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THE LETTER, 1940
Movie Review

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THE LETTER MOVIE POSTER
THE LETTER, 1940
Movie Reviews

Directed by William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall
Review by Virgina De Witt



SYNOPSIS:

The wife of a Malayan rubber plantation owner openly shoots a man she knows in cold blood. She convinces everyone around her, her husband, her lawyer, her friends, that she acted in self defense but then a letter arrives that throws the whole incident into a different light.

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REVIEW:

"With all my heart, I still love the man I killed."

This is one of the classic movie lines, not only of the 1940s, but of all time. It's beautifully delivered by Bette Davis as the duplicitous heroine in the dramatic climax of The Letter. As a final declaration to her deceived husband, the line sums up everything that has gone before.

This is a William Wyler adaptation of a play by 20th century English writer, Somerset Maugham. It begins with a terrific scene in which the quiet of a sultry evening is broken by the sound of gunshots. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) runs out of the front door of the plantation after the man she has shot in order to gratuitously pound more lead into his back as he lies dead at her feet.

It's clear from the outset that Leslie feels she can rely on her position in this colonial society to protect her from any prosecution for her crime. She is cool and unrepentant initially, describing the shooting as an ÒaccidentÓ to the local men who come running. Bette Davis is at her considerable best in this role. She slowly unfolds all the ways in which Leslie Crosbie is manipulative, not only of the system, but of all those around her, especially her husband, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall). She is the calm paragon of respectability, demonstrating her Òstiff upper lipÓ while lying through it at the whole time, until she is confronted with irrefutable evidence of her involvement with the man she killed.

The letter of the title, arrives midway through the film, in the form of attempted blackmail by the widow of her lover. The letter proves beyond reasonable doubt that Leslie and the man she shot were lovers and that the shooting was unquestionably murder - in no way self defense. It is from this point on that Davis really lets us into the depths of this woman's character. Her willingness to see her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), who is also a friend, criminally compromise his own reputation in order to retrieve the letter; her dispassionate demeanor throughout her trial and the ruthlessness of how she finally breaks the truth of her adultery to her husband all combine to give a portrait of a dark but fascinating character.As good as Bette Davis is, she is not the whole show. Herbert Marshall is very effective as a man forced to confront the true nature of the woman he is living with. Even before the dramatic revelation of Leslie's secret, there is a resignation, even a sense of exhaustion, about this man that Marshall makes genuine. Here is someone who just wants peace in his home while living under the proverbial volcano.

William Wyler directs this powerful drama simply, letting the actors tell the story and giving them a lot of emotional space to work in. There are a few moments where Max Steiner's score threatens to overwhelm the actors, especially in the final revelation scene after the trial, but mainly Wyler keeps it in the background.

There are a few notes for a viewer in the 21st century. The movie does indulge in racial stereotypes of Asians that were not unusual for its era. Also the ending required by the censors of the day demanded that Leslie Crosbie be seen to pay for her crime. Thereby she is lured out of the plantation after her shocking statement about still loving the man she killed and murdered by the widow (Gail Sondergaard). Watching the movie now, you can't help but feel that it would have been more effective to have simply ended it at her passionate declaration which would leave us wondering about what happens to this man and woman, tied to each other forever by her secret.This film won Best Director and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for five other categories. The screenwriter was nominated, and rightly so. Taken from a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 by Maurice Walsh, Green Rushes, Frank Nugent was able to weave a story rich in subtext and conflict.

The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.

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