Blu-ray Review: The Letter (1940)

Bette Davis (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) teamed for the second time with Director William Wyler for an adaptation of the of the W. Somerset Maugham play The Letter. A critical and box-office hit, the film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, Actress and Director. Featuring the kind of dark cinematography which would become a hallmark of some of the great noir classics released later in the decade and Max Steiner’s sweeping score, The Letter has everything (and Bette Davis!) for a classic melodrama.

It all begins with one of the most memorable opening sequenced in old Hollywood history. The stillness of a quiet evening on a Malayan rubber plantation is broken by the sound of gunshots. Leslie Crosbie (Davis) has just shot a man six times, apparently in the back. Leslie is the wife of Robert (Herbert Marshall), who manages the plantation. The deceased is Geoff Hammond, a neighbor who had paid her a visit that night. When Robert arrives with a police Inspector and her attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) in tow, Leslie tells all: what started out as a friendly drink had turned ugly; Geoff had attempted to rape her. She shot him in self-defense with the revolver her husband kept for protection. And so, begins what seems like an open-and-shut-case, but still needs to go through regular legal channels.

Leslie’s husband and community believe her story. Her lawyer, Howard Joyce is on board until evidence against her, in the form of an incriminating letter she wrote to Geoff, surfaces. Without telling her husband any details, Leslie’s lawyer buys the letter. Leslie is subsequently acquitted of murder. Eventually, Robert finds out what the letter said. Leslie was having an affair with Geoff. She had shot him in a fit of passion when he had tried to end it. Richard forgives her and asks if she still loves him, she pauses and then gives one of the great line readings of her career, “With all my heart I still love the man I killed!”

The Letter isn’t much of a whodunit. Truthfully, first time watchers may be able to guess the story’s outcome early on. Even so, the real enjoyment in the film comes from excellent performances from the cast led by Bette Davis, who imbued her character with all the highly charged emotion, overconfidence and flashes of vulnerability needed to avoid possible clichés in this kind of narrative. William Wyler is a master of camera movement. He uses shadow and lighting contrasts that add to the film noir look of movie. The Letter is highly recommended!

Framed in the original 1.37 aspect ratio this is another terrific remaster from Warner Archive. Like the August release of Jezebel. The black and white image sports solid black levels and crisp whites. The image, with strong contrast and a nice level of shadow detail. There are no apparent age-related defects. Viewers should be very pleased with this transfer.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix matches the video. Max Steiner’s brilliant score comes alive, revealing the most subtle of sounds. Dialogue and ambient sounds are well balanced throughout. Voices always rise above what can sometimes be a loud score from Steiner.

English SDH subtitles are included. Note: They are formatted in ALL CAPS and bright yellow.

The following extras are available:

  • Alternate Ending Sequence: A re-cut version of the original that essentially deletes Leslie’s teary confessional.
  • Lux Radio Theater Adaptations: Two different broadcasts, one from April 1941 and another from March 1944, both starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall as Leslie and Robert Crosbie.
  • Theatrical Trailer

The Letter (1940)
The Letter (1940)

Movie title: The Letter (1940)

Director(s): William Wyler

Actor(s): Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson , Gale Sondergaard, Frieda Inescort , Bruce Lester

Genre: Film Noir, Mystery, Crime, Drama

  • Movie
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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