The film opens on a full moon night in Singapore, where Leslie (Bette Davis) has just shot and killed a man. She tells her husband and lawyer, Howard, with much conviction, that it was in self defense against a friend who wanted to be her lover. But when the victim’s wife, a native to Singapore, brings forth a letter from Leslie to her husband, a simple self defense case gets messy.
Davis is remarkable in the role of Leslie. There are so many interesting things that she brings to life. When first telling her story, Leslie is calm, has an almost coy expression then becomes more dramatic, as if suddenly remembering the tragedy (and her need to act upset). While in jail, everyone is surprised how well she’s holding up, surely jail time would rattle her. Perhaps it’s knitting lace that keeps her so calm, or maybe she knows she’s getting away with murder.
The foreign Singapore setting is never forgotten. The huge leaves of rubber plants help stifle the thick air. Fans are always swirling. When Leslie and her lawyer go to buy the letter back, the foreign land suddenly feels like a Chinese pawn shop. The native widow is tall and intimidating with all her jewelry, like a stoic warrior. It’s a wonderful scene to see how easily she can put Leslie in her place.
Director William Wyler is masterful at weaving the story. He makes sure to catch our concern, pull it tight and then reveal the next clue in this murder. But he’s just working up to his crowning achievement, Ben Hur.
One of my favorite things about this film is the way the moonlight is used. It’s mostly at the beginning and end, perhaps suggesting a duration of time within the story. In the beginning, the moon hides behind clouds and shadows hide things from the viewer. We see its light through the horizontal blinds and reflecting off the wet rubber leaves. After the man is murdered, the moon slides out, revealing the body and the calm horror on Leslie’s face. I cannot reveal how the moon works in the end, but it’s just as wonderful.
If you enjoy blackmail, Bette Davis or William Wyler’s work, I suggest The Letter. But if you’re weighing this against the other films for 1940, there are more interesting ones out there, Rebecca is similar in content and excels in everything.
“Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.”