The Letter

dir. William Wyler

TIFF Cinematheque - Hollywood Classics

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An ice-cold murderess (Bette Davis) plots to recover the incriminating letter that could send her to the gallows, in William Wyler's superb Malay-set noir.

Terrence Rafferty claimed in his 2008 New York Times celebration of Davis that William Wyler's superb Malay-set noir (based on a play by Somerset Maugham) was the best of the three films that she made with the director, while Pauline Kael famously claimed that in The Letter "Davis gives what is very likely the best study of female sexual hypocrisy in film history." The sang that flows through Davis' veins is certainly froid in her precisely controlled performance as Leslie Crosbie, the devious wife of a British plantation owner (Herbert Marshall) who shoots a family friend, then coolly claims that she did it to protect her honour. When an incriminating letter that might lead to Leslie's conviction for murder comes to light, she plots to buy and destroy it. Featuring "one of the most talked-about opening shots in movie history" (Turner Classic Movies) and ending as it began in a deadly tropical night, clouds scudding over the moon to conceal yet another murder, The Letter is "a superbly crafted melodrama ... Tony Gaudio's camerawork [is] almost worthy of Sternberg in its evocation of sultry Singapore nights and cool gin slings" (Time Out London).