Retro Reel Review #6 The Letter (1940)

 Posted by on May 20, 2012 at 6:00 am  Film, Reviews & Discussions
May 202012

Leslie Crosbie defends herself against Mr. Hammond

Have you ever sent off an e-mail or a letter that you wish you never wrote in the first place? A letter that was so regrettable that the thought of it makes you cringe, or an e-mail that found you shouting “No, No!” the moment you hit send?

Leslie Crosbie has such a problem, but she can’t let the truth be told, at least not immediately. She’s also committed murder. (What?)

Let’s start at the beginning.  On a bright moonlit night on a quiet rubber plantation near Singapore, the hired planters are asleep in their huts when shots ring out nearby.  A man staggers from the front door of the main house, clutching his chest, and a woman, in her dressing gown, her eyes wild, follows him, and empties the rest of the pistol into him; even after he’s collapsed on the stairs. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, wife of plantation owner Robert, and she shot her intruder in self-defense.  Or did she?  Her husband and her friends would defend her to the teeth. She couldn’t possibly murder someone in cold blood, not Leslie.

The dead man is Geoff Hammond, whose face we never see. He’s an old family friend who came to visit Leslie that night to arrange her purchase of a birthday gift (ironically, a gun) for her husband. But in Leslie’s words, Hammond “was trying to make love” to her. When he proclaimed his love and tried to take her in his arms, she escaped his grasp and grabbed the revolver her husband kept in the front desk for her for emergencies. As she tearfully tells her husband and their lawyer Howard Joyce, “It was all instinctive; I didn’t even know I’d fired”.

James Stephenson as lawyer Howard Joyce

Her husband Robert is apalled at the horror his poor wife went through, and, like everyone else, is thoroughly convinced of her defense. He argues, “She shot him like she would a mad dog.”  He hates that she has to spend a week in prison before the ghastly business of a trial, but is reassured by Joyce that it is only a formality, for she did shoot in self defense.

Yet before long there is a complication that makes Leslie’s account very suspicious.  Joyce discovers through Ong,  his rather effeminate office manager, that there is…A Letter. It is a bomb that Joyce must diffuse to save his client at the risk of losing his career.  As to what that letter says, and how he and Leslie get it back, you’ll just have to rent it.

Gale Sondergaard as the mysterious Mrs. Hammond

Based on a novel by Somerset Maugham and directed by the great William Wyler, The Letter is a delicious film noir, heavy on the drama if light on plot. Bette Davis is her usual steel heroine, willing to lie and cheat in order to achieve her ends.  Herbert Marshall is her clueless husband, a good man in a bad marriage.  And James Stephenson is Howard Joyce, a conflicted lawyer, who hates himself for what he has to do.  Gale Sondergaard plays the strange Mrs. Hammond, who commands attention though barely uttering a word.

The movie is awash in visual contrast, and moonlight plays a large part of it. In the shadows, the secrets are hidden, but when the clouds part, its brilliance bares the truth. Moonlight reveals the body on the bungalow steps. Moonlight through the veranda blinds make shadows like prison stripes on Leslie’s crisp, white blouse. Moonlight makes Leslie’s delicate lace shawl shine like a bridal veil when she faces Mrs. Hammond. But no, moonlight will not become Leslie Crosbie.

Swelling violins, baby spot lighting, and cool, British propriety are all played the hilt here. And despite the (sadly common) stereotypical treatment of the Asians, all combine to make it a satisfying mystery.  There are dramatic entrances, shadowy deeds, and oh, those Bette Davis eyes!

Leslie in her ever present lace.

Leslie is devious and manipulative in her determination to win her freedom. She plays coy and dumb when defending her actions (“I’m so dumb about sporting things”, etc.) and she subtly flirts with lawyer Joyce, tucking a large flower into the bosom of her blouse. She even charms the prison nurse who finds it a shame that Leslie has to stay at the prison at all.  You can sympathize with her life in the years before the murder, when she’d spend hours alone at the plantation, tatting fragile laces, and just waiting for her husband to come home. But as with all dark Warner Brothers dramas of the time, her fate will be appropriately sealed.  It’s a darn fine film noir.


Gale Sondergaard (Mrs. Hammond) was the original choice to play the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, but she was deemed too glamorous.  Ironically, she gives off an Agnes Moorhead vibe here in her severity.

SNACKING GAME   No particular word is used often enough here, but you can take a swig or bite whenever Bette bulges her big eyes!


Bette Davis Leslie Crosbie
Herbert Marshall Robert Crosbie
James Stephenson Howard Joyce
Frieda Inescort Dorothy Joyce
Gale Sondergaard Mrs. Hammond
Bruce Lester John Withers
Elizabeth Inglis Adele Ainsworth (as Elizabeth Earl)
Cecil Kellaway Prescott
Victor Sen Yung Ong Chi Seng (as Sen Yung)
Doris Lloyd Mrs. Cooper
Willie Fung Chung Hi
Tetsu Komai Head Boy





  2 Responses to “Retro Reel Review #6 The Letter (1940)”

  1. Author’s Note: I’m sorry, but I had to remove a comment here because it totaly gave away the ending of this movie. Much like the comments here for Mad Men, I please ask that you not give away the ending unless I have actually given away the whole plot in the review. I carefully write these so as not to give away any endings because I’m sure there are people here who have not seen it.

    Please refrain from spoiling the experience for first time watchers. Thank You, Therese

  2. Another good choice, one of Bette Davis’s least-known great performances. And one of her subtlest. Actually, she often underplayed brilliantly, but a lot of people only know the caricature of an overacting Davis (which she could do herself more brilliantly than anyone e.g. Whatever Happened To Baby Jane). She’s almost poker-faced through most of this, but she stil gets across all the passion and complexity of the character through the famous Eyes.

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