The Letter (1940)

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By Scott Ross

As the duplicitous wife of a British plantation owner in Malaya who shoots her lover, Bette Davis gives one of her most iconic performances in this exceptionally well-directed adaptation of the Somerset Maugham story (and subsequent play). With this, his first produced screenplay, Howard Koch — whose pre-Hollywood credits included the basic script for Orson Welles’ apocalyptic “War of the Worlds” broadcast — mastered his craft with the sort of sparkling dramatic literacy for which American movies of the 1930s and 1940s were justly celebrated. It’s not his fault the Hayes Code stipulated that Leslie Crosbie die for her sins, a prerequisite that leads to a final sequence with, it must be admitted, a certain creepy existentialist fascination. In the fine supporting cast, which includes Gale Sondergaard as a murderous Eurasian (her anger is more justifiable than Leslie’s homicidal rage), Hebert Marshall is quite moving as the planter, a decent, uninspired — and uninspiring — man who simply doesn’t know the woman to whom he’s married. The sinuous, faux-Eastern score is by Max Steiner (of course) and the splendid direction is by the great William Wyler.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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