The Letter has a history running back to 1927. Twice before it has been seen in legit and once before (1929) in films, each time with a top femme star in the principal role. Yet never has [the W. Somerset Maugham play] been done with greater production values, a better all-around cast or finer direction. Its defect is its grimness. Director William Wyler, however, sets himself a tempo which is in rhythm with the Malay locale.
Story is essentially a mystery. It opens with Bette Davis shooting a man dead as he runs from her plantation house. The question mark from there to the climax is why? She explains to her planter-husband (Herbert Marshall) and an attorney friend (James Stephenson) that the mudered man, an old family intimate, had made advances to her and in her angry resentment she picked up a revolver. It’s evident from the coolness of her recital that she’s not telling the truth.
Stephenson’s smart native assistant, excellently played by Sen Yung, brings him word of a letter she has written. It was to the man she killed and was in the hands of his wife, a Malay gal (Gale Sondergaard). Through it, it is revealed that for 10 years the murderess has been having an affair with her victim and the fatal triggerwork resulted when she discovered he had thrown her over for the beauteous native.
Davis’ frigidity at times seems to go even beyond the characterization. On the other hand, Marshall never falters. Virtually stealing thesp honors in the pic, however, is Stephenson as the attorney, while Sondergaard is the perfect mask-like threat.
Set is of tremendous proportions and the music by Max Steiner is particularly noteworthy in creating and holding a mood, as well as in pointing up the drama.
1940: Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Bette Davis), Supp. Actor (James Stephenson), B&W Cinematography, Editing, Original Score