Bette Davis stands out as the grande dame of the forties' in this stunning black and white drama set in Malaysia on a rubber plantation. In superb form, Leslie Crosbie (Davis), the wife of the plantation owner portrays an accused murderer on trial for her life after shooting an intruder who made unwanted advances while her husband (Herbert Marshall) was away on business. Covering up a secret long tem affair with her victim, Leslie claims self-defense, managing to fool her social circle, remaining distant throughout the trial, fans spinning away the oppressive heat of the courtroom. Her attorney (James Stephenson) has mounted a simple defense. All goes well until the appearance of an incriminating letter, held by the Eurasian woman Leslie's lover rejected her for, an exotic and unforgiving creature who has been induced to sell the letter to Leslie and her attorney for an exorbitant amount.
Skillfully feigning innocence until confronted with the proof of her extra-marital affair, Leslie attempts to manipulate the emotions of her attorney, but to no avail, her fainting spells and huge pleading eyes an insufficient deterrent in his justified outrage. Appealing to his loyalty and respect for her husband, Leslie encourages her lawyer to purchase the letter that will surely damn her in the jury's eyes, knowing that this is a felonious offense and he can be disbarred should his involvement be discovered. Ever the pragmatist, Leslie is willing to save her own life at the expense of her lawyer's integrity and her husband's honor. There is one caveat to the sale: Leslie must accompany the attorney to Chinatown to face the woman in order to affect the exchange, terms Leslie accepts. Released to the care of the lawyer, Leslie arrives in Chinatown under the cover of night, passing through the crowded streets unnoticed. At the time of the exchange, the woman is imperious, demanding that Leslie approach to receive the letter, which she drops at the perfidious woman's feet, hatred seething in her eyes.
Leslie is found not guilty but undone by her own refusal to deny the passion that caused the death of her lover. Unable to lie to her husband, who must be told of the money taken from his account, Leslie faces his hurt with equanimity, knowing he will forgive her any deed. Indeed, he is willing; it is Leslie who cannot deny her lover, who is still tormented by the rejection that brought about her crime of passion. Distraught, she wanders into the night garden of their estate, stepping just outside the gates, where she is confronted by the silent Eurasian woman and her companion. In the background, strains of music pierce the air, the celebration party in full swing. The Letter (1940) is a perfect vehicle for Davis, her dramatic flair never more evident than when in danger of exposure, manipulating those around her in the name of expedience. From the stark opening scene, Davis is the focus of attention and deservedly so. The film nominated for a number of Oscars, William Wyler showcases Davis' considerable talents in a drama of love and betrayal, as one woman's ungovernable passion taints not only her life but those around her, only to fall victim to her own demons, vintage Davis at her most magnificent, still powerful seventy years later. Luan Gaines.