Film Review: The Letter (1940)

Release Date: November 14th, 1940 (San Francisco premiere)
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Howard E. Koch
Based on: The Letter by W. Somerset Maugham
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard

Warner Bros., 95 Minutes


“With all my heart, I still love the man I killed.” – Leslie

Man, oh man… I love the opening scene of this movie. It’s so damn good that it immediately pulls you right into this film from the get-go.

Also, I can’t believe that this is the first Bette Davis movie I am reviewing. I’ve seen so much of her stuff over the years but I guess this is the first film I’ve checked out over the last 18 months during this blog’s existence. So I should probably play some catch up and have a Bette Davis mini marathon in the immediate future.

The popular opinion about film-noir is that it was born with The Maltese Falcon in 1941, a year after this film came out. However, The Letter is very much film-noir. But there are many noir-esque films that predate 1941. Fritz Lang’s M came out in 1931 and you can’t tell me it’s not film-noir at its core.

So maybe William Wyler, this film’s director, was a bit ahead of the curve when it came to Hollywood trends. According to Eddie Muller of TCM’s Noir Alley, Wyler was the Steven Spielberg of his day and a real artist and king behind the camera. It shouldn’t be shocking that he was ahead of his time and quite possibly contributed to the genesis of film-noir.

The film is superbly acted, especially where Bette Davis is concerned. However, Gale Sondergaard’s Mrs. Hammond is the real scene stealer. Man, she just has an intense presence whenever she appears on screen and the fact that she was able to do this opposite of Davis is damned impressive. She didn’t even have to say anything, she just had to stand there, ominous and brooding over the scene around her.

The plot sees Davis’ Leslie Crosbie murder a man in the opening scene. Quite viciously for 1940, mind you. As the plot rolls on we learn that she killed him in self-defense. However, a blackmailer knows that she’s hiding something. This film then spirals down with twists and turns typical of the noir style.

What really makes this film alluring and sort of majestic is the setting. This takes place in Malaysia. It’s a tropical setting with an almost proto-Tiki aesthetic to it. The film just looks and feels exotic and isn’t your typical setting for a film of this style.

The shots of the plantation home and property, especially the opening and closing shots are incredible. The cinematography was handled by Tony Gaudio and he nailed it. This is quite easily one of the best looking motion pictures of the early 1940s.

The Letter is solid, through and through. And it is rare that you get to see Bette Davis share scenes with someone as commanding and intimidating as her.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: Dark WatersThe Little FoxesJezebel and Dark Victory.