. Ong Chi Seng tells Howard that the original letter is in the possession of Hammond's widow (Gale Sondergaard), a Eurasian woman who lives in the Chinese quarter of town. The letter is for sale, and Ong himself, whom Howard had believed to be impeccable, stands to receive a substantial cut of the price. Howard then confronts Leslie with the damning evidence and she breaks down and confesses to having written it, though she stands by her claim of having killed Hammond in self-defence. Yet Leslie cleverly manipulates the attorney into agreeing to buy back the letter, even though in doing so he will risk his own freedom and career.
Because the couple's bank account is in Robert's name, Howard obtains Robert's consent to buy the letter, but he does so deceitfully, lying about and trivializing its content, leaving out the true circumstances, and giving the man no idea that the price is equivalent to almost all the money he has in the bank. Robert, depicted as a decent man thoroughly in love with Leslie and somewhat gullible, is readily persuaded. Hammond's widow demands that Leslie come personally to hand over the $10,000 for the letter (she has been released into her attorney's custody) and requires Leslie to debase herself by picking up the letter at the widow's feet. With the letter suppressed, Leslie is easily acquitted.
During a celebration after the trial, when Robert announces that he plans to draw his savings out of his account in order to buy a rubber plantation in Sumatra, Howard and Leslie are forced to tell him that his savings are gone, that the impact of the letter would have hanged Leslie and its price was accordingly high. After demanding to see the letter, Robert is devastated to learn from Leslie that Hammond was her lover for years and that she killed him out of jealousy, but he offers to forgive her if she can swear that she loves him. Leslie at first agrees and tells him she loves him, but she then breaks down and confesses, "With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!"
In a dazed state after the pressure of the trial and her confrontation with Robert, Leslie wanders out into the moonlight and outside the gate. There she is confronted by Mrs. Hammond and her henchman, a man who had worked for Leslie, a native not seen since the first scene of the film. The henchman overpowers Leslie and Mrs. Hammond stabs her. As the two attempt to silently slip out, they are confronted by a policeman. The clouds blot out the moonlight and darken the area where Leslie was killed; then the clouds open and the moon's rays shine where her body lies, but no one is there to see it.
- Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie
- Herbert Marshall as Robert Crosbie
- James Stephenson as Howard Joyce
- Frieda Inescort as Dorothy Joyce
- Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond
- Bruce Lester as John Withers
- Elizabeth Earl as Adele Ainsworth
- Cecil Kellaway as Prescott
- Sen Yung as Ong Chi Seng
- Doris Lloyd as Mrs. Cooper
- Willie Fung as Chung Hi
- Tetsu Komai as Head Boy
The Production Code Administration rejected the original story adaptation that Warner Bros. submitted on the grounds that it contained adultery and unpunished murder, so a new final scene was added in which Leslie is killed. The character of Mrs. Hammond was changed from Hammond's Chinese mistress to his Eurasian wife to placate the Hays Office. Director William Wyler and star Bette Davis, who had previously worked together on Jezebel, disagreed about the climactic scene in which Leslie admits to her husband she still loves the man she murdered. Davis felt no woman could look at her husband when she admits such a thing. Wyler disagreed, and Davis walked off the set. She later returned and did it Wyler's way, but ever after, Davis insisted her approach would have been better.
Wyler also argued with Warner Bros. head Jack L. Warner over the casting of British actor James Stephenson as attorney Howard Joyce. Warner originally had suggested Stephenson for the role, but after Wyler cast him, the studio head had second thoughts and thought the role was too important to cast an unknown in it. Wyler stood firm, and Stephenson's performance earned him an Oscar nomination.
Herbert Marshall also appeared in the 1929 version, in which he played the lover who was killed by Leslie.
In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed, "The ultimate credit for as taut and insinuating a melodrama as has come along this year â" a film which extenuates tension like a grim inquisitor's rackâ"must be given to Mr. Wyler. His hand is patent throughout . . . Miss Davis is a strangely cool and calculating killer who conducts herself with reserve and yet implies a deep confusion of emotions . . . Only the end of The Letter is weak â" and that is because of the postscript which the Hays Office has compelled".
Variety magazine wrote, "Never has [the W. Somerset Maugham play] been done with greater production values, a better all-around cast or finer direction. Its defect is its grimness. Director William Wyler, however, sets himself a tempo which is in rhythm with the Malay locale . . . Davis' frigidity at times seems to go even beyond the characterization. On the other hand, Marshall never falters. Virtually stealing these honors in the pic, however, is Stephenson as the attorney, while Sondergaard is the perfect mask-like threat".
Time Out London says, "A superbly crafted melodrama, even if it never manages to top the moody montage with which it opens - moon scudding behind clouds, rubber dripping from a tree, coolies dozing in the compound, a startled cockatoo - as a shot rings out, a man staggers out onto the verandah, and Davis follows to empty her gun grimly into his body . . . [The] camerawork, almost worthy of Sternberg in its evocation of sultry Singapore nights and cool gin slings, is not matched by natural sounds (on the soundtrack Max Steiner's score does a lot of busy underlining)."
- Academy Award for Best Picture
- Academy Award for Best Director
- Academy Award for Best Actress (Bette Davis)
- Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (James Stephenson)
- Academy Award for Original Music Score
- Academy Award for Best Film Editing
- Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black and White
- The Letter at the American Film Institute Catalog
- The Letter at the Internet Movie Database
- The Letter at AllMovie
- The Letter at the TCM Movie Database
- The Letter informational site and DVD review at DVD Beaver (includes images)
- The Letter original film trailer on YouTube
- The Letter on Lux Radio Theater: April 21, 1941
- The Letter on Lux Radio Theater: March 6, 1944