Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 12, 2019)
Back in 1934, Bette Davis attained stardom via an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Davis returned to the Maugham well via 1940’s acclaimed drama The Letter.
Set in Singapore, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) owns a rubber plantation. While he’s away to inspect it, his wife Leslie (Davis) shoots and kills their neighbor, Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell).
Leslie claims she acted in self-defense, but questions arise. In particular, a letter apparently written by Leslie casts serious doubt on her innocence.
As I noted earlier, Letter received a lot of acclaim back in 1940. Davis and director William Wyler earned two of its seven Oscar nominations, and the film also entered contention for Best Picture.
Letter lost to Rebecca, probably because Hitchcock’s movie worked a whole lot better. Oddly sluggish and bland, Letter doesn’t go much of anywhere.
Which seems odd for two reasons, mainly related to the story’s inherent drama. A wealthy white woman in a foreign land gets accused of murder, so one should anticipate lots of tension and intrigue.
Unfortunately, Letter fails to generate much heat. Even at a mere 95 minutes, it stretches to fill the time with compelling material.
Really, we just wait to see various plot twists and determine Leslie’s fate. Everything else feels like window-dressing, and the narrative doesn’t develop the characters or situations well enough to occupy the cinematic real estate in a satisfying manner.
The other surprise relates to the level of talent involved. Davis remains one of the most honored actors in Hollywood history, as does Wyler, a three-time Best Director winner.
How could so many legends create such a bland experience? Davis does fine in the role, though it doesn’t require her to do much more than play the false victim, so the film fails to tax her talent.
At all times, The Letter seems professional. It just doesn’t turn into a particularly compelling tale.