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.
When Joyce gets back to his law office, however, trouble awaits. His efficient yet smarmy clerk, Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung), informs him that a letter exists from Leslie to Hammond, and it's a crucial piece of evidence that could hang her. Perhaps Joyce would like to pay a fee of, say, $10,000 to retrieve it? Joyce is appalled, but once he finds out what the letter reveals, he has no choice but to yield to blackmail, nearly bankrupting the Crosbies in his efforts to get his hands on it.
Leslie eventually has to fess up to the fact that her relationship with the dead Hammond was a little more, um, complex that she let on. He wasn't just a neighbor. Even though this bit of news upsets Robert, he stands by her through it all, even when she confesses that she's still in love with the now very dead Hammond, and that her act of murder was actually a fit of jealous rage.
To reveal more would be to take the drama out of this melodrama. Davis does have her moments (and a swooning Max Steiner score to back her up as usual), but The Letter is as talky as it is twisty -- its stage roots are obvious -- and all the best lines are given to the creepy Ong, who really camps it up as the greasy villain with the constant smile. Even the climatic trial speeds by with an obvious outcome. The ending packs a bit of a punch, but it's too little too late. This saga of privileged colonials who can't control their love lives is best left to the Late Late Show.