The letter and the gun

The letter and the gun

In late 1940 a Bette Davis film was released in which a letter played a consequential role in the unfolding plot. But there is something both interesting and paradoxical about this.

bettedavis_theletterThe Letter starts at night on a plantation in Singapore. A man rushes from a bungalow and Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) follows and repeatedly shoots and kills him, later claiming that he had tried to rape her. She insists that she killed in self-defence, which is accepted, although she is still arrested albeit as a formality. Her trusting husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall), hires a lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), to defend her. During the trial Joyce is told about an incriminating letter – a passionate lover letter – that suggests Leslie’s story is not true. So the two enter a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s ‘Eurasian’ widow (Gale Sondergaard). Leslie is found not guilty. Back home in the bungalow on the plantation, she tells her forgiving husband that she had been having an affair with the man, who she loved with great passion, and when he came to end the relationship she had killed him. She then goes outside into the night time garden. The clerk and the widow are waiting for her. She is held by the clerk, and the vengeful widow stabs her repeatedly. Her body is left. Her killers, attempting to flee, are then held by some arriving police.

The letter gives Leslie away. The letter propels Leslie and Joyce into another illegal course of action. The letter expresses Leslie’s passion. The letter is haggled over, sold and bought. The letter is copied. The letter vanishes. The letter is invoked and its content repeated. The letter’s truth is denied then proclaimed. The film is called The Letter. Without Leslie’s letter there would be no plot worth speaking of, and the letter is so to speak the star of the film. But what is shown in stills and on the posters for the film is the smoking gun, such was the startling and indeed scandalous novelty in 1940 of a woman who killed without compunction and equally without compunction lied to save herself, and who gave way only to passion, the passion to kill, the passion to confess, the passion to walk away to meet her death. Many wonderful stills from this film exist, and there are some magnificent posters of which one is shown here. None of them show the letter.


Last updated: 14 July 2016


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