Opening the Letter and Revealing Secrets

The Letter
A Film Review by Francine Bensinger

“The Letter” is about secrets. The forbidden desires that people hide in their hearts, away from their loved ones. It presents the question: Can we really know for sure what a person is capable of doing, or not doing? Like other noir films, it shows the darker side of humanity.

On a rubber plantation in Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of the plantation manager, is accused of murder. Whether she actually committed the murder is answered from the start. The question that remains for the rest of the film is: Why did she do it? She claims self-defense and easily fields the questions asked of her relating to the events leading to the shooting. Being the wife of a prominent businessman, everyone believes her story except the couple’s lawyer friend, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson). Howard has an attorney’s eye for detail and early on figures that something doesn’t add up.

The story is as much Howard’s story, as it is Leslie’s. Once he is informed of her secrets, he has to choose between upholding the truth and saving his client. His own moral character is tested as Leslie is put on trial. Though there is no romance, they have the intimacy of accomplices, which is a relationship the audience does not see Leslie share with anyone else, including her clueless husband (Herbert Marshall).

This 1940 film went on to gain seven Oscar nominations, including best actress and actor nominations for Davis and Stephenson. The movie is not a total winner and won’t go on my list of favorites, but there are gems to glean. Director William Wyler made interesting stylistic choices that are worth a study by those who are fascinated with the technical details of filmmaking. The elements of dark, light and shadow are effectively used throughout, setting the foreboding tone. The tropical rainforest climate of Singapore was amazingly recreated on a Warner Bros. backlot.

The most important reason to watch “The Letter” is the legendary Bette Davis. For those who want to become familiarized with her work, this movie would be a great start. Her ease with displaying cool calculation and vulnerable remorse, the darkness and light of the character, holds everything together. I am not sure how sympathetic I would have been toward Leslie, if she were in the hands of any other actress. She makes me believe that one person can have such contrast, with both sides being equally genuine.

Opening the Letter and Revealing Secrets

Francine Bensinger

Chicago, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

Movie review of an classic.

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