As THE LETTER opens, David Newell visits Davis's Malayan rubber plantation while her husband, Marshall, is away on business. Davis shoots him to death, and later claims that Newell, an old family friend, tried to attack her and that she killed him in self-defense. Marshall, ever faithful, believes her absolutely and asks Stephenson, a respected lawyer, to defend her. Stephenson then receives word that Newell's Eurasian widow, Sondergaard, has in her possession a letter Davis wrote to Newell, asking him to come to visit her at the plantation on the night he was killed. When confronted with this information, Davis coldly admits that she murdered Newell and that he was her lover. Taking pity on her, Stephenson agrees to buy the letter for $10,000--Sondergaard's blackmail price--telling Marshall there will be some extra expenses in preparing Davis' case, but not how much money is involved. Sondergaard insists that she will not turn the letter over unless Davis claims it personally, leading to a dramatic scene in which Davis must kneel at her feet to pick up the incriminating document. After Davis is deemed innocent of the murder charge in court and returns home to Marshall, the husband discovers that all his savings have been spent to buy the letter and demands to be told what it contains. Davis admits everything, but the always forgiving Marshall--now an emotional shambles--tells her he loves her still. As Davis walks into the garden, Sondergaard appears with a henchman and stabs Davis to death. Police stop them when they try to flee.
Though W. Somerset Maugham's story could easily have been filmed as a turgid melodrama, director William Wyler's magnificent handling of the material and Bette Davis's taut and calculated performance converted it into enduring cinematic art. THE LETTER is as good today as it seemed upon its first release. Though Davis's strong performance is the film's center, Herbert Marshall (who had played the lover in an earlier version of the story) is excellent as the long-suffering husband, and James Stephenson actually manages to steal scenes from his costars as the honest lawyer who puts his career in jeopardy for a friend. Jack Warner asked Wyler to test Stephenson for the role, but when Wyler (to his own surprise) recognized the superiority of Stephenson's acting and cast him, the unpredictable Warner balked at the move, worrying about the stock player's lack of name recognition.
Wyler insisted upon keeping Stephenson, putting him in the odd position of having to fight to cast an actor Warner had originally suggested.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: As THE LETTER opens, David Newell visits Davis's Malayan rubber plantation while her husband, Marshall, is away on business. Davis shoots him to death, and later claims that Newell, an old family friend, tried to attack her and that she killed him in self-… (more)