The Letter

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Melodramas don’t start much better than 1940’s The Letter. A man fleeing from a bungalow on a balmy evening in Malaya. A woman fires at gun at him. He falls to the ground, obviously dead. She continues firing, not stopping until all the chambers are empty.

“He tried to make love to me and I shot him,” the woman explains to her husband later. From the cold way we saw those chambers being emptied, we suspect this is not the entire truth. Nor do we entirely believe that the woman and the dead man barely knew each other. Because the woman’s explanation seems just a touch too blithe and high-handed. And because the woman is played by Bette Davis, at full Bette Davis swish.

The local colonial district officer arrives and so does a lawyer. She’ll have to stand trial, obviously, they both explain, but self-defence in the face of an attempted rape should be enough to get her off. And then it turns out that there is a letter, somewhere, that puts a whole different spin on events.

Adultery might give this story its initial push but it’s racism that gets it aloft. To get hold of the letter and destroy it Leslie (Davis) isn’t just going to have to pay out a massive amount in blackmail money – and work out how to explain the missing money to her doting husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) – she’s going to have to deal with the dead man’s wife, a Eurasian, who she refers to scornfully as “that native woman” with “cobra eyes”.

This adaptation of a Somerset Maugham short story is an intricately constructed jigsaw of interlocking relationships which comes to a climax when Leslie and the Eurasian Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) finally meet and Mrs Hammond gives Leslie a taste of the colonial medicine. But en route to that there’s the constantly evolving relationship between Leslie and her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), a decent, respectful man whose attitude towards Leslie shifts, shifts and shifts again, and never towards the positive, until he’s almost snarling at her. He’ll do his utmost to get her off, but the more he learns about Leslie and “the letter” the lower his opinion of her.

Ong, Leslie and lawyer Howard Joyce
Letter-focused Ong, Leslie and lawyer Howard Joyce

The husband barely features, and Marshall plays him as another of those saps he was good at playing, here the cuckold blinded by love. It’s really a two-hander between Davis and Stephenson, who dance around each other expertly, while director William Wyler fills in the background with a picture of the colonial lifestyle – hidebound, gin-soaked, boring – that makes Leslie’s dalliance more understandable.

There’s also the relationship between the white colonials (Davis has half a go at being British but soon gives up) and the brown locals, most obviously in the figure of the “hideous” (Leslie’s description) Mrs Hammond but also of Ong (Victor Sen Yeung, familiar as “number one son” in various Charlie Chan movies), the assistant to Howard Joyce who acts as an oily go-between but might in fact be a bit more than that. Again, nicely done.

The mood-establishing opening shot of Mr Hammond’s death with Leslie imperiously standing over him and shooting took Wyler all day to capture, but once things are underway he lets the actors rather than his camera catch the eye, right up to the last few scenes when he plugs back into melodrama again for a finale that’s shocking, technically elaborate and, according to the demands of the censor at the time, entirely fitting. (The censor also wasn’t too happy about the races mingling, which is why Mrs Hammond is Eurasian, rather than Chinese, as she was in Maugham’s original story.)

Incidentally, there’s a clip of Maggie Smith on YouTube telling Judi Dench how she had two roles in The Letter, as “a Chinese boy in an opium den” and as “the Malayan woman”. That does sound like this The Letter but she must be mistaken, unless the six-year-old dame-to-be was somehow on the west coast of America at the time, instead of at home in Oxford, England. Maybe keep an eye out for her.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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