In The Letter, Warner Bros.’ 1940 adaptation of the same W. Somerset Maugham play filmed in 1929 with legendary stage actress Jeanne Eagels, director William Wyler plays the role of mood conductor and Bette Davis is his lead instrument. The Letter is a rare “art film” from the Golden Age of Hollywood, in that Wyler is testing the limits of the visual art in black and white, getting images to say everything he wants said without dialogue. It is a mood, brought on by Davis’ performance, Wyler’s skill at directing actors, Tony Gaudio’s daring cinematography and Max Steiner’s evocative score.
Davis stars as Leslie Crosbie, the wife of Malaya rubber plantation manager Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall). At the very beginning of the movie, we see her fire six shots at Geoff Hammond, an aristocrat in the European community. For any other movie, this scene would come at the middle, but The Letter is all about the impact of an action, and not the action itself.
Leslie is convinced she has the perfect story that will help her avoid prosecution. She claims it was self-defense, as Hammond attempted to rape her. Unfortunately, as her attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) explains, she will still have to go on trial for murder. During that trial, the titular letter finally shows up, throwing all her best laid plans into chaos.
This whole story is melodramatic to the hilt, and Wyler plays up the story’s exotic locale to match it. The moon and clouds act as a wordless Greek chorus in The Letter, commenting on the small toils humans put themselves through that are meaningless in the long run. Wyler highlights objects as much as the actors in this film, as the letter, lace, a knife and other items play important supporting parts. Everything in the frame is used to build the mood and keep up the tempo. This is a film that knows it’s art and not presenting any slice of reality.
That’s not to say the story takes a backseat to visuals. Wyler never missed opportunities to add layer upon layer onto a basic plot line. The script, by future Blacklisted screenwriter Howard E. Koch, is filled with twists and turns that still work, even under the strict rules of the Production Code. Koch and Wyler had to make multiple changes to Maugham’s story, many of which seem minuscule and petty today. The big change, of course, is that “crime doesn’t pay” and you can’t get away with cheating on a spouse. But that ending doesn’t feel tacked on or silly. Wyler and Koch figure out how to make it work, providing an ending that comments on a silly story of European socialites boxing themselves into a world they don’t really fit in.
Davis’ performance is phenomenal. The Letter is the second of three movies she made with Wyler, following 1938’s Jezebel and coming a year before 1941’s The Little Foxes. She had a magical talent to direct everyone’s eye on her – it’s astounding to see even inside the world of the film, her acting draws an audience. This film does not work without her.
This year has been a great one for William Wyler fans, as Criterion released The Heiress on Blu-ray in May and Warner Archive released Jezebel in August. WAC released The Letter late last month. Once again, this is a wonderfully looking release. The alternate ending feature gives you a great opportunity to compare the drastic upgrade between a 1080p high definition image and a standard-definition DVD.
There are no new extras, but everything is carried over from the 2004 DVD release. It would have been amazing if the original 1929 film (co-starring Marshall as the killed lover) was included.
- Alternate Ending – This is a different edit of the film’s final 10 minutes. It includes a couple lines from Herbert Marshall’s character that some state censorship boards definitely would have found objectionable. It also adds some ambiguity to the end. I like the final ending we have though, as the added scene – one that Davis reportedly objected to – makes the ending much clearer.
- Two Radio Adaptations – We get not one, but two episodes of the Lux Radio Theater. Both are hour-long adaptations of The Letter, one from April 1941 and March 1944. Usually these are a bit more interesting because you sometimes have well-known actors playing roles they didn’t play in the film, but Marshall and Davis appear in both adaptions. Stephenson, who died suddenly in July 1941, also appears in the first one.
The Letter was a major success in 1940, even earning seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Although coming a bit before the rise of noir, it seems to predict the hallmark looks and themes of noir. There’s even scenes with our femme fetale broken by blinds. It can be overshadowed by other Wyler classics, but it is a perfect example of his command of the medium.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review. You can buy it at WBShop.com.