Judge Jesse Ataide faces Bette Davis wielding a gun, and finds every second worth it.
"[Bette] Davis gives what is very likely the best study of female sexual hypocrisy in film history."—critic Pauline Kael
There are few kinds of films more pleasurable to watch than this kind of expertly made Hollywood trash. Starring the incomparable Bette Davis (All About Eve) and directed by William Wyler (Ben-Hur), The Letter is an engrossing Hollywood melodrama featuring what can safely be described as one of Davis's crowning achievements as a dramatic actress.
Facts of the Case
The Letter begins with one of the most famous and explosive openings in cinema history. Davis, her large eyes wild with rage, emerges from a plantation bungalow with a revolver in her hand and a dead man lying facedown at her feet. From there a rather convoluted story by W. Somerset Maugham unfolds involving a murder trial, deception, and a mysterious letter Davis must suppress at all costs.
Making the most of an opportunity to shine in a role perfectly suited to her dynamic personality and unique screen presence, Davis stars as Leslie Crosbie, a strong-willed woman not afraid to live her life controlled by her passionate nature. As she does in all her best films, Davis plays hardball with any man who dares cross her path, and her intensity makes it clear that without the influence of the Hollywood Production Code (which demanded that all on-screen sinners receive their just rewards by the end of the film) she could have easily managed to get away with anything she wanted to—and then some. Reigning in her distinctive mannerisms, she crafts a rich portrait of a society woman willing to kill a man to protect her lurid secrets. Whenever she is onscreen, Davis is the center of her universe, unwilling (or perhaps unable) to play by the same rules the mere mortals are governed by.
Herbert Marshall (Foreign Correspondent) plays Davis's loving but oblivious husband; as her lawyer, James Stephenson (The Sea Hawk) is the only character able to see through the veil of propriety Davis attempts to hide behind, and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Davis likewise received her fifth Academy Award nomination in six years for her work in The Letter.
William Wyler's reputation as a master director has diminished over the years, despite the distinction of being a three-time Academy Award winner (with a record twelve individual nominations besides). Since the rise of auteurism in the 1960s, many have criticized Wyler's lack of presence behind the camera, but The Letter could very well be Wyler's best work as a director—his camera swirls around the stuffy bungalows and stifling courtrooms of the exotic British Orient with startling aplomb. Anybody who claims that Wyler has no presence as a director is encouraged to watch this film as a terrific example of Hollywood craftsmanship at its finest.
Warner Brothers's full-frame presentation of The Letter isn't perfect, but certainly admirable for a film over sixty years old. Occasionally the image gets a tad grainy and some slight flickering occurs, but both are hardly perceptible and don't seriously detract from an otherwise beautiful transfer. The audio quality is likewise clear and clean with only minor defects. Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish are included.
There had been rumors floating around the internet for some time that an earlier adaptation of Maugham's story starring Jeanne Eagels was to be included on this disc. As that film has been unavailable for decades and is considered by some to be superior to the Davis remake, it is disappointing that such a spectacular extra never materialized. In its place is an alternate ending sequence that slightly tweaks the ending found in the final version film, and two hour-long radio presentations of the story starring Davis, Marshall, and Stephenson. Those willing to sit through a truncated audio version of the story for no less than two hours will find these extras of interest, the rest of us will probably just appreciate their inclusion and leave it at that. A theatrical trailer rounds out the extras provided on this overall stellar disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one aspect of The Letter that appears painfully outdated to modern eyes is the film's treatment of the Asian characters. Gale Sondergaard is embarrassingly serious in a painfully stereotyped role; the rest of the Asian cast are either a self-serving law assistants, leering opium addicts, or docile manual laborers.
The last complaint is minor: Max Steiner's score is his typical concoction of lush orchestra work that intrudes during every dramatic moment in the film. Thankfully, the infusion of several Asian-inspired motifs keeps the music from ever becoming wearisome.
Fans of glossy fare from classic Hollywood will adore this film, and for good reason. It's a noteworthy example of what could be accomplished when the studio system got all the individual elements absolutely right in a single film.
While Davis's character is clearly guilty, this disc is not.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Alternate Ending
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