Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) is the wife of a guy who runs a rubber plantation in Malaysia and if you know anything about life on a rubber plantation in Malaysia like I do, there isn’t much more to do than your husband’s best friend. And even though this all went down in Malaysia, it still turns out that you just can’t go around killing secret boyfriends because they dump you! You can’t really blame Leslie though. How can anyone be expected to know the intricacies of Malaysian homicide laws?
Leslie thus concocts a story about how this guy showed up at her place uninvited when her husband was gone and tried to have his way with her. There still has to be a trial, but that’s just a formality and her attorney pretty much assures her that she’ll be out of jail and back to banging guys that aren’t her husband inside of a week!
Shoot, they even start to plan the celebratory party for after the trial before it even begins! (I suppose that if she ended up losing, they could just change the banners from “Welcome Home, Leslie!” to “Adios Convict!” but I think the dancing would lose something.)
But what am I worrying about? Unless there’s some bombshell piece of evidence out there that pokes a hole in her airtight story, she may as well wear her party dress underneath her demure courtroom outfit and have the limo idling outside the courthouse, right?
Well, guess who forget to mention to her lawyer that she wrote a letter to Dead Guy the day of the shooting? That would be Leslie. And guess who now has in her possession that letter? That would be Dead Guy’s wife.
Her lawyer is a good guy who plays by the rules and admires what a good guy he is and is suitably outraged that Leslie didn’t tell him about this as well as the suggestion that the widow can let the letter go for $10,000, but there’s this nice old prosecutor who’s pretty interested in it as well, so he better not dawdle too long in deciding.
The lawyer gets a copy of the letter and arranges a meeting with Leslie to see if her demented mind can come up with some not-too-lame excuse for not mentioning the letter in the first place and then some reason as to why she wrote the letter.
Leslie doesn’t let us down in that department as she goes through the expected denials, the claims of forgery, and finally settles into a rather dimwitted story about how she invited the guy up to talk to him about a birthday present for her husband.
The letter doesn’t actually say any of that – it only says that she has to see him and that he shouldn’t drive up to the house so that no one will hear him arrive. But I think most of us could probably read between the lines here and see that this secret meeting between the two of them while her husband was gone could only have been about his birthday present. If his birthday present was a pair of his wife’s panties that smelled like some other dude!
Once they purchase the letter, the trial goes very well, but during his closing argument, we can see Leslie’s lawyer struggling a bit with his conscience. Luckily his conscience is overwhelmed by the prospect of a big win in court and he manages to finish things up without any problem and hit the victory party later on.
Even after the trial is finished, the movie maintains its hold on you as you watch Leslie’s situation begin to unravel in a couple of different ways.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting much out of The Letter. Bette Davis on rubber plantation mixed up in some love triangle? A murder trial? A mysterious letter?
Surely this would have lots of people howling bad dialogue, contorting their faces in dramatic scowls, and a couple of anguished plot twists and stupid behavior by a variety of characters. At least that’s the sort of stuff that you usually find in overheated, soggy black and white melodramas.
Surprisingly though, the story (based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham) never sank to any of those levels. Sure, it flirted with it every now and again (the widow made lots of scary faces and Bette made a big speech near the end of the movie, but I just chalked that up to her manipulative nature not to stilted dialogue), but by and large everyone involved played their part with just the right amount of emotion and the results are a solid, atmospheric and unexpectedly understated effort.
The lawyer was obviously tormented by his decision but he was able to communicate that with a look and didn’t have to resort to lots of histrionics in or out of the courtroom. Likewise, the out-of-the-loop husband was done very well, by turns outraged, upset, forgiving, and ultimately demanding of the truth, but always a believable doormat.
The movie though rises and falls on Bette Davis’ shoulders and as you would expect she has no problem handling that. She’s more than just a jealous jilted woman. She succeeds in humanizing her character as the movie progresses, revealing nuances that make this movie better than a bare recitation of the story would have you believe.
She knows her husband did everything he could to make her happy, but she just doesn’t love him. She loves Dead Guy. And she tells her husband that she still loves him, even after killing him.
But this isn’t just some gal looking for good times. Through it all, she despises herself for how she leads her life and for how she betrays her husband. She even acknowledges this and we see her mindlessly knitting when she’s upset in an effort not think about what she is.
Despite evading the justice of the legal system, she is unable to evade herself and as she walks around her estate at the end of the movie, it’s clear that justice of some sort will be done though more importantly than any idea of retribution, Leslie’s self-loathing and misery will finally be ended.
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