Bette Davis in ‘The Letter’ (1940)

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.

Take that.

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.

And guess who has it.

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.


I humbly submit this to you as part of the Bette Davis Blogathon hosted at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

This entry was posted in 1940s Films, Actors, Blogathan, Film Noir, Movie Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Bette Davis in ‘The Letter’ (1940)

  1. Pingback: THE FOURTH ANNUAL BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HAS ARRIVED – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

  2. The Letter is a great movie and one of my favorite Bette roles. The opening sequence is right up there with the best of them. Really, the film should be mentioned as one of the first Noirs ever made. It usually isn’t.

    As much as I love Bette in this, I disagree that she is a strong woman. She’s a liar, cheat, user and manipulator who doesn’t want to take responsibilities for her actions. That is the path of least resistance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      I see your point, although the really easy way would have been for her to keep lying to herself about loving the victim. But, for whatever reason, she simply can’t.

      But, yes, she is a liar, cheat, user and manipulator. And that’s being kind! 🙂


  3. So many layers are revealed to all of the characters in The Letter, and the performances match Wyler’s vision perfectly. It is an endlessly fascinating film to watch, and certainly one of the most important in Davis’s filmography.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      Yes! It’s so hard to discuss this film without revealing spoilers, because of that complexity, but I agree.

      It’s a film worth watching multiple times.


  4. Such a great film, with one of the best opening scenes ever. It’s hard to write about, without giving too much away, but you did a superb job. I can’t imagine anyone else than Bette as Leslie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      Oh, thank you! Yes, that opening scene! Oh, man.

      According to Eddie Muller, Wyler made Bette redo the scene so many times, she finally said, “No more!” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Le says:

    Very nice review, and a incredible introduction for people who haven’t seen it yet. The Letter was one of the best, most surprising films I’ve ever seen!

    Liked by 1 person

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