The Letter

Today, I'm reviewing the classic film noir, The Letter (1940), starring Bette Davis.

This article is part of The Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Hollywood.

FYI: This review contains spoilers.

Bette Davis' performance in The Letter (1940) is one of the triumphs of her legendary career. In this early film noir directed by William Wyler, Davis gives a complex, multi-layered performance as a woman who has deceived virtually everyone around her for years.

The Letter begins with one of the most memorable opening sequences in old Hollywood history. The  stillness of a quiet evening on a rubber plantation in British Malaya is broken by gunshots as we see a woman empty a revolver into the back of a helpless man. As it turns out, the woman is Leslie Crosbie (Davis), the wife of the plantation owner, and the man is a neighbor, whom Leslie claims tried to take advantage of her while her husband (Herbert Marshall) was away. Everyone in Leslie's community believes her story, except for her attorney (James Stephenson), who has come across an incriminating letter from Leslie that indicates that she and her neighbor may have been on intimate terms.

The Letter is based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story that was turned into a successful Broadway play and a 1929 film starring Jeanne Eagels (Marshall, who plays Leslie's husband in the 1940 film, played Leslie's lover in the 1929 movie). Leslie was just the kind of meaty role that Davis, who was then Warner Bros. top female star, loved to sink her teeth into, so studio chief Jack Warner acquired the rights with plans for Davis' frequent collaborator William Wyler to direct a lavish adaptation. 

However, The Letter met with the disapproval of the Hays Office, which was responsible for enforcing the strict Motion Picture Production Code. They were appalled that original script did not punish  Leslie for her crimes, and that the dead man had a Chinese mistress (both fornication and interracial relationships were forbidden by the code).  Hays Office director Joseph Breen sent a stern memo to Warner letting him know that there was no way the censors were going to let a tale of adultery and murder corrupt the moral fiber of American moviegoers. 

Bette Davis and her stand-in work on their knitting on the set of The Letter (1940).
"We have read with great care the playscript of The Letter, by W. Somerset Maugham," Breen wrote. "In the development of this story we have the murder of the lover; all the sordid details of the illicit sex relationship between the married woman and her lover; and very pointed and very numerous references to the second mistress of the murdered man, who is characterized as a China woman...Because of all this, we could not, of course, approve a motion picture, based upon this story."

The parsimonious Warner wasn't about to lose money on a property he paid cold hard cash for, so he sent screenwriter Howard Koch back to his typewriter to bang out a version of the story that would be acceptable to Breen. Koch changed the role of the Chinese mistress into that of a wife with European and Chinese ancestry (played by Gale Sondergaard in the movie). Koch also altered the ending, so, instead of living out her days on the rubber plantation, Leslie was punished for her crimes in the final scene.

A publicity still for The Letter (1940).
The Hays Office objections look silly today, but I actually think they work to enhance the movie. Sondegaard gives a fierce performance, and her status as a spurned wife gives her righteous anger a much deeper resonance for audiences. The changes also give Leslie a reason to commit murder -- she is angry at being cast aside  for someone she views as inferior -- and the battle of wills between these two formidable women is the driving force in the movie. 

Despite the strong performances of Sondergaard and the rest of the supporting cast -- Marshall is excellent as Leslie's dim, but devoted husband, and Stephenson earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as Leslie's lawyer -- this movie belongs to Davis. She gives a masterful performance in a complex role that works on multiple levels. Davis, who, in my opinion, is the greatest actress of her generation, plays Leslie as a woman who is in many ways the consummate actress. She is constantly performing in one way or another, whether its acting out the role of the devoted wife to her husband or playing the innocent victim in front of her attorney. Only in The Letter's final moments does she let her guard down and reveal her real emotions.

Not only is Leslie constantly performing, she is also evaluating how her performance is being received. If you watch Davis in the confession scene at the beginning of The Letter, you can see her giving shrewd sideways glances to her audience to see how they are receiving her sordid tale.

The Letter was a critical and box-office hit and earned seven Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director, and best actress for Davis (she lost to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle). 

The Letter is available on DVD and video on demand.


  1. Yes, I agree it was the right decision to turn Sondergaard's character into the dead man's wife. It really does give more depth to her performance, and it makes us that much more sympathetic.

    Bette Davis is so good in this role, as you pointed out. Really, I can't imagine anyone else as Leslie.

    I just re-watched this film a couple of months ago, but your post has made me want to see it yet again! :)

  2. I enjoyed reading your review of this film! This is another of Bette Davis' many memorable roles that stuck with me. Especially that opening scene. It was really interesting to read how the Hays Code changed the original story but I think you are right about it being a good thing in this case. I need to watch it again now with this in mind!

  3. "The Letter" is another of Wyler's endlessly watchable films. It is fascinating to watch Leslie manipulate those around her.

    If the times had been what they ought I feel that Victor Sen Yung deserved Academy recognition for his role of Ong Chi Seng. To think that the young actor was at the same time breaking his back in comic support in the Charlie Chan series. Lots of untapped potential in Hollywood in those days.

    1. I agree he is very good in this part. He's so subtle in the way he uses the prejudices of the British against them.

  4. Thanks for the great review. I love James Stephenson in this movie as well. It was a pity he died so young.

    1. Stephenson gives such a nuanced performance in The Letter. He's throwing away all his ethics and deep down he knows that what's he's doing to save Leslie will probably end in scandal, but he just can't help himself.

  5. The Letter is not only authentic, but also mysterious, technically fantastic and so well acted, despite being somewhat problematic in its storytelling at times.


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