The story has been made many times, but the 1940-Bette-Davis-directed-by-William Wyler version is considered a definitive classic.
How does it hold up today?
Splendidly, we say. It certainly ranks as the vehicle for one of Davis’ most powerful performances as Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a British rubber plantation manager (Herbert Marshall) who in a jealous rage shoots her lover. That’s Bette above doing the deed at the very beginning of the picture.
The script by Howard Koch based on a W. Somerset Maugham story was to a some extent shoehorned by the Production Code’s insistence that no bad deed can go unpunished. An earlier script version has Davis’ character surviving. In The Letter, she is done in at the end by the machinations of her deceased lover’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard).
The bulk of the picture concerns itself with the legal fallout from the opening murder.
Thanks to a subtle performance from Marshall, the emotional quandary of a loving, believing husband matched with a skillfully duplicitous wife is touchingly conveyed. (Marshall, by the way, played the murdered lover opposite Jeanne Eagels in the 1929 Paramount version of the Maugham tale.) In The Letter, he swallows whole Davis’ cock-and-bull story about murder in self defense. Her innocense is a given, he believes.
But her defense lawyer Howard Joyce, played skillfully by British actor James Stephenson, is not convinced. Studio boss Jack Warner expressed reservations about the casting Stephenson in this part since he was not a “name” in Hollywood. Director Wyler stood firm and won the day. It’s one of his many correct decisions about the making of The Letter. Stephenson practically steals the show.
Toss in the evocative black-and-white cinematography by Tony Gaudio, which captures the steamy atmosphere conjured up on four Warners backlot stages (1,7,16 and 25). Then there is the dramatic musical score by Max Steiner. This is classic Hollywood professionalism at a high level.
The Letter is now in its look and subject matter — not to mention Davis’ femme fatale performance — considered an early example of film noir. But we suspect it was initially marketed as a “woman’s movie” set in an exotic backround. Remember, it came out in 1940, years before film noir was codified by European critics.
But whatever its genre, The Letter is unquestionably a definitive classic, and holds up beautifully today.