- Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie
- Herbert Marshall as Robert Crosbie
- James Stephenson as Howard Joyce
- Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond
- Sen Yung as Ong Chi Seng
A tautly directed melodrama, with the shadows of Film Noir covering it, The Letter boasts atmosphere and a terrific performance by Bette Davis.
In Malaya, the calm of a moonlit night on a plantation is disturbed by the sound of a gun. Out of the main house stumbles a wounded man, followed by a woman with a pistol in hand. She unloads the rest of the chambers into his body and calmly watches him die. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of the plantation owner Robert. The man she shot dead was Geoff Hammond, a respected friend of Robert’s with whom she was having an affair. Robert returns to his wife, who begins to formulate a story to save herself. Playing the act of demure and vulnerable wife( when the reality is that she’s a master manipulator), she tells her attorney Howard Joyce that Hammond made repeated advances on her and she shot him in self-defence. While Robert believes his wife’s alibi, Joyce is more suspicious, even though he is the one representing her in the inevitable trial. Matters become complicated when Joyce’s clerk Ong Chi Seng comes to him with information that could change the outcome of the trial. It seems that Leslie wrote a letter to Hammond on the night she killed him asking him to come and see her as Robert would be away. This evidence could alter the case and imprison the conniving Leslie. The letter has fell into the hands of Hammond’s exotic widow, who demands money for it or she will turn it over to the court. Building tension and sweltering atmosphere combine as Leslie’s lies continue and the intense drama reaches its heights.
William Wyler masterfully directs with deft skill, creating a stifling ambience of lies, murder and the manipulative mind of one woman. Although the story can be seen as melodrama, it does have a certain edge that doesn’t let it slip into tosh, this is mainly down to the excellence of Wyler’s direction and the way he crafts this deceptive tale of murder and lies. The striking use of black and white highlights the Film Noir aspects of the story, with shadows and strange camera angles capturing the rising suspicion and inevitable drama. The score provided is a valuable asset to The Letter, cloaking it in an exotic and menacing aura that rises and falls along with the heated emotions and dark deception at play. The costume design is simply exemplary, especially in the gowns worn by the sly and cold-hearted Leslie. Most of them are white which makes her appear angelic to those around her, but the audience knows that there is a dark heart that lies beneath this masquerade.
Bette Davis is one fine form portraying Leslie, clearly relishing the sly, ruthless and calculating nature of the character. This is a character that Davis plays so well and always in control, but she also lets us see the panic that begins to appear when the existence of the eponymous letter comes to light. The film is Davis’ and she brings her all to the part. Herbert Marshall is suitably naive as Leslie’s husband, who sees her as a virtuous angel. James Stephenson excellently plays Howard, the attorney who is the first to see through the deception of Leslie, but is bound by law to remain silent of his knowledge of this. Gale Sondergaard brings silent, feline menace to the role of Hammond’s exotic and unsmiling widow, whose stare alone gives new meaning to the term ‘if looks could kill’. Sen Yung is used well as Joyce’s informative clerk, who becomes the first to discover the letter and what it could do to the case.
William Wyler’s The Letter brings drama to Film Noir and succeeds with aplomb, thanks to stylish direction, excellent score and central performance from Bette Davis.