Favorite things about… The Letter (1940)

The favorite film:
The Letter, a 1940 crime drama directed by William Wyler

theletter
(Image via Christopher John Lindsay)

The cast:
Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie
Herbert Marshall as Robert Crosbie
James Stephenson as Howard Joyce
Frieda Inescort as Dorothy Joyce
Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond

The synopsis:
Leslie Crosbie has just shot and killed a man, Jeff Hammond. When pressed for details by her husband Robert, she claims that she was defending her honor. Robert brings an attorney friend on board to defend her from criminal charges, but not everyone believes Leslie’s story. Was there another, far more scandalous reason she took Jeff’s life?

Fun facts:

  • The film’s screenplay was written by Howard Koch, from a 1927 W. Somerset Maugham play, based on a short story by Maugham (originally published in 1925).
  • According to TCM, the film was shot in just over seven weeks.
  • New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther liked this “superior melodrama,” praising the work of William Wyler and calling Davis a “strangely cool and calculating killer who conducts herself with reserve and yet implies a deep confusion of emotions” (as quoted in Gene Ringgold’s The Films of Bette Davis). His review only takes issue with the ending, for which he faults the Code.
  • In Mother Goddam, Whitney Stine’s book for which she provided commentary, Bette Davis called The Letter’s opening “the finest opening shot I have ever seen in a film.” She also called Gale Sondergaard’s performance “breathtakingly sinister.”
  • Merle Oberon and Walter Huston lent their voices to a Lux Radio Theatre version of this tale.
  • The Hollywood Reporter called the film one of the best of the year, calling Wyler’s direction of the cast and cinematographer Tony Gaudio “nothing short of genius” (as quoted in Gene Ringgold’s The Films of Bette Davis).
  • Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Davis), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Stephenson), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Tony Gaudio), Best Film Editing (Warren Low), Best Original Score (Max Steiner)
  • The US Conference of Catholic Bishops rated the film “A-III” (adults only) for its “restrained treatment of infidelity and its consequences.”
  • Maugham’s play had previously been put to film in 1929, and also served as the inspiration for The Unfaithful (1947), a fantastic film quite different from The Letter, starring Ann Sheridan. In 1982, it was made for television, starring Lee Remick.
  • Herbert Marshall, who plays Davis’ husband in this film, played the murdered paramour in the 1929 version of the film.
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(Image via Caren’s Classic Cinema)

Favorite things:

  • That opening! What an introduction for Leslie. With the dogs barking, birds taking off flying, and everyone waking up as the bullets fly, it’s utter chaos. But Leslie is stoic, considering what she just saw her do. (She must wait to break down, in private.)
  • “Tell him there’s been an accident and Mr. Hammond’s dead.”
  • “He tried to make love to me and I shot him.”
  • “You know, there are men who think it’s their duty to flirt with women whenever they have the chance. I believe they think women expect it of them!”
  • “I wasn’t in the least bit frightened, just angry.”
  • “What charge?”
    “MURDER.” *dramatic eye contact*
  • The lighting is downright gorgeous in all of the night scenes. Such a beautifully photographed film.
  • That outfit and headpiece on Mrs. Hammond! So lavish.
  • That first hint of the letter’s existence, growing the viewer’s already-creeping feeling that Mrs. Crosbie is most likely lying.
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(Image via Toronto Film Society)
  • Watching this film is like eavesdropping on the juiciest and most twisted neighborhood gossip!
  • Not a favorite, but worth mentioning: Everyone’s attitudes toward Hammond’s wife are gross.
  • That dramatic music as Leslie reads the letter/learns that it’s been found!
  • I love how frantic Bette gets in her performance as Leslie tries to dig her way (or lie her way) out of this mess!
  • “Do you mean to say you could save me and you won’t? What harm have I done you?! How could you be so cruel?!”
  • All kinds of scheming going on. Leslie scheming to keep herself out of prison… Mrs. Hammond scheming to confront Leslie… the lawyer scheming to either defend Leslie or find the truth… even the messenger is scheming for maximum profit!
  • “Maybe it’s my own sense of guilt, but I have an unpleasant feeling I’m going to be made to pay the piper for what I’m doing tonight.”
  • “Why? Because I’m so… so evil. That’s it, isn’t it?”
  • That outfit with the lace veil!
  • Once again, Mrs. Hammond’s outfit is on point. And that dramatic entrance through the beads, accompanied by the overwhelming sounds of wind chimes. Amazing.
  • The stare-down between Leslie and Mrs. Hammond is pretty intense! The way Mrs. Hammond towers over Leslie, with that bar of light illuminating her eyes, is so intimidating.
  • The swirling fans everywhere and the lawyer’s sweaty face really make the courtroom scene feel oppressive.
  • I love how Leslie’s big reveal is one of the film’s best scenes solely because Bette is so great at delivering lines! She doesn’t just bring the character to life, but brings her to life with emotional complexity, and a roaring fire inside. What an actress.
  • “Those eyes, like a cobra’s eyes!”
  • “I hated him because he made me despise myself.”
  • “…and I ran after him and fired and fired and fired!”
  • Murder happens, and life goes on. Leslie remains married, and even returns to live at the scene of her crime, throwing parties in the house.
  • What’s a girl to do when she’s upset but to frantically knit?
  • Herbert Marshall’s performance as Robert is quite good. Very sensitive.
  • “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” That’s one hell of a line. Absolutely iconic.
  • I need a whole movie about Mrs. Hammond, in which she isn’t just treated as an exotic and intimidating creature. (I do love the staging and photography of her attack, though.)
  • Leslie’s fate is a morbid end to this murderous drama, but it couldn’t have happened any other way in a film under the code. The ending is very effective, though I liked the original idea more — Leslie’s punishment being that she’s still entirely in love with Hammond.
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