The Letter

Premiered Nov. 22, 1940: THE LETTER, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and James Stephenson. Directed by William Wyler (Detective Story, The Best Years of our Lives, The Desperate Hours). The Letter opens on a balmy night on a Malaysian rubber plantation. The peaceful silence is disrupted by a gunshot and a man bursting out of a plantation house, stumbling onto the front porch. TheLetterHe is followed by a relentless Bette Davis who coldly empties all chambers of a revolver into him, then drops the gun. Impeccably crafted by director William Wyler, this is one of Hollywood’s great opening scenes. Wyler brilliantly avoids belaboring or glorifying the violence, heightening the visceral impact through rapid, and almost casual, execution. While we’re still trying to comprehend what just happened, the film simply moves on. It’s an unexpected and arresting scene that lingers in your mind throughout the movie. In the ensuing investigation, Davis claims she shot the man in self-defense, and since all available evidence supports her story, it seems her acquittal is a foregone conclusion. But a mysterious woman surfaces, threatening to reveal a letter written by Davis that clearly indicates Davis planned to kill the man, who it turns out, was her secret lover. At this point, Davis’ true nature reveals itself as she resorts to manipulation and deception to obtain the letter and secure her freedom. This film belongs entirely to Davis, who delivers one of the finest performances of her career, starting out as a sympathetic victim only to unveil a character who is despicably selfish and deceitful. Wyler and Davis collaborated on two other superb films, Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941), but it can easily be argued that The Letter is their crowning achievement. It’s a film in which you will love to hate Davis’ character. We give The Letter 4.5 out of 5 fedoras.

4.5 Fedoras

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