Directed by William Wyler
Written by Howard E. Koch (based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham)
The Letter has one of the great openings, and it really does "open" in its very first seconds, even though its first frames are (as would have been conventional-unto-obligatory in 1940) only credits. No, starting immediately, Max Steiner's score roars at you about a tale of passion and violence, only settling down somewhat into a minor key orientalist riff once the movie actually begins and the camera begins drinking in the unsettling energy of a rubber plantation in British Malaya just outside Singapore, noting with distaste the work of the plantation, the sap of rubber trees bleeding out overnight into waiting buckets, while the laborers sit and sleep or otherwise while away the night in a crammed structure that barely merits the description of a "barrack." Beyond it we see the plantation manager's spotless white house, and a shot rings out; a man staggers out the door, followed by a woman we'll learn is named Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis). Whatever trespass this man committed against her, Leslie executes him for it: she shoots him again in the back, then again and again, until the revolver she's carrying has been unloaded, and pulls the trigger once more, just to be sure she has destroyed the body before her as thoroughly as her tool shall allow. Controlled panic ensues in the barrack, with the shocked chief laborer (Tetsu Komai) taking the lead, if plainly at a loss about how to proceed. For her part, Leslie regards the corpse before her with a masklike impassivity—if there's an emotion at all, it's cold-blooded anger—until the moon is overtaken by a black cloud and she's plunged into darkness. Without a hint of hysteria and asserting her authority over the laborers as the last white person still alive, she sends for her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), whereupon she retreats to her bedroom, where we do not follow, but we can hear her weep. By the time her husband, her lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), and the inspector Withers (Bruce Lester) have arrived, she's not crying anymore.
It's a superb opening scene, impeccably crafted to point you in the direction of violence without directly promising anything (at first)—and whether it does that by way of our 21st century associations with colonialism, or, less agreeably, by way of more contemporary ideas about the corrosive savagery of the tropical climes Europeans had thrust their way into, both work, and there's a persistent suggestion in William Wyler's direction that he's having it both ways on this count—but then, almost the very instant you start to get your bearings in the pungent atmosphere of a colonial plantation, the movie just cracks itself wide open, its very first narrative beat plunging us into brutality that's astonishing for a 1940 film. 81 years later, it still retains a power to shock—and, hell, maybe even more of a power to simply surprise, since you just don't expect the leading lady to summarily snuff a man in the first three minutes of any Golden Age picture. But it is shocking, even so, because it feels like the nihilistic ending of a movie, more than the beginning. Yet make no mistake, The Letter only gets more nihilistic from here. It could have only escaped a classification as "noir" for as long as it did because it came out a year before The Maltese Falcon, was a stolidly A-grade production at Warners, and, other than probably some vague impression that its target audience was women, it wasn't perceived at the time as anything as tawdry as genre.
(It was even a remake of an unaccountably well-regarded movie: the Maugham play it's based on—at least as well-regarded, in its turn a fictionalization of the true crime tale of Ethel Proudlock—had been adapted to film once before in 1929. It tends to confirm one's biases against early sound cinema as almost unendurably primitive, and it is, indeed, outstandingly bad on every possible level, particularly in comparison to the '40 film, from its wretched visual scheme that alternates between "stagey medium shots where the actors appear to think they're in a theater and are looking for the audience" and "four minute static long-takes of somebody's talking head," to the somehow Oscar-nominated lead performance from stage star Jeanne Eagels, who in combination with the absent aesthetic turns her film's climax into something you could probably trick somebody into thinking was an SNL sketch, if only the print weren't so degraded. The thing that's wacky, though, is that the 59-minute 1929 film takes a solid quarter of an hour to get to where the 95-minute 1940 film's gotten to by, like, the hundred second mark, leaving a whole movie left to go, yet the 95-minute 1940 film still feels shorter. In full fairness, Wyler probably got the idea for his trepid approach to the manager's house from the analogous scene in the '29 film, insofar as it's one of the few times it attempts to do anything, though it still attempts it badly.)
In any event, Wyler's The Letter never gets better than its opening scene—not that it necessarily has to—but numerous scenes thereafter can at least match its second one. And the second one is pretty great too. So: Leslie relates the circumstances leading up to her killing of the man we've learned now is named Geoffrey Hammond (who had been played, incidentally, by Marshall in the '29 version, and is played by a guy who could fall over without hurting himself here). This member of long-standing in the Singaporean British community—a friend of the Crosbies—had tried to rape her. It seems quite as open and shut as that, and although Withers dutifully "arrests" Leslie and renders her to the colonial authorities, he's terribly apologetic about the fuss, and Joyce begins preparing her defense in full confidence that she'll be duly acquitted. This confidence is shaken, however, when Joyce's clerk Ong (Sen Yung) intimates that a "friend" of his has told him about the existence of a certain letter, written in Leslie's own hand, that memorializes her affair with Hammond and an invitation to her home that night, suggesting that she murdered him out of jealousy rather than in self-defense. The letter is currently in the hands of Hammond's own Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard). She may be enticed to part with this damning piece of evidence, but only for a small fortune, and she will only accept it if Leslie brings it to her herself and she can look the woman who killed her husband in the eyes.
The Letter has its problems, but of course the most glaring and distracting one is right there a sentence back, where it reads "Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard)." Involving some singularly unpersuasive yellowface and a performance hard to describe without using the term "inscrutable," it's never entirely clear what motivates her to "help" Leslie other than the money, and Sondergaard never tries to provide some secret motivation in her performance, content instead to render the nameless Mrs. Hammond as an inexpressive force whose only emotion whatsoever is how much she hates her husband's killer. Which you'd think would be a good reason to turn the letter over and watch her husband's killer hang. But "inscrutability"—alongside the persistent feeling of precarity for Europeans who seem out of place in a land that barely abides them, and the increasingly-apparent fact that Leslie's fury is based in resentment that Hammond could choose an Asian over her—is perhaps The Letter's point. Hence the main thing is just how jarring Gale Sondergaard of Minnesota is here, in a role conceived of as something like a cross between a daughter of Fu Manchu and a Dr. Strange villain.
She's also, I say this advisedly, oddly matronly, which prompts questions about Hammond's marriage to a 41 year old unattached woman in a traditional society, and what their relationship looked like in even the vaguest sense, that are pointedly never answered by the film nor, frankly, even raised by anyone in it. (Though it at least subverts the "exotic Asian sexpot" you might've expected, as she was Chinese, and a mistress, in both the play and the '29 film.) The upshot, anyway, is that Wyler regretted this, wishing he had cast an Asian actor. But the Hays Office—never especially keen on the movie as a whole, and it wasn't the only imposition they made—seems to have forbidden it, and he said he wouldn't have known whom to cast even if they had. (The obvious default answer would just be "Anna May Wong," though Wyler thought her wrong for the part—which I think is as much a recognition that she'd soured on a racist Hollywood by this point and it's not likely she'd have been very enthusiastic about the role. I can't say if contractual realities would've permitted it, but I suppose it never even occurred to Wyler to cast Merle Oberon, even though he'd just done Wuthering Heights with her and she was Eurasian. Oberon's frankly-quite-visible heritage somehow seems to have gone overlooked throughout her career, and, this being the 30s and 40s, this was unfortunately exactly how she and her industry preferred it.)
The meat of the film, however, isn't really to do with Mrs. Hammond. That's to do with Bette Davis's mesmerizing rendition of a figure capable of both fiery-tempered murder and calculation so cold you can feel the chill come off the screen, along with a side of how this figure manages to morally checkmate her attorney and bring him down to her level. Davis is largely excellent throughout (the worst I think it's possible to say about her is that her accent isn't stable, to the extent I forgot she was supposed to be English until a new scene started and the accent was back), though Leslie's "arrest" is probably the most emblematic of what she's up to, as she explains to her husband, her lawyer, and the cop her version of events, catching herself every now and again when she realizes she's explaining it too calmly, which they don't even notice, and Davis allows us to perceive from time to time Leslie's own self-satisfaction that her performance is "working." But Wyler, for the time being, doesn't want you to disbelieve Leslie, and as she recites the events leading up to the killing, he sends the camera questing across the scene of Hammond's slaying—as if the film itself agrees that her story is true—leaving you in the same position as her interlocutors, in a nice little cinematic sleight-of-hand.
The corker is that prior to heading off to jail, they have a nice dinner—which she's prepared for them—in the aftermath of one alleged attempted rape and one very definite homicide, while Hammond's body is temporarily forgotten about and left to rot in an almost-expressionistically-filmed hut full of strips of freshly-dried rubber. It's never really quite stressed, but the uncanny wrongness of it all gets under your skin, as you grow aware, consciously or unconsciously, that this scene would be virtually unimaginable in, for example, Wellingborough. (Davis's handling of the vomit-it-all-out melodramatic climax is quite good, too, though Wyler and Warners evidently toyed with leaving it out. Though it's the cathartic part and probably necessary, I can, in fact, see why they'd have considered dispensing with it: the disappointed contempt that Davis brings to Leslie's statement about her husband, "Of course he'll forgive me," says everything that needs to be said, and the finale only makes it louder.) Well, as noted, Stephenson's quite fine too, as the self-contained lawyer whose face becomes more and more of a permanent reflection of his self-recrimination. The other scene-stealer, however, is Sen Yung's clerk, who, if Sondergaard is unavoidably described as "inscrutable," is equally inevitably best-described as "sinister." Perhaps surprisingly, his character isn't—Ong is amoral and hard-edged, but no moreso than anyone else here—he just seems sinister, as he calmly, pleasantly places his boss on his morally gray path, registering his polite impatience with Joyce's foregone internal debate every time the latter opens a door to find Ong standing there smiling and waiting on him to get with the program. (That said, I do not necessarily approve of the comic beat with his "amusingly" diminutive car.)
All along, Wyler and cinematographer Tony Gaudio gild their noirish thriller in some very noirish accoutrements; I wonder if any movie prior to The Letter was more in love with the possibilities of light streaming through slats, though this is generally fairly subtly-done, at least until it isn't, and the interplay of light and darkness becomes the point of entire shots and even entire scenes. This is where the other imposition that the Code Office made comes in, as they were almost as uncomfortable with Leslie's fate as they were with miscegenation. Apparently not satisfied with the psychic and moral punishment meted out by the play, they required something more, and having seen The Letter twice now, I'm increasingly of the opinion that the movie works better with it, particularly since Wyler's resistance to being told how his movie would end winds up expressed in a sequence that almost doesn't even quite feel like it's really, actually happening; at an extreme of grief and self-pity, Leslie enters a space more dreamlike than anything else in the film, though it echoes the opening, defined as it is by moonlight and shadow. She's actively seeking annihilation, and while I don't think it's a dream sequence in any deliberate sense, it comes off more symbolic than anything, untethered to any particular objective reality—very much a journey into the subjective state of a mind overwhelmed by memories.
The Letter, as was customary for Wyler by now, was laureled with numerous Academy nominations (seven in all—though it won none). And that is at least a partial surprise, because in a fundamental sense it really is just a gnarly little potboiler. But, of course, I like gnarly little potboilers. It's elevated a smidge, by the subtle touches of what I suppose we'll call, for convenience's sake, anti-colonialism, some of which obviously don't come off anti-colonialist at all today. It's elevated rather more by craft, and the extraordinary and fraught working relationship between a director and actor that, sadly, would last for only one more film, which taken altogether, I may even like more. But it certainly depends less on its star; and in The Letter we see the collaboration between Wyler and Davis at its best.