[box cover]

The Letter

This is the Bette Davis movie in which she shoots a guy ruthlessly while walking defiantly down a short veranda staircase. It's one of those signature Davis moments, like saying, "What a dump" in King Vidor's Beyond the Forest or "Fasten your seat belts" in All About Eve. The Letter (1940), a William Wyler adaptation of a Somerset Maugham story, is also an early example of noir influence on mainstream cinema. It's a melodrama, and a female weepie, but with noir inflections ground into a murder mystery base, accented with the exoticism of a foreign climate. It's also a trial drama, and the closest film to it is Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, but with a softer edge. In Hitchcock's film, a lawyer defending a woman finds himself lured into her web of intrigue. In The Letter, it is James Stephenson's Howard Joyce, defending Bette Davis's Leslie Crosbie, who, as the film opens, shoots a man until the gun is empty. Her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), the manager of a rubber plant in Singapore, believes her tale of defending herself while sexually threatened by one Hammond, a family acquaintance. Joyce, however, is suspicious from the start, and when he learns from Hammond's widow (the exotic, almost doll-textured Gale Sondergaard) through Joyce's assistant Ong (Sen Yung, from the Charlie Chan series) that a letter exists establishing Leslie's motivation for cold-blooded murder, he must compromise the law or let the true verdict prevail. In Hitchcock's film, the lawyer falls in love with his client; here, Stephenson (in a brilliant and subtle turn as a man balancing moral and legal truth) seeks to protect the feelings of his friend, Robert. Noirishly, which is also to say stylistically, The Letter is a tale told through images: the moon as a harbinger of illicit rendezvous or justice, heat as the evidence of irrepressible passions, and Venetian blinds as casters of imprisoning shadows. Also in noir fashion, the film posits a form of sexual Darwinism, in which most men are self-deluded fools and a select elite are conquerors whom all women will stop at nothing for. The Letter even has a femme fatale, though an odd one. Though glamorous looking, it seems also that Leslie was meant to be something of a nebbish, a bespectacled stay-at-home who crochets, until her passion for Hammond drives her mad, even after his death. The picture enjoys impeccable plotting — until the last sequence. An addendum no doubt imposed by the arbiters of the Production Code, the last sequence doesn't make narrative sense, since all of the characters have more or less gotten what they wanted. So why would Leslie enter a garden where she suspects waits certain death? And why would Hammond's widow seek extra-legal justice, having already sold out her feelings for ten grand? Warner offers a nice full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) of The Letter with intelligible Dolby Digital monaural audio (in English and French, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish). Supplements consist of an alternate ending, which is a re-edit of the current version's last sequence (7 min.) with some new elements added and some old elements removed, which still bows to the Production Code's mandate. Also on hand are two Lux Radio Theatre broadcast versions of the movie, the first from 1941, with the main cast members (59 min.) and the second from 1944 (55 min.) with Vincent Price in the Stephenson role. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—D. K. Holm

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