James Stephenson

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The Letter Review


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Given the source material and the star power, The Letter should be a smash, but this sweaty tropical melodrama doesn't quite deliver. It serves as a reminder that back in the day, even the greatest actors were forced to play whatever roles their studio bosses dictated. That explains why Bette Davis's career in the '30s and '40s has as many misses as hits. This is one of the near misses.

Based on a stage play by W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter opens with a bang, actually six bangs, as Malaya rubber plantation mistress Leslie Crosbie (Davis) pumps six slugs into her neighbor, Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell). The murder throws the plantation into an upheaval, and when Leslie's husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) arrives and learns what has happened, Leslie's explanation is simple: Hammond was drunk, he was possessed with lust, and he tried to "make love" to her. Robert gets his lawyer, Howard Joyce (Robert Stephenson), involved right away, and the visiting police are terribly kind to Leslie, telling her she performed magnificently. Nevertheless, they'll have to arrest her for murder and take her to Singapore for what should be a quick and easy trial.

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