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Cinematic Shorts: The Letter


The Letter (1940)

     For anyone who has ever seen Bette Davis in The Letter, I am sure there is one scene that we all retain as the most memorable: the opening one. We hear a shot fired and the camera brings us to a man stumbling out the front door of a house followed by Davis who continues to fire as the man collapses at the base of the porch steps. She pulls the trigger with a cold expression on her face, continuing to squeeze the trigger even after all bullets have been buried in the man’s body. This take has been featured in many movie montages about great films or Davis herself and is utterly unforgettable because of the woman’s carriage and emotionless delivery.

     In these opening few minutes we know that Davis’ character of Leslie Crosbie wanted her prey dead and that he was no stranger to her. We also easily surmise from her later account to authorities that not only is she lying about the moments leading up to the shots, but that this man Jeff Hammond was more than a casual friend.

     When I watched The Letter recently with my mother, I prepped her for the film by describing it as being about a woman who shoots her lover. Although it takes a while before that exact conclusion is laid out explicitly for the audience, it is difficult to draw any other explanation from the outset. Although Leslie acts stressed in telling the police and her husband (Herbert Marshall) about Hammond’s alleged rape attempt, she sort of laughs it off with the words flowing so effortlessly. As sweet as she behaves now, we cannot forget the woman we met in the opening moments whose gaze suggested a cold-blooded killer.

Davis is shot in multiple occasions with the prison-like shadows of window blinds.

     The plot is a well-convoluted story of what happens as Leslie is arrested and put on trial and the one piece of evidence that suggests a different relationship between Hammond and Leslie than the woman has been providing. This letter will take our anti-hero to dark places physically and emotionally, and the surmounting lies will eventually lead to her downfall.

     Davis gives an overwhelming performance as the woman we’re not sure we should be rooting for. She shows us a two-sided personality and draws us in so that we feel as miserable for her deluded husband as her in-the-know lawyer must.

     Director William Wyler paints a beautiful black and white scene for this flick set in the tropical locale of Malay. I cannot imagine this picture in color as it would lose so much of the intensity that the strong shadowing provides. Much of the film occurs at night making us feel as though Leslie has drawn us into the darkness of her world. Wyler also uses the moon’s light as clouds roll over it to both dim and brighten various scenes and capture Davis’ wide-eyed gaze. The Letter is truly a masterpiece in terms of acting and filmmaking.

  • The Letter is set for 11 p.m. ET Feb. 23 on TCM.

12 Responses

  1. Rachel, I must admit that I had been avoiding THE LETTER for years because it sounded like one of those weepy “woman’s pictures” I disdain — but when I finally sat down to give it my undivided attention on other friends’ recommendations, I happily realized I was all wrong! THE LETTER is actually a film noir in an exotic location, cleverly disguised as a “woman’s picture,” with characters I could empathize with. Why Bette Davis didn’t win the Oscar she was nominated for remains a mystery, but I loved your review, and I fell in love with the movie, too!

    • Yeah it definately is not a woman’s picture in the sense you describe. It has feuding women sort of and the men don’t matter that much, but definately a different take on the noir genre.

  2. Rachel,
    I’m a sucker for all things Bette so I was glad when The Letter showed up at TCM recently. It’s on my DVR so I just need to find the time to watch it and after reading your great review I can’t wait to see it.

    On a side note: Now that our Blogathon has wrapped up we’ll be starting Six Degrees again so I hope you’ll continue to play with us.


  3. I wish more modern films would be shot in B&W, but I’m afraid that would be cinematic/monitary suicide. The masses would consider it a second rate product. But maybe The Artist will change all that.

  4. ‘The Letter’ does have a great beginning with the shooting, and Davis’ cold-blooded expression is mesmerizing. I also like the scene with her lawyer, played by the excellent James Stephenson, when she admits that she had sent her lover a letter – the tension between the 2 actors is beautifully played.

  5. One of Davis’ best performances. You’re right about that opening scene–wowza! Hey, but why do you refer to Leslie as an anti-hero? She was my hero with how she used that gun on that two-timing cad! LOL!

    • I wouldn’t say Leslie’s shooting of her lover makes her an anti-hero but everything else she does in the picutre sure does! She might be our protagonist but she’s a bit morally corrupt, no?

  6. Rachel, I think Bette Davis was the greatest actress of the 20th Century, and it’s hard to pick a best movie — but The Letter is my pick. That movie is mesmerizing from start to finish. I have sort of a tie with The Little Foxes for No. 1, another morally corrupt woman that Bette plays to perfection. I really enjoyed your post about a real classic!

  7. Saw this film the other night and I really enjoyed it. The acting, music and scenery were all outstanding. And the opening scene is very memorable indeed.

  8. Interesting and descriptive review. I watched the film recenty and really enjpyed it as I am a fan of Bette Davis. Also, do you yourself have a favourite Bette Davis performance?

    • That’s a good question and one I’ve never really considered. I would say “All About Eve” is probably my favorite of her movies but not necessarily my favorite performance. I loved her in “Now, Voyager”, “The Little Foxes” and always find myself wanting to quote her repeated “I don’t mind” from “Of Human Bondage”. Too difficult to pick just one!

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