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The Letter Movie Review

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Frieda Inescort, Gale Sondergaard, Bruce Lester, Elizabeth Earl, Cecil Kellaway, Sen Yung, Doris Lloyd, Willie Fung, Tetsu Komai

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (James Stephenson), Best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Musical Score, Best Picture

Hell hath no fury like a Bette Davis scorned.

All is quiet on this Singapore rubber plantation. The moon illuminates the ground below as tired workers listen to soft music and relax in their hammocks. In the background, one gunshot is heard from inside a large bungalow. A well-dressed man staggers onto the veranda, holding what appears to be a gunshot wound. A woman, holding a smoking gun, follows her victim and shoots him again. As he falls from the stairs to the ground, she shoots him four more times, emptying the gun into his lifeless body.

The camera tracks up and lingers on her face. There’s no remorse. A cold-blooded, unemotional, expressionless woman looks down at the deed she’s done before summoning a servant boy to inform her husband (who works on the plantation) that Geoffrey Hammond is dead.

Our femme fatale, Leslie Crosby (Bette Davis) has just enough time to put on a mournful face before her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall) and a couple police offers burst through the door. All are charmed by her poise, graciousness and stoicism as she recounts her harrowing attempt at defending her honor against a man who supposedly took advantage of her good graces.

Though Robert and the officers present want to believe her, an investigation is still required by law. Robert hires a friend, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to act as Leslie’s attorney, but Howard is having trouble believing Leslie’s story. Furthermore, he becomes aware of new evidence, namely a letter, that may prove that Leslie isn’t so innocent after all.

In less experienced hands, the role of Leslie could come across as shrill, even malevolent. But Davis is masterful at showing us the woman behind the monster. I don’t know if it’s her striking stance or her saucer plate eyes, but Bette Davis was alluring, almost mystifying. I don’t quite trust her, but I’m scared not to trust her. I mean, how can a dainty woman who spends her time crocheting lace murder a man in cold blood?

In the end, The Letter was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Davis) and Best Cinematography, but didn’t take home any awards that night. However, it’s still beloved by fans of Davis and is a great, classical example of film noir at its best.

I won’t spoil the ending of this movie for you but, let’s just say, we reap what we sow. Karma comes for us all. When we weave a web of lies, each intertwining into a tangled ball of deceit, it only takes one hiccup, one mistake, one little, innocent letter, to unravel the entire thing.


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