The camera pans over the gardens of a Malayan house, as a full moon sidles behind ominous clouds, and rubber drips from the trees...until a shot rings out. Then we see Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, wife to plantation owner Bob (Herbert Marshall), coldly empty her gun into her lover`s body. Trust me, I`m giving nothing away.
The rest of this astonishing film concerns, outwardly at least, her trial for murder. Inwardly - well, the great Bette Davis rides another emotional wave in this 1940 drama (from a Somerset Maugham story) and proves once more what a unique and utterly compelling actress she was. An incredibly sexy one, too.
She was thirty-two when she made this, already something of a veteran, and she was lucky enough to be cast alongside a handful of superb actors, including first and foremost the now-obscure James Stephenson as the lawyer-friend who, reluctantly in the end, defends her. He`s brilliant, making one wonder why he wasn`t far better known. He gives a wholly natural performance in a film of high drama contrasted with passages of comparative quiet. You can feel the heat as verdicts are awaited, explanations delayed.
Herbert Marshall (he of the wooden leg, which one tries to forget) is at his best as the patient, slightly boring older husband, and Gale Sondergaard is effective as the Eurasian widow of the murdered man.
With Max Steiner`s overwraught, steamy music, and sensitive direction by the often pedantic William Wyler, The Letter is an irresistible brew of duplicity, sweaty stiff upper lips, smoky inner sanctums, and a neglected lovelorn woman`s crime of passion.
And Bette is, as usual, magical, utterly believable, unforgettable.
She made me give it a full five stars...