The Letter (1940)

by guest writer

The Letter opens the month dedicated to German born William Wyler. The director painstakingly worked his way up in Hollywood from prop boy to earning the name of “99-take Wyler”. Using the British writer W. Somerset Maugham’s stage play to create the script for the film, William Wyler developed with The Letter a classic melodramatic film noir of deceit and murder. The opening scene drive’s the viewer’s mind to mystery, being one of the most famous sequences ever produced. A tracking shot moves down the rubber tree where the valuable substance drips into special collecting containers, across a compound’s thatched hut where native laborers listen to music and play games after the working hours. As the camera moves up and right past a white cockatoo revealing the background of a colonial veranda, a gun shut inside the place unexpectedly ruins the bird’s quietness making it fly off.

With an unemotional, expressionless face, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) comes down the stairs firing gun shots until there are no bullets left. By focusing the camera on a close-up of Leslie’s face the director obviously tries to question why there are no betraying emotions. Even the nature’s forces represented by the moon help highlight the sensation of uneasiness by disappearing only to show up again illuminating the murder scene when Leslie looks up. Bette Davis was the perfect actress for the part and isn’t it a wonder why she appeals to us more when she is mean and evil?

image: screen still from the film; production credits


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