Saturday, 4 June 2022

Movie Review: The Letter (1940)

A crime mystery, The Letter surrounds a devious woman with an exotic locale and noir aesthetics.

Late at night on a Singapore rubber plantation, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shocks the local workers by calmly emptying a pistol into her visitor Mr. Hammond. Leslie is the wife of the plantation manager Robert (Herbert Marshall), who rushes back from a work site to be with his wife. Leslie explains to her husband and their lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) she shot and killed her unexpected guest after a physical altercation as she fended off his unwanted advances.

Leslie awaits her trial, with Howard confident he will secure her release by proving she acted in self defence. But then he becomes aware of new evidence: Leslie wrote a letter inviting Hammond to her house on that fateful night, a fact she conveniently skipped in her recollection of events leading to the shooting. Now Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) is in possession of the letter, and threatening to expose Leslie's lies.

Based on a W. Somerset Maugham play, The Letter draws tension from a central character both sympathetic and calculating. Bette Davis dominates as Leslie Crosbie, introduced in the very first scene as ruthlessly capable of killing, and not satisfied with just felling her victim but pumping all available bullets into him. She composes herself and has a good story to tell a worried husband and astute lawyer: her victim was imposing himself on her and did not take no for an answer.

From that stark opening writer Howard E. Koch and director William Wyler craft a tasty mystery built on lies, threats, and immorality. Wyler creates a moody nighttime Singaporean vibe filled with horizontal shadows and stark lights as Leslie meets her match in the spectral Mrs. Hammond, and drags the lawyer Howard towards unprofessional conduct to try and bury damaging evidence. Meanwhile Howard's ever-smiling assistant Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung) orchestrates a dangerous game of blackmail leading to a labyrinthian Chinatown district and a crushing East is East cross-cultural demonstration of power.

The revelations of treacherous secrets are accompanied by impressive but overdone shots of dark clouds rolling over the moon, and Wyler encourages Davis' wide-eyed over-dramatizations. The final act is still potent, but also reaches for hyperbolic representations of all-devouring guilt assuming station at the soul's doorstep. Despite favoring symbolic showmanship over subtlety, The Letter effectively exposes the dead-end of insincerity, written words more powerful than the gun.



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