Directed By: William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson
Tag line: "With all my heart I still love the man I killed"
Trivia: Previously filmed as an early talkie in 1929 starring Jeanne Eagels
When it came to playing a bitch on-screen, few could do it as well as Bette Davis. In classics like Jezebel, The Little Foxes, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, she displayed a penchant for strong-willed characters, and in 1940’s The Letter, Davis portrays a woman of questionable morals so determined to get her own way that she’s willing to kill for it.
Based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter tells the story of Leslie (Davis), the wife of wealthy plantation owner Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall). In the film’s opening scene, Leslie shoots and kills Geoff Hammond (David Newell), a man she claims attempted to rape her. But as her attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) delves deeper into the case, he discovers Leslie and Hammond were, in reality, having an affair, and that an incriminating letter Leslie wrote to Hammond, in which she laid out her true feelings for him, is currently in the possession of Hammond’s widow (Gale Sondergaard). At Leslie’s insistence, Joyce tries to buy back the letter in order to destroy it, but can they keep its contents a secret from Robert?
From the initial scene alone, it’s easy to see why Davis received her 5th Academy Award nomination for her work in this film (she had won the Best Actress Oscar twice before, for 1935’s Dangerous and 1938’s Jezebel). The peaceful serenity of a moonlit night is interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. From a distance, we see Hammond stagger out the front door of the Crosbie estate, with Leslie following behind, brandishing a revolver. As the plantation workers look on from their makeshift hut, Leslie fires another shot into Hammond… and another… and another. By the time she’s finished, all six bullets have been fired at point-blank range. With the deed done, she stares down at Hammond’s lifeless body, dropping the gun to her side. As the camera closes in on her, we sense the realization of what’s just happened is setting in, yet the blank expression on Leslie’s face never changes. It’s an intensely dramatic sequence, and Davis handles it perfectly.
Flawlessly directed by William Wyler and with a stirring Max Steiner score, The Letter is a true Hollywood classic in every sense of the word, and features an actress at the absolute top of her game.