I knew almost nothing about The Letter before I started it; all I knew was that it starred Bette Davis, and the genre meant it was likely to be a nice change of pace from all the straight melodramas I’d watched in the last few nominees. Well, I started it, eager to see another Bette Davis film… Then the opening happened, and if you’ll excuse the vernacular, it slapped me upside my fucking skull. From there, I was glued to the screen; I had to know what this whole thing was about. Well, from there, the film settled down a good deal, but it was still a damn good drama, and when you field a damn good drama from director William Wyler with an equally good performance from Bette Davis, you’re gonna get some plaudits from me.
There’s no sense going about a plot summary without talking about the opening, so let’s have at it. We open on a plantation in Malaysia, as the workers all set to go to sleep after a day’s work… when a shot rings out from the main house. And another. The workers all turn and get up, only to see a man stumble out of the front door, followed by Bette Davis, who holds a gun up to the man and fires again, emptying the revolver into his body as he flops to the ground. The man is Mr. Hammond, a well-regarded member of the British settlement nearby, and Davis is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of the plantation owner, and she soon admits to the man’s murder as self-defense when Hammond forced himself on her. Mr. Crosbie and defense attorney Howard Joyce seem ready to prove Mrs. Crosbie’s story in the inevitable trial to come, that is until it becomes known to Joyce that a portion of Leslie’s story of what occurred that night is not actually viable; a letter is discovered that not only proves Leslie’s assertion that Hammond and her had not seen or spoken to each other in some months is untrue, but threatens to paint the entire case in a much different light. Let’s start with the film’s elephant: This would seem to be a role that was written and embroidered for Bette Davis, and she handles such a gift as only she could. The only qualm I had with it was that it wasn’t an all-encompassing performance mostly due to the fact that Davis isn’t on the screen for virtually the entire running time; there are points where she is absent, and you notice that she is, but it would seem to be a necessity with how Wyler sets up all the characters as players, including James Stephenson as her lawyer as well as a very strange but effective turn from Gale Sondergaard as the Eurasian widow of the man Davis kills in the opener. I’ll give William Wyler some kudos as well, mostly for actually playing with light and shadow as well as some effective camera moves when he didn’t really have to, so there’s that as well.
I was surprised a heck of a lot by The Letter, and just as entertained by the whole ordeal to boot. The opening scene is iconic, and the rest of the film threatens to come down a little too far from where the film starts out at, but for me, it didn’t cross that particular line, mostly thanks to the good work with camera and production value from Wyler; plus, you have a killer performance from Bette Davis (ha; see what I did there?) to throw on the pile as well. Add to it that the film barely crosses the 90-minute mark, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome in the slightest, and you have a pretty good winner on your hands in my book. I’m not fully convinced it really did enough to see a Best Picture nomination through to a possible win, but that the Academy decided to put it there is more than a nice gesture, especially considering some of the other films the Oscars had to offer that year (and other years).
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10