The Letter – 1940 – dir. by William Wyler
It is arguably one of the most famous opening scenes in movie history. Watch as The Letter, another boffo collaboration between the incomparable Bette Davis and director, William Wyler, lures us in with its soporific images: the drip-drip of a rubber tree plant’s sap, plantation slaves swinging lazily in sleepy hammocks, fingers slowly sliding across silent chess and checkers boards. And then — BANG!! BANG!! BANG!! BANG!! A woman is firing a barrage of bullets — more bullets than would ever be needed to kill anybody — and the witnessing Malay moon emerges from behind dark clouds to reveal the dead man and the rage-filled face of an unrepentant Davis. Just grand!!
The movie, if not strictly noir, has the crisp, rich look of noir and possesses the elements of the genre: tropical night moods, moonlight shining through louvered blinds, a devious, scheming woman (Davis was especially good at playing these) and the always creepily delicious Gale Sondergaard.
Based on the W. Somerset Maugham play of the same name (and still one of the best screen adaptations of the author’s work), The Letter is frequently cited as one of Davis fans’ favorite films and it is easy to see why. Set amid the heat and haze of Malaysia, you can almost taste the cool gin fizzes and hear the crickets clacking in the bushes as Davis clearly has no problem or nerves preparing a dinner party meal just minutes after cold-bloodedly shooting her lover to death. Seldom has she been as good at playing bad. In a career that saw her portray everything from martyrs (Of Human Bondage) to whacko former child stars (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane), Davis was at her best in the kind of role she plays in The Letter. Leslie Crosbie is as duplicitous as the day is long, deft at faking innocent when we and she both know she is anything but. Herbert Marshall makes for a stalwart, if too-trusting, husband. It is James Stephenson (whom Wyler first rejected as being too inexperienced — it was his first film role) who shines in the part of Leslie’s attorney. The conflict he suffers can be cut with a knife as he slowly comes to realize his client is not the victim she paints herself to be. As mentioned, Gale Sondergaard is the perfect mask-like foil to Davis’ cool killer. Of particular note is the sensitivity with which the racist angle in the person of Victor Sen Yung (later of “Bonanza” fame!) is handled; the audience might easily have taken a lesser actor to be merely a rat fink Asian native out to reek revenge on his white employer but Sen Yung’s genuine moral fortitude raises his motives above and well beyond any hint or whiff of prejudice.
The Letter received a whopping 7 Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler is in fine form here), Best Actress (Davis, of course), Best Supporting Actor (Stephenson), Best Original Music Score (Max Steiner), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Black and White.
It remains, even an unbelievable 68 years later, a class act from first reel to last, and you are sure to have a crackling good time watching it and yet another glorious performance from the immortal Bette Davis.