CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
William Wyler’s “The Letter” (1940) is a wonderful film in which every component–story, acting, cinematography, music–fits together like the cogwheels of a watch. From Tony Gaudio’s dreamy, yet oddly foreboding, opening pan over the sleeping workers on a rubber plantation to the final fade-out there isn’t a wrong note sounded. The sinister moon, accompanied by Max Steiner’s melancholy theme, casts its spell and foretells an unhappy end for plantation manager Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) and his very proper wife, Leslie (Bette Davis). Davis played her fair share of noir heroines, but none more potent than Mrs. Crosbie who uses gentility as a deadly weapon, leading three men to disaster.
Of course the audience knows something that the characters in the film do not. For that dreamy pan over the plantation ends abruptly with Davis cooly and repeatedly shooting a man who we will learn is a former lover. No amount of quiet dignity will efface that opening sequence of the cold-eyed Davis emptying her pistol into the body of Geoff Hammond.
The crux of the film relies on the fact that Leslie Crosbie is a British lady living in pre-World War II Singapore, and no one will doubt her claim that she was attacked by a drunken Hammond whom she shot in self-defense. Her lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) believes that Leslie’s will be an easy case to win–for who could doubt her? The drama arises from the fact that Leslie recklessly wrote to Hammond imploring him to come to her–and that note is in the hands of the late Hammomd’s Eurasian widow (the marvelously baleful and hypnotic Gale Sondergaard). That letter can send Leslie to the gallows and provide endless shocked titillation to her fellow Brits. This makes the upright Joyce an easy mark for his unctuous, ambitious law clerk Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung) who reveals its existence to Joyce and informs him that it can be had–for a price.
Joyce becomes Leslie’s second victim as his desire to save her leads him to violate his legal code of conduct by agreeing to purchase and suppress a vital piece of evidence, and perhaps placing himself in the future under Seng’s thumb. There is a subtle hint that Joyce may also have been a former lover of Leslie’s–which would make her even more of a Black Widow, in that we could no longer chalk up her affair with Hammond to a sudden eruption of passion in an otherwise repressed woman. The letter is purchased using almost all of Robert’s savings, but Mrs. Hammond insists that Leslie must come for billet-doux in person. The meeting of wife and other woman is quite chilling, taking place through a beaded curtain in an antique shop and to the accompaniment of one of Steiner’s more eerie themes.
With the letter secured, Leslie acquitted and feted as a heroine while Hammond is damned as a cad, the final act of the tragedy is ready to unfold. Herbert Marshall has been playing Robert throughout as a brick, standing by his wife through thick and thin. But he has to be told about the letter, and when Joyce informs him that he is now virtually penniless, with his dream of buying his own plantation shattered, he demands to know what was worth ten thousand pounds. The truth of Hammond’s death hits him hard, but he is still willing to start over. He still loves Leslie. Marshall is magnificent as he sits at the bar describing to his friends the wonderful plantation in Java that he now knows he will never have. But there is one final twist of the knife awaiting him. When he makes the mistake of trying to coax a disavowal of Hammond out of the distraught Leslie, she deliver’s the film’s signature line: “With all my heart I still love the man that I killed.” The now shattered Robert becomes Leslie’s final victim, for Mrs. Hammond has not forgotten the woman who murdered her husband, a knife is left outside the door of Leslie’s bedroom as both unspoken threat and promise.
Leslie goes into the moon-washed garden, goes to her death for she knows that Mrs. Hammond is out there, waiting for a final reckoning.
“The Letter” is a perfect example of a studio-system film, in this case the studio being Warner Brothers. It seems hard to believe that everything was filmed on studio sets from the rubber plantation to the teeming backstreets of the Chinese quarter. Then too there was the staff–the cinematographer Tony Gaudio was responsible for some of the studio’s biggest hits from “Little Caesar” to “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and composer Max Steiner scored an amazing number of films in 1940 alone–nineteen by one count! The characters were cast “like a tailor cuts a suit of clothes.” Gale Sondergaard was a past expert at playing strong, even frightening women, while Sen Yung was as smooth as Seng as he was rough as a jive-talking Black Dragons gunman in “Across the Pacific.” With all of these factors working in its favor how could “The Letter” not achieve perfection?