January 27, 2020  (Web Review)

The Letter

Warner, 95 min., not rated, Blu-ray: $21.99

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

What begins as a story of mysterious circumstances surrounding an alleged act of self-defense becomes something much darker and fatalistic in this 1940 adaptation of a play by W. Somerset Maugham. Bette Davis stars as Leslie, the wife of Robert (Herbert Marshall), a rubber plantation administrator in the tropics. The film opens with Leslie shooting a man multiple times at her home. She tells investigators that the deceased—an acquaintance—tried to assault her. What looks like a slam-dunk case of acquittal in a possible trial becomes ethically and legally shaky with further developments (no spoilers here), resulting in a cascade of deception, duplicity, and moral compromise. Director William Wyler, whose collaborations with the young Davis earned her multiple Oscar nominations (she won for Best Actress in Jezebel), once again draws from his star an enigmatic magnetism that obscures her character’s less virtuous impulses. The screenplay by Howard Koch (Casablanca) is a marvel of understated dread, and Davis is backed by an excellent cast that includes James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard. Extras include two Lux Radio Theatre adaptations starring Davis (from 1941 and 1944). Recommended. (T. Keogh)