William Wyler’s 1940 film The Letter opens with the remarkable image of Bette Davis storming out of a plantation home, gun in hand, felling an unseen man. Well, we do see him, but not until he is a corpse on the ground, and Davis has shot him more times than needed to make sure he’s down. Davis is illuminated from the light inside the house, film noir shadows dancing across her face (in what turns out to be a recurring image); she doesn’t seem pained, more surprised at what she’s done.
From the very start, then, The Letter is a different kind of film noir: made early in the genre’s life, the film focuses on Davis’ Leslie Crosbie, the unsatisfied wife of a British rubber plantation owner in Singapore. She’s not a femme fatale in the noir sense, even though she quite literally is. She’s simply an unhappy woman who kills Geoff Hammond, a colleague of her husband’s; she claims that he came over and forced himself upon her, and she only did what any woman would have in her place. Of course, her story falls apart over the course of the film, but we get the sense from the very beginning that Leslie – and her husband, friends, and even lawyer – knows she’s above local law as a British citizen in a colonized country.
That cozy solidarity that the white characters share is shattered by Hammond’s unnamed wife, a woman of indeterminate Asian ethnicity who lives in the Chinese part of town. Though the casting of Mrs. Hammond is unfortunately whitewashed – Danish Minnesotan Gale Sondergaard plays the role – the role itself is a fascinating one. Mrs. Hammond is a shadowy figure who holds Leslie’s entire fate in her hands; she is in possession of the titular letter, which Leslie wrote to Mr. Hammond, inviting him over for a tryst since her husband was away. Through back channels, she lets Leslie’s lawyer know she is in possession of the letter, and will give it back to her for a considerable sum of money. Mrs. Hammond pushes Leslie’s idea of her own white privilege to the extreme – she convinces her straight-and-narrow lawyer to pay the blackmail fee, sure that she won’t get caught if she can only get her hands on that letter.
Leslie and Mrs. Hammond have only one scene together, but it’s a doozy. After summoning Leslie to her home to present her with the blackmail money in person – the ways in which Hammond forces Leslie to use her status to continue breaking the law are really remarkable! – Mrs. Hammond, who does not speak English, forces Leslie to wait in her atelier, appears from behind a beaded curtain, then requests, through an interpreter, that Leslie take off the lace shawl she has covering her head. The juxtaposition of the two women – murderer and victim, wife and widow, privileged and not, light and dark – is beautiful, and the most effective image in the film.
Upon receiving the blackmail money, Hammond drops the letter to the floor, forcing Leslie to bend over to pick it up: one last act of defiance to the society that keeps her a second-class citizen. With the letter, the only piece of evidence, in her possession, Leslie easily beats the murder charge with her self-defense story. But while she has escaped legal punishment, she constantly continues punishing herself, insisting that she loved Mr. Hammond, even as her husband, faced with the truth, decides to forgive her.
The ending, though, serves both to martyr Leslie and give Mrs. Hammond the final victory. After her marriage falls apart at a party in her honor, Leslie tearfully wanders out into the garden, where Mrs. Hammond and her employee lay in wait. Suddenly, Leslie understands this is it, and as a look of acceptance falls over her face, Mrs. Hammond stabs her with a gilded Chinese knife. Leslie, belle of the ball, dies in the gutter outside her home. This seems both unfair to Leslie (as Davis plays her, at least, she’s not entirely hate-able, and even evokes pity) and perfect irony. Wyler’s insistence in having it both ways left me a bit cold, but for 1940, The Letter is a fascinating look at Western colonialism intertwined with affairs of the heart.