The famous playwright Somerset Maugham wrote The Letter in 1927 after being inspired by true life events. In 1911 Ethel Proudlock was charged with murder and sentenced to death. The play was made into a movie and directed by William Wyler in 1940. I have to admit I’m a Davis fan and this is one of her best classic movies,
Bette Davis received 3 Oscar nominations under Wyler’s direction with three of the best classic movies: The Letter, The Little Foxes (1941) and Jezebel (1938). And won the Oscar for Jezebel. She said that he taught her a lot and she was a better actress because of him.
There is a full moon in the sky and the camera moves down into the Rubber Company, Singapore, Plantation No. 1. The local plantation workers are sleeping in hammocks and playing board games. Relaxing at the end of a long, hot work day in their quarters a few kilometers from the main house.
Bang! A shot is heard in the main house. A man stumbles out of the front door clutching himself. Bang! A second shot is fired. A woman is standing in the doorway pointing the gun at the man. Bang! She fires a third shot at him. Now, he’s on the ground. She moves towards him. Bang, bang, bang! She empties the gun on him.
Mrs Leslie Crosbie (Davis) holds the pistol limply at her side and is frozen as she stares down at the man she has just shot. The workers are disturbed and are chattering amongst themselves. She cranes her head up to the sky and moonlight sweeps over her stricken, wide-eyed expression. She quickly turns and looks at the man and slowly walks back into the house. The head boy (Tetsu Komai) whispers, “But Mr Hammond.” He notices the gun on the steps and Mrs Crosbie tells him to come inside.
The Husband, The Attorney And The Police Inspector
Mrs Crosbie tells the head boy to send word to her husband that there has been an accident and Mr Hammond has been shot. She locks herself in her bedroom and begins to cry until Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) arrives. She asks if he is still there, but the body has been taken away. And says to her husband, “He tried to make love to me and I shot him.”
She turns to speak to Mr Withers (John Lester) and her attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) but struggling waivers and has to sit down. She is lying supine on the sofa with a shot of alcohol whilst her doting husband comforts her. To one side, Mr Withers informs Howard that the body was riddled with bullets with the chamber emptied.
Howard and Mr Withers are eager to ask Leslie the details leading up to the shooting but Mr Crosbie tries to intervene. However, Leslie says it’s okay and tries to explain. By which, she is informed by Mr Withers that they are all friends there.
Leslie tells them her account of what happened from the moment Mr Hammond arrived to when he was killed. He arrived in silence as no car was heard. Mr Withers confirms that he saw the dead man’s car parked a few miles away from the house. Apparently, he told Leslie that he didn’t want to disturb her and Mr Crosbie in case they were asleep when he visited. Mr Hammond flirted and complimented Leslie, telling her she has pretty eyes and hands. She was shocked at his advances as he never took any interest in her before.
At this point Mr Withers asks why she didn’t just throw him out. But Leslie says she didn’t want to make a fuss. They ask her when did she realise that he was serious. She explains it is when he told me he was in love with me. On hearing that Mr Crosbie blurts out, “The swine!”
She continues on and describes how he flung himself at her to try to kiss her. In the scuffle, she takes the gun and shoots him. She states that it has been all a blur and that she cannot remember properly what happened after the gun was fired.
Murder Or Manslaughter?
They believe her and tell her that she is brave. They all sit down for dinner and Leslie asks whether she’ll be arrested or if she will go to jail. Howard states it will depend on the ruling and she may be charged with murder. He says that she must speak with the General Attorney and tell him her self-defence story. She begins to pack and prepare to go.
Just before they leave Howard speaks to her alone. He says when he examined the body some shots were fired when Mr Hammond was already on the ground. And to that she says everything was so confusing and blurry that she didn’t know what she was doing.
Outside the main house in the shadows, we see two figures. Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) and the head boy. Mrs Hammond watches Leslie as she leaves the house. She then goes to see her husband’s body in the out house.
The Brilliant And Boundless Bette
The above is just a small bite of the first 15 minutes. If that didn’t inspire you to watch then know that Davis is incredible to watch in this movie. We see clearly why she was the first actor to be nominated for 5 consecutive Academy Awards. All for the category of Best Actress too!
Gale Sondergaard is famous for playing many roles in some of the best classic movies. She was The Spider Woman (1943), which is one of 14 fabulous Sherlock Holmes movies. Holmes being played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as his sidekick Dr. Watson.
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Respect to the Image Makers!
Bette Davis on stage, in her later years by Alan Light (Wunderstock)