The Letter, 1940. 9/10

Very atmospheric early film noir. The cinematography, in the exotic Singapore setting, along with the moody, enchanting music, adds up to a very entertaining experience. Bette Davis is in top form as the adulterer/murderer Leslie. Her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) is a stoic presence, the surviving victim of Leslie’s affair with Hammond. It’s bad enough that Robert’s fooled by his wife, righteously assuming that she’s killed Hammond in self-defense, but he’s also pretty much bankrupted by the successful attempt to blackmail their way out of her legal trouble.

Leslie is a loose cannon–she kills her lover because he’s unwilling to betray his wife, the mysterious, menacing Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard). Though the women really only have two scenes together, that’s enough to anchor the plot. Both the scene in the Chinese quarter where the incriminating letter is exchanged, and the denouement, where the moon hides behind a cloud to cover Leslie’s death from the vengeful widow’s knife, are masterpieces. There’s a sort of fusion of music, shadow, light, and action that draws us into the suffocation of the opium den and the melancholy indifference of the palm trees swaying in the night sky.

Strangely, Robert seems to suffer a lot more than Leslie. He’s not in control of events, and doesn’t know until very late in the game what the letter actually says. His frenetic scheme to start over in Sumatra is pathetic, as he realizes he doesn’t have the money anymore, and, even if he did, things won’t be the same with Leslie. The final nail in his emotional coffin is her admission that she still loves her lover. But love her husband, not so much. Even their friend Howard (James Stephenson) is compromised; his role in the blackmail deal can ruin him.

The go-between in the blackmail plot, Ong (Sen Yung), is an interesting character. Like Leslie, he’s unscrupulous. Behind a veneer of respectability, he’s completely out for himself. Although one can understand the other Chinese as victims of colonial rule, Ong uses the gap between cultures to his advantage. Leslie is never more authentic than in the ‘payoff’ scene; clearly out of her depth, she recognizes that Mrs. Hammond is in control, even thanking her for completing the bargain. The knife with the decorative handle has just made its first appearance; it’s shown because it’s going to be used at some point.. When Leslie has it after her last talk with Robert, there’s a couple of possibilities: will she kill herself? Or maybe Robert? Most likely it would be Mrs. Hammond, who apparently had the same idea (using the matching knife). The question arises then: is Leslie’s murder justified? I doubt that we’re supposed to think so; though we might feel otherwise.

The letter is definitely worth seeing–for Bette Davis, the mystery/noir plot and effects, and the psychological tension. 9/10.

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