Stylish, striking and overwhelmingly racist: The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)

theletter

When Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shoots Geoff Hammond dead, she claims to have done so in self-defence. Her trusting husband, rubber plantation manager Robert (Herbert Marshall), believes her. However, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), her lawyer, remains suspicious, and his instincts are confirmed when he discovers that a letter in Leslie’s hand casts serious doubts on her motives. Worse, this letter is in the hands of Hammond’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard).

I know The Letter has a strong reputation, but I wasn’t too keen on it. Part of this is because a good deal of the effectiveness of this Singapore-set story is dependent upon Asian stereotypes. In particular, Mrs Hammond is supposed to look overpoweringly threatening through her non-Western clothing and her Dragon Lady visage. Of course she’s angry – Leslie shot her husband! Why shouldn’t she, or ambitious legal clerk Ong Chi Seng (Sen Yung), who clearly earns less money than his English boss, be more sympathetic than Leslie under these circumstances? I’m not surprised the film is racist, but I just don’t view the non-white characters the way it wants me to, which distanced me from the story.

Although The Letter is atmospheric and well-played, I found it disappointingly straightforward and unengaging during its first two thirds. After Leslie’s trial, however, the film changes gears. Davis lets loose and there’s some striking moments where the music and cinematography heighten our sense of Leslie’s tortured emotional state. Marshall also gets some gut-wrenching scenes; between this and The Little Foxes, he’s practically a master at playing a Bette Davis character’s ill-used husband.

The Letter is an impressive looking film. The blinds set into seemingly every door and wall make for great lighting opportunities, as does the alternation of moonlight and shadow that is integral to some scenes. And when Leslie describes how she killed Hammond, the camera moves through the room, showing us where the murder happened, and letting us picture it taking place in the empty frame.

The Letter’s dated attitudes toward race make it difficult to enjoy and just plain boring in parts, but with William Wyler and Bette Davis behind it, it’s as good a film as could have been made with this script. I’d say, however, that their work together on Jezebel and The Little Foxes is far more enjoyable.

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