This film was the perfect vehicle for an actress like Bette Davis. It opens on a moonlit night in the tropics of Malaya. We are on a rubber plantation where the native workers play music or sleep in their outdoor barracks, in contrast to the comfort of The Lord and Lady’s manor.
From inside the owner’s house, a shot rings out. And out stumbles a man followed forthwith by the Lady of the Manse, Leslie Crosbie (played by Bette Davis), smoking gun in hand. She proceeds to shoot him a few more times, because
if you’re going to kill someone, make sure you get the job done … well, she claims that the man, Geoff Hammond (distinguished White Guy), “tried to make love” to her. Which is Hays Code for rape, I assume.
As she pumps off the shots, Davis is hidden in shadow. And as we move toward her, the stoic expression registers. The famous Bette Davis eyes slightly hidden by half-mast eyelids. Those twin orbs like two marbles stuck in hardboiled eggs are curiously veiled.
So Leslie is hauled into the clink and charged with Murder. And, of course, as a white woman, a pillar of the community, she is seen by her peers as a heroic figure who had to kill to defend her honor.
The only fly in the ointment is a certain letter Leslie wrote to Dead Guy, begging him to see her. Leslie’s attorney learns of this and it doesn’t bode well for the case.
Davis may not portray a lovable woman here, but she is both a flawed and strong female character. One who could get away with murder and ignore the lies that allow it. But Leslie, at some level, won’t let herself off that easy. The depth and strength of intensity Davis conveys throughout the film makes Leslie look like a woman holding in a nervous breakdown. And, at some point, she must explode. Which she does in a rush of honesty most inconvenient for all concerned.
There is a trial and much to-do about the letter. I won’t reveal what the jury finds, but I will say justice is done.
Hays Office Noir justice.