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The Letter [1940 film] by William Wyler

The Letter [1940 film] (1940)

by William Wyler

Other authors: Bette Davis, W. Somerset Maugham (Original story), Max Steiner

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The Letter (1940)

Bette Davis - Leslie Crosbie
Herbert Marshall - Robert Crosbie
James Stephenson - Howard Joyce
Gale Sondergaard - Mrs. Hammond
Victor Sen Yung - Ong Chi Seng

Screenplay by Howard Koch, based on the short story by W. Somerset Maugham.
Directed by William Wyler.

Black and white. 95 min.


Despite Somerset Maugham’s fame as one of the most filmed authors, I have never considered his fiction to be especially filmable. The reason is quite simple. Great storyteller as he certainly was, plot was never the most important thing for Maugham. It was always the characters, with all their complexity and unpredictability, that fascinated him most. And this seldom translates well to the screen. But there are exceptions. This 1940 version of ''The Letter'', one of Maugham’s most famous stories and the only one he adapted into a play of the same name himself, is definitely among the exceptions.

The Letter has a very good plot indeed. It’s not exactly a whodunit, but it may well be defined as a why-done-it. Yet it is the characters of Leslie Crosbie, the victim and murderess, her naïve and gullible yet not as stupid you might think husband Robert, and the sharp, cool and humane lawyer Howard Joyce who elevate an ordinary melodrama to a masterpiece. Indeed, ''The Letter'' is one of several stories for which Maugham claimed to have received complete; it was based on a notorious murder case in British Malaya at the time when the famous author was roaming through it. He just wrote it down, he said, and for once he underestimated himself. The plot is expertly paced and brilliantly revealed, building up to a mighty climax in the end. But it is the characters that stay with me long after the last paragraph.

That’s why we are fortunate to have such a tremendous trio of actors in the 1940 version. Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie steals the show and this is as it should be. She is terrific from start to finish, no movements wasted, no words spoken in vain. Even her overacting is meticulously prepared and not without some relevance to the plot. Herbert Marshall, who six years later would play Maugham himself in The Razor’s Edge (1946), is a suitably doting husband, rather easy to be taken in. James Stephenson should be better known than he is. He gives a powerful performance as Howard Joyce, including some well-placed and perfectly plausible elaborations on part of the screenwriter Howard Koch. Among the supporting cast the gold goes to Gale Sondergaard for her intense portrayal of the victim’s native wife, another compellingly enlarged part.

The script sticks very closely to the original (play rather than story) and it’s so much the better for it. Many memorable lines were transferred verbatim on the screen; they sound just as fine as they do on paper. The basic differences are the meeting between Leslie and the native wife (it is Robert, not his wife, who accompanies the lawyer in the story), and the finale. I am not going to spoil the latter for those who haven't seen it yet. But I do want to reassure them that it was not cheapened in the typical Hollywood style. I feared it would be and I am happy that I was wrong. The sequence after the trial scene is perhaps a trifle overlong, but an anticlimax is artfully avoided. Stay tuned until the very end. Surprises just keep coming.

Screen changes in Maugham's original material are usually detrimental, having the unpleasant effect of sentimentalizing his plots and/or robbing his characters of their complexity and charm. This is not the case here. The ending is not just probable and natural. It also is brutal and chilling. (Could this be the reason why this movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards but won none? It must have offended the priggish fellows in the jury.) This is what I mean with the title of this review: if you can think of something different from, yet equally exciting to, the original, so long as it makes sense don’t hesitate to change the script in order to produce a better effect on the screen.

Last but not least, the ''secondary cast'' behind the scenes is excellent, too. The sumptuous score of Max Steiner is suggestive without being obtrusive. The direction of William Wyler is, of course, superb. One can always revisit this movie for the sheer delight of the imaginative direction alone. It is always creative and rich in evocative detail (e.g. the opening sequence with the rubber), yet it is never turned into a self-indulgent display as so often happens with other ''great'' directors.

Taken as a whole, the movie has virtually no weak points. My only mild complaint has to do with the improbable plot element (missing in the original story) according to which Crosbie doesn't know the price of the letter long after it was bought; another slight blemish is that Leslie's devastating sexual passion has been toned down, but I guess it's asking too much for a 1940 production to show anything as steamy as that; the movie, as I’ve already said above, is actually quite daring for its time. The rest is as close to perfection as they come: great story, brilliant acting, impeccable direction, evocative black-and-white cinematography, sultry score. This is how Maugham should be filmed: with great cast and great director, with taste and flair for drama. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Sep 28, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Wylerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Davis, Bettesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maugham, W. SomersetOriginal storysecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Steiner, Maxsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Set on a rubber plantation in Malaya, this story centers on a woman's reasons for killing a man who was a close family friend.

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