It starts with a killer opening. It’s a hot night in Malaya, clouds passing over the face of the moon allowing us to see a man stumble out of a colonial house and into the dark as a woman races after him and fires six bullets into his body, most of which entering him after he has already hit the ground. Trees silently weep rubber in the background.
The woman is Leslie Crosbie although she looks just like Bette Davis. She is the wife of the manager of a rubber plantation and when the authorities arrive she explains the dead man had attempted to rape her. With Leslie and her husband being English Leslie’s lawyer (who is also her husband’s friend and has a crush on Leslie himself) is convinced she has nothing to worry about and will be swiftly acquitted.
Yet when a letter appears from an unknown source claiming it was written by Leslie and imploring the man to come over to see her the night of the killing then it becomes obvious to her lawyer that Leslie is hiding something from him and her loving husband. This deceit could cost them the court case if it is given to the prosecution so action must be taken, no matter how unprofessional or at what cost, to cover up this letter’s existence. But what will the ultimate price be for such a transgression? Watch ‘The Letter’ (1940) and find out!
So ‘The Letter’ is very much a sort of white mischief story that illustrates both the British allure and contempt for foreign lands and the murderous consequences of their colonial exploitation. It is also, like a tree dripping rubber in the dark, seeping with hidden and (literally) veiled sex. This is most evident through Leslie’s compulsive lace-making, something she does whenever she is “frustrated”. She was obviously infatuated by the man she killed and her lace-making is a displacement activity for what she really wants to be doing when she wasn’t seeing him. This is why when she confronts the dead man’s widow the widow demands Leslie remove her veil, because Leslie is literally dripping and covered with her sexual desire for this man and the widow knows it.
Technically the film is strong. Director William Wyler handles the camera well and the actors better. Herbert Marshall plays the role of Leslie’s husband and gives a great performance of naive doting followed by crushing realisation whilst Bette Davis is delicious as a woman who appears perfectly fine in broad daylight but notice the way she changes when sliced by beams of moonlight.
And it is the lighting that might be the most captivating aspect of ‘The Letter’ with cinematographer Tony Gaudio creating night scenes of fractured shards that suggests exoticism, sophistication, primal rage and uncontrolled lust. Throw in a score by Max Steiner that provides just the right amount of heft and ‘The Letter’ pulls us in as much by its atmosphere as its melodrama.
‘The Letter’ is an interesting, good looking and sexy film that isn’t afraid to hold English Imperialism, sexual betrayal and desire up the light so we can inspect its ugliness. Although being 1940 the light couldn’t be too clear, too strong and uniform so everything can be explicitly seen. This is why we needed those clouds to pass in front of the moon to provide a little decency.