Many fans have written about The Letter, the 1940 film masterpiece directed by William Wyler starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard. Most extol the talents of the actors in their respective relationships with each other on the screen, but they fail to mention two other characters, the tropical moon and Max Steiner’s haunting musical score.
In the infamous opening scene, it is dusk on a rubber plantation in Singapore. You can see and hear the drip, drip, drip of white sap from the tapped rubber trees into waiting containers; native workers are relaxing in hammocks in their open-air quarters as music plays; and everything is bathed by a stark white light as the full moon rises above the palm trees. It creates sharp shadows and gives everything an eerie appearance. The main house, its windows illuminated with the soft golden light of oil lamps, has as its overcoat the same stark moonlight. The stage is set.
A single gunshot rips through the darkness. A shadowed man staggers out of the doorway, and as he grabs at the stair railing, Bette Davis, as Leslie, strides with purpose after him, pumping five more bullets into the body of the man, now a heap at the foot of the porch steps.
Her pistol empty, Leslie notices the moon emerging behind the wispy clouds, exposing her crime for all to see. Like a puppeteer, the moon makes the music score rise, creating gooseflesh and dread as it crescendos. The pair have a symbiotic and paralyzing effect on Leslie as she realizes her world has been changed forever.
Before we viewers know the full story behind the killing, Leslie appears distraught as she sends her servants to retrieve her husband from a far part of the plantation as well as the authorities. When later she relates to them what happened, her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), their friend Howard Joyce, (James Stephenson), and the police official sympathize with her story of how the dead man, Geoff Hammond, their plantation foreman, tried to sexually assault her and that she shot him in self-defense.
Robert especially, declares his love and admiration for her bravery amid the sheer terror she must have felt. He begs Howard, his best friend, to represent Leslie as her defense attorney. Howard agrees, but you can see some concern on his face, especially when Leslie dismisses questions about how the Hammond’s behavior that night was so unlike his character. The first seeds of doubt are planted.
After her account of events, Leslie is told she must turn herself in to the authorities in Singapore, where she will be charged with manslaughter and jailed pending her trial. She repairs to the bedroom to pack a bag. That’s where the moonlight invades, its cold light coming through the slatted shutters, painting the bedroom floor with the bars of a prison cell. Leslie gazes up at the moon with pleading eyes as if to say she was justified in what she did.
While Leslie is in jail awaiting trial, she keeps herself occupied with her “lacing,” a skill that requires extreme concentration and patience. Delicate white lace emerges from her busy fingers as if nothing has changed in her life to throw off her rhythm. In fact, she tells visitors she really doesn’t mind the incarceration because it gives her uninterrupted time to pursue her craft. We notice also that she is extended every courtesy by the prison matrons. Her husband is a well-known in the rubber industry, and after all, Leslie was forced to defend herself against sexual assault by Hammond, who had recently married a Eurasian woman — taboo in British society.
Leslie’s composure is interrupted when Howard is informed by his law clerk about a letter allegedly written by Leslie requesting that Hammond come to the house the same evening he was killed. The letter was being offered for a price by a representative for Mrs. Hammond, the widow, with the assurance that the prosecution would not get hold of it. Howard reads a copy of the letter, and extremely concerned, confronts Leslie. At first, she denies writing it, but as the music score rises and fills the room like a guilty conscience, she comes clean, with the explanation that it was only to ask Hammond’s assistance in securing a birthday present for her husband Robert.
By then, Howard and the viewers realize that all this time Leslie had been weaving a story as full of holes as the lace bedspread she is sewing.
Leslie begs Howard to risk his career by procuring this damning evidence, so she won’t hang, and to keep its contents from Robert. She offers their entire savings to do so, again without her husband’s knowledge. At that point, Howard becomes just as caged as Leslie by his loyalty to Robert and his guilty conscience.
Leslie, released to Howard’s custody, accompanies him to Chinatown to purchase the letter from Mrs. Hammond. The Eurasian woman appears in heavy mask-like makeup, dressed in Asian silk, and adorned with numerous necklaces and bangles. She drills her small steely eyes into Leslie’s wide ones, daring her to pick up the letter that she has disdainfully dropped on the floor. There is no escape for Leslie. The cold moonlight outside is guarding her escape, and, the music swells throughout the room, paralyzing her. Although she is swathed in white lace, Leslie knows that everyone in the room, including Howard, believes her guilty of cold-blooded murder.
Although Howard can barely get through his closing statement in Leslie’s defense at the trial, the jury declares Leslie not guilty. Robert and their friends, delighted and full of congratulations, plan a homecoming party for Leslie. Then Robert announces his plans to start a new venture far away from Singapore where he and Leslie can start a whole new life. He explains his intention to use their savings as a down payment on this new venture. Both Leslie and Howard try to talk him out of it, because they know that the savings are gone.
But it’s no use, Robert is adamant and asks why they are so against his idea. Then he learns about the savings, and purchase of the letter, and demands to see the letter. That’s when it all falls apart…
Leslie reveals the true message behind the letter and why she killed Geoff Hammond, her longtime lover who had broken off their affair to marry a Eurasian. Robert is crushed, but he decides to forgive her.
In the final scene the homecoming party is underway, but after a few minutes, Leslie can no longer face her friends, her husband, or herself. She retreats to the bedroom, dark except for the moonlight slicing though the slatted shutters. The shadows cross her face and Leslie feels her entrapment. Drawn outside by the moonlight, she leaves the bedroom through the garden door into the gardens, fearful of the shadows that threaten to engulf her. And with the music score rising like a tidal wave, Leslie pays the ultimate price for killing Geoff Hammond.
Like a judge and jury, the tropical moon and music score close the final curtain on a life gone wrong.