Thus, today was a relaxing day off in which I finally found some time to watch another nominee from the 1940 Best Picture contest...
(based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham)
Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard
The Letter begins dramatically with Leslie Crosbie (Davis) firing bullets into an unarmed man named Hammond. When her husband Robert (Marshall) arrives with their lawyer Howard Joyce (Stephenson), her story is that Hammond, known as a friend of the Crosbies, tried to make love to her, so she defended herself by unloading the pistol into him. She is put into custody in Singapore, awaiting trial, despite her seeming innocence.
Soon, however, Howard becomes privy to a damning letter that Leslie sent to the deceased on the day of the murder which seems to indicate a more intimate relationship between the two. The original letter is in the possession of Hammond's widow (Sondergaard), who threatens to deliver it to the prosecution unless her demands are met.
With such a breathtaking opening scene, The Letter grabs you by the throat very early. What follows is a gripping suspense drama that had me wondering why it hasn't become a bigger classic. Although there are a few wordy sequences (it is based on a play, after all), director William Wyler cleverly infuses the picture with symoblic imagery, mostly involving shadows and moonlight. Apparently, the ending needed to be altered from its original version thanks to the censors, and the resulting bleakness of the denouement probably explains the film's failure in the test of time. (Anyone with a decent understanding of the Hays Code will know that murderers were not allowed to remain unpunished.)
Bette Davis' eyes are at their glassy best as she portrays a woman desperate to hide the truth. But Gale Sondergaard as the bitter widow gives Davis a run for her money in the "staring daggers" department. Herbert Marshall as the unsuspecting husband appears in his second 1940 nominee after Foreign Correspondent. My favourite performance from the film comes from James Stephenson, superbly detailed as the attorney with a guilty conscience.