Before directing classics such as Roman Holiday and Ben-Hur, the legendary William Wyler was already on a hot streak during his early years. Four years removed from landing his first Academy Award nomination for directing Dodsworth, Wyler scored his third of twelve such nominations with the 1940 picture, The Letter. The crime drama is based on the 1927 play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, which was derived from his own short story inspired by a real-life scandal. The Letter was another critical success for Wyler as it earned seven Academy Award nominations, including the fifth for star Bette Davis. Warner Archive has once again rescued a beloved classic for a new generation of film lovers.
A shot rings out on a tropical moonlit night in Malaya as a man stumbles out of a house and is promptly shot several more times. The house belongs to a wealthy British rubber plantation manager, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall), whose wife, Leslie (Bette Davis), has just shot a man dead. The crime took place in clear view of their native workers while Mr. Crosbie was away working on the plantation. In light of this terrible tragedy, he is fetched along with his attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), and a British inspector. The man who was shot is Geoff Hammond, a well-regarded friend of the family and member of the community. Leslie recounts how Geoff showed up at the house and tried to take advantage of her, forcing her to shoot him to protect her honor. The story is accepted by everyone, but Leslie still has to go through the process of being arrested and standing trial for the murder. The only thing standing between Leslie and her freedom is the whisper of a letter that casts doubt on the validity of her story. The exact contents of this letter is unknown to everyone except Leslie and the current purveyor of the letter, Hammond’s Eurasian widow (Gale Sondergaard) who is looking for vengeance in the form of a payout or blood.
The Letter has an expert command of pace and tone that gives it an unsettling quality as the mystery continues to unfold. The film is leisurely paced without seeming overlong, leaning into establishing a tense atmosphere instead of burning through plot developments. The revelations in this film are not altogether shocking or surprising to any casual viewer of crime dramas, but the performances and direction elevate this movie to something special. Bette Davis brings a fearless complexity to the role that swings from an icy deviousness to vulnerability sold by her impossibly beguiling eyes. Few actresses could have accomplished what Davis does in this role. Marshall and Stephenson are likewise impressive in their evolving roles throughout the film. The dialogue in these characters interactions remain whip smart throughout the runtime, which draws the viewers ever deeper into the web of lies. The Letter takes you on a twisty journey that is very much worth your time. Wyler has crafted a beautifully shot, efficient film noir that is immensely entertaining on all fronts.
The Letter makes its Blu-Ray debut with a new 1080p HD master that is very strong. The black and white cinematography from director of photography Tony Gaudio (The Life of Emile Zola) is simply gorgeous with smooth gradients and subtle textures. This transfer maintains the filmic quality of the picture with fine film grain giving way to rich details. Black levels are appropriately deep without any pesky nuisances such as digital noise or compression artifacts. The transfer also eradicates any dust specks or print damage previously present on home entertainment. There are very minor instances of softness in certain shots, but overall Warner Archive has treated this classic film with the utmost respect.
The Blu-Ray comes with a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track that is of the highest quality. The dialogue and background noises are rendered crisp and clear with no obvious sync issues. Instances of age-related wear or popping are virtually nonexistent. The score from Max Steiner can be slightly overwhelming at times, due to the original production preferences, but it maintains a good balance with the dialogue that never compromises the presentation. There are optional English (SDH) subtitles included during the main feature. Overall, this is a lovely sounding release that does the film justice.
- Alternate Ending: This ending is largely the same as the one used in the film, but it excises the key confrontation between Leslie and Robert that William Wyler insisted on keeping in the film despite Davis’ objections. This version lessens the emotional gut punch that is present in the final version. This is presented in standard definition.
- Lux Radio Theater Adaptations
- 4/21/1941 Broadcast: An hour-long broadcast featuring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson in the same roles they inhabited in the film. The show is produced and introduced by Cecil B. Demille. It is a fun experience to hear an old school broadcast such as this one with presenting sponsors and interesting Foley work.
- 3/06/1944 Broadcast: Another hour long broadcast of The Letter featuring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall. This time the two are joined by Vincent Price in the role of Howard Joyce. It is worth it just to check out what Vincent brings to the role.
- Trailer: The two-minute trailer plays up the dramatic twists and turns that are in store from the film. It’s an efficient distillation of the film, but it would be best viewed after your first viewing as it has spoilerific images.
The Letter serves as an effective mystery-crime thriller from the great William Wyler. Better Davis is so naturally magnetic in the role that it is difficult to keep your eyes off of her. The film is expertly paced and staged to keep the audiences hooked the entire time. Warner Archive maintains their high-level of excellence with a first-rate A/V presentation along with some worthwhile extras. Classic film fans should not hesitate to add this one to your collection. Recommended
The Letter can be purchased directly through Warner Archive or various other online retailers.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Warner Archive has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.