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The Letter

Original poster
Directed by William Wyler
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Written by Howard Koch
Based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham
Starring Bette Davis
Herbert Marshall
James Stephenson
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Editing by George Amy
Warren Low
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) November 22, 1940
Running time 95 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Letter is a 1940 American film noir directed by William Wyler. The screenplay by Howard Koch is based on the 1927 play of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, originally filmed in 1929.



On a moonlit night in the opening scene, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a British rubber plantation manager in Malaya, shoots and kills a man whom her male servant recognizes as Geoff Hammond (David Newell). She tells the servant to send for her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), who is working at one of the plantations. Her husband returns, having summoned his attorney and a British police inspector. Leslie tells them that Geoff Hammond "tried to make love to me" and she killed him to save her honor.

Leslie is placed under arrest and put in prison in Singapore as a matter of form to await trial for murder. Everyone believes she acted heroically, with the exception of her attorney, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), who seems to be rather suspicious of her motives. Howard's suspicions seem justified when his clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) shows him a copy of a letter Leslie wrote to Hammond the day she killed him, informing him she would be home alone that evening and pleading with him to visit her. Ong Chi Seng tells Howard that the letter is in the possession of Hammond's widow (Gale Sondergaard), a Eurasian woman who lives in the Chinese quarter of town. Howard then confronts Leslie with the damning evidence and forces her to confess to Hammond's cold-blooded killing; but Leslie cleverly manipulates the attorney into agreeing to buy back the letter.

Having no choice but to draw the money out of Robert's personal funds, Howard gives it to Leslie, but Hammond's widow requires that Leslie come personally to pay the $10,000 for the letter so that she can see the woman who killed her husband. With the letter excluded as evidence, Leslie is acquitted.

During a celebration after the trial, Robert announces that he plans to draw his savings out of his account in order to buy a rubber plantation in Sumatra, Howard and Leslie are forced to tell him that his savings are gone, and that they have been used to buy Leslie's defense because of the existence of the letter. After demanding to see the letter, Robert is devastated to learn from Leslie that Hammond was her lover for years and that she killed him out of jealousy, but offers to forgive her if she can swear that she loves him. Leslie at first agrees and tells him she loves him, but she then breaks down and confesses "with all my heart I still love the man I killed".

In a dazed state after the pressure of the trial and her confrontation with Robert, Leslie wanders out into the moonlight and begins walking outside the gate almost as if she knows that someone is waiting for her. There she meets Mrs. Hammond and her henchman. Mrs Hammond kills her with a knife, after the henchman has overpowered her. As the two attemp to silently slip out, they are confronted by a policeman who question their whereabouts. The policeman tells the two to move along and both walk away from the scene. The clouds which hid the moons rays, darken the area where Leslie Crosbies body was killed. In the end, the clouds open and the moons rays shine at the area where her body lays but no one is there to see her body.


Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie


In the original play, Leslie Crosbie lives out her life without her husband. However, the Production Code Administration rejected the original story that Warner Bros. submitted on the grounds that it contained adultery and unpunished murder, so a new final scene was added in which Leslie is killed. The character of Mrs. Hammond was changed from Hammond's Chinese mistress to his Eurasian wife to placate the Hays Office [1]. Director William Wyler and star Bette Davis, who had previously worked together on Jezebel, disagreed about the climactic scene in which Leslie admits to her husband she still loves the man she murdered. Davis felt no woman could look at her husband when she admits such a thing. Wyler disagreed, and Davis walked off the set. She later returned and did it Wyler's way, but ever after, Davis insisted her approach would have been better.[2]

Wyler also argued with Warner Bros. head Jack Warner over the casting of British actor James Stephenson as attorney Howard Joyce. Warner originally had suggested Stephenson for the role, but after Wyler cast him, the studio head had second thoughts and thought the role was too important to cast an unknown in it. Wyler stood firm, and Stephenson's performance earned him an Oscar nomination.[2].

Herbert Marshall also appeared in the 1929 version, in which he played the lover who was killed by Leslie.

Critical reception

Gale Sondergaard in the trailer for The Letter (1940)

In his review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed, "The ultimate credit for as taut and insinuating a melodrama as has come along this year — a film which extenuates tension like a grim inquisitor's rack—must be given to Mr. Wyler. His hand is patent throughout . . . Miss Davis is a strangely cool and calculating killer who conducts herself with reserve and yet implies a deep confusion of emotions . . . Only the end of The Letter is weak — and that is because of the postscript which the Hays Office has compelled". [3]

Variety said, "Never has [the W. Somerset Maugham play] been done with greater production values, a better all-around cast or finer direction. Its defect is its grimness. Director William Wyler, however, sets himself a tempo which is in rhythm with the Malay locale . . . Davis' frigidity at times seems to go even beyond the characterization. On the other hand, Marshall never falters. Virtually stealing these honors in the pic, however, is Stephenson as the attorney, while Sondergaard is the perfect mask-like threat". [4]

Time Out London says, "A superbly crafted melodrama, even if it never manages to top the moody montage with which it opens - moon scudding behind clouds, rubber dripping from a tree, coolies dozing in the compound, a startled cockatoo - as a shot rings out, a man staggers out onto the verandah, and Davis follows to empty her gun grimly into his body . . . [The] camerawork, almost worthy of Sternberg in its evocation of sultry Singapore nights and cool gin slings, is not matched by natural sounds (on the soundtrack Max Steiner's score does a lot of busy underlining)." [5]



External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Letter is a 1940 film about a woman who murders her lover, and then must face his widow and her husband.

Directed by William Wyler. Written by Howard Koch, based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham.
I wish I could say I was sorry. taglines


Leslie Crosbie

  • Tell him there's been an accident and Mr. Hammond's dead.
  • He tried to make love to me and I shot him.
  • The boys take such good care of us. Funny the head boy running off tonight.
  • [to Howard] Poor Robert, he doesn't deserve it. He's never hurt anyone in his life. He's so good and simple and kind and he trusts me so. I mean everything, everything in the world to him. It's gonna ruin his life. Oh, I know what you're thinking. You despise me.

Howard Joyce

  • [to Leslie] I wonder why your story never wavers from exactly the same words. It suggests either that you have an extraordinary memory...or you're telling the plain, unvarnished truth.
  • I wasn't thinking of the money. I don't know if you'll understand this, but I've always looked on myself as an honest man. You're asking me to do something which is no better than suborning a witness...A lawyer has a duty to his profession and to himself.
  • Tell your friend to go to the devil...Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money, Ong, just to save some trouble.
  • [to Robert] It seems that Leslie wrote a letter to Hammond asking him to come to the bungalow on the night he was killed...She wanted his advice on something she was buying for your birthday...In the excitement, she forgot about the letter and then later on was afraid to say she made a mistake...This was a pretty serious mistake and she realized it....she (Hammond's widow) threatens to turn it over to the prosecution...Don't you see, Bob, that it might alter things a good deal in the minds of the jury if Hammond came to your house by invitation....I think we must get hold of that letter...I don't think it's right but I think it's expedient. Juries can sometimes be very stupid and it's just as well not to worry them with more evidence than they can conveniently deal with.
  • Maybe it's my own sense of guilt, but I have an unpleasant feeling that I'm gonna be made to pay the piper for what I'm doing tonight. I'm jeopardizing my whole career and I have to rely on your discretion.
  • [in court] No complicating motives, no possible pre-meditation. The jury is aware of the facts. And I'm convinced, gentlemen, there's no need for eloquence. If ever there was a simple, uncomplicated case, it's this one. Mrs. Crosbie killed a man, yes, but under circumstances where no courageous, self-respecting woman would hesitate for one instant to do the same thing. Nor is there need for me to extol Mrs. Crosbie's account. Her own testimony in the witness box, her bearing throughout this ordeal, stamped the character of this remarkable woman, more than any words of mine could possibly do. As for the prosecution's case, not one whit of evidence has been produced to refute the defendant's testimony. No, because such evidence couldn't exist in the light of truth. Gentlemen, in full faith and confidence, I place Leslie Crosbie's fate in your hands in the sure knowledge that justice will be done.

Robert Crosbie

  • You've been the best wife a man could have...I've always loved you...Leslie, darling, if I could love you any more, I would now.
  • I always wanted a fine plantation, one that I could work for myself and for my family. This is the one I've been waiting for. They'll be the two of us, but my wife's a good sport. I always can count on her. She's not afraid of anything. And we'll have each other. That's the important thing, isn't it?


Howard: Tell us exactly what happened.
Withers: Take your time, Mrs. Crosbie, remember, we're all friends here.
Leslie: I ate dinner rather late and started working on my lace. I don't know how long I'd been working when suddenly I heard a footstep outside. Someone came up on the veranda and said: 'Good evening, can I come in?' I was startled because I hadn't heard a car drive up.
Withers: Hammond left his car about a quarter mile down the road. Your houseboy noticed it as we were driving here.
Robert: Well, he probably didn't want anyone to hear him drive up.
Leslie: Well, at first, I couldn't tell who it was. 'Who is it?' I asked. 'Jeff Hammond.' 'Oh, of course,' I said, 'Come in and have a drink.'
Howard: Were you surprised to see him?
Leslie: Well I was rather. We hadn't seen him for ages, had we, Robert?
Robert: Three months, at least.
Leslie: I told him Robert was out at our No. 4 Plantation getting out a shipment or something. Was that it?...Well he said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry, but I was feeling rather lonely so I thought I'd come over and see how you were getting on.' I asked him how he'd come, as I hadn't heard a car. He said he'd left it on the road because he thought we might be in bed and didn't want to wake us up. Well, I put on my spectacles again and went on with my work. Well, we went on chatting and then real suddenly, he said something rather silly...It's hardly worth repeating. He paid me a little compliment.
Howard: I think perhaps you'd better tell us exactly what he said.
Leslie: He said, 'You have very pretty eyes. It's a shame to hide them under those ugly spectacles.'
Howard: Has he ever said anything of the sort to you before?
Leslie: Oh no, never, and I thought it impertinent. He tried to take one of my hands. 'Don't be an idiot,' I said. 'Sit back where you were and talk sensibly or I shall have to send you home.'
Withers: But Mrs. Crosbie, I wonder you didn't throw him out there and then.
Leslie: Well, I didn't want to make a fuss. You know, there are men who think it's their duty to flirt with women whenever they have the chance. I believe they think women expect it of them.
Howard: When did you first suspect that Hammond was serious?
Leslie: The next thing he said to me. He looked at me straight in the face and said, 'Don't you know I'm awfully in love with you?'
Robert: Swine!
Howard: Were you surprised?
Leslie: Of course I was surprised. We've known him seven years, Robert. He's never paid me the smallest attention. Didn't suppose he even knew what color my eyes were.
Robert: We haven't seen very much of him for the last few years.
Howard: Go on, Leslie.
Leslie: Well, he helped himself to another whiskey and soda. Began to wonder if he'd been drinking before. 'I wouldn't have another one if I were you,' I said. I was quite friendly, not the least bit frightened. It never occurred to me I couldn't manage him. He emptied his glass and said to me in a funny, abrupt way: 'Do you think I'm saying all this to you because I'm drunk?' I said, 'That's the most obvious explanation, isn't it?' Oh, it's too awful having to tell you all this. I'm so ashamed.
Withers: I wish there was some way we could spare you, Mrs. Crosbie.
Howard: Leslie, it's for your own good that we know the facts while you remember them.
Leslie: Very well, I'll tell you the rest. I got up from that chair there and I stood in front of the table here. He rose and came around the table and stood in front of me. I held out my hand. 'Good night,' I said. But he didn't move. He just stood there looking at me. His eyes were all funny. 'I'm not going,' he said. Then I began to lose my temper. 'You poor fool, don't you know I've never loved anyone but Robert? And even if I didn't love him, you'd be the last man in the world I should care for.' 'Robert's away,' he said. Well, that was the last straw. I wasn't in the least bit frightened, just angry. 'If you don't leave immediately,' I said, 'I shall call the boys and have you thrown out.' When I walked past him toward the veranda to call the boys, well, he took hold of my arm and swung me back. But I tried to scream and he flung his arms about me and began to kiss me. I struggled to tear myself away from him. He seemed like a madman. He kept talking and talking and saying he loved me. Oh, it's horrible, I can't go on...He lifted me in his arms and started carrying me. Somehow, he stumbled on those steps. We fell and I got away from him. Suddenly, I remembered Robert's revolver in the drawer of that chest. He got up and ran after me but I reached it before he could catch me. I seized the gun as he came toward me. I heard a report and saw him lurch toward the door. Oh, it was all instinctive. I didn't even know I'd fired. Then I followed him out to the veranda. He staggered across the porch, grabbed the railing, but it slipped through his hand and he fell down the steps. I don't remember anything more, just the reports one after another till there was a funny little click and the revolver was empty. It was only then I knew what I'd done.
Withers: May I say that I think you behaved magnificently. I'm terribly sorry that we had to put you through the ordeal of telling us all this...It's quite obvious the man only got what he deserved.
Robert: My poor child...You did what every woman would have done in your place, only nine-tenths of them wouldn't have had the courage.

Leslie: Would I have to be - arrested?
Howard: I think you're by way of being arrested now. As a matter of form, you must surrender herself up to the Attorney General in Singapore.
Leslie: Shall I be imprisoned?
Howard: It depends on what the charge is...Why, I think it not unlikely that he can say that only one charge is possible - and in that case, I'm afraid an application for bail would be useless.
Leslie: What charge?
Howard: Murder.

Withers: [about Hammond] You know the sort, very breezy, devil-may-care, generous with his money.
Howard: Did you like him?
Withers: He was the sort of chap you couldn't help liking.
Howard: Could you have imagined him doing anything like this?
Withers: Well, how can you tell what a man will do when he's drunk?
Howard: That's true.

Howard: When I was looking at Hammond's body...[Leslie freezes] Oh, I'm sorry, my dear, but this is a question that's bound to come up.
Leslie: Yes, Howard, what is it?
Howard: It seems to me that some of the shots must have been fired after he was lying on the ground.
Leslie: Oh, I know it was so terribly cold-blooded, but I was so terrified. Everything was confused and blurred. I didn't know what I was doing.

Howard: It's strange that Hammond was able to keep his life so hidden. That gambling house he owned and especially the Eurasian woman. I think it was finding out about her that turned opinion so completely against him.
Robert: Will she be one of the witnesses?
Howard: I shan't call her. I'll just produce evidence that Hammond was married to her.

Ong: A circumstance has come to my attention, sir, which seems to me to put a different complexion on the case...A friend has brought me information, sir, that there is in existence a letter from the defendant to the unfortunate victim of the tragedy.
Howard: That's not surprising. During the course of seven years, I've no doubt Mrs. Crosbie often had occasion to write Mr. Hammond.
Ong: But the letter, sir, was written on the day of the late Mr. Hammond's death.
Howard: Well?
Ong: As you will no doubt recall, sir, that Mrs. Crosbie has stated, that until the fatal night, she had had no communication with the deceased for several weeks.
Howard: Yes?
Ong: In my opinion, this letter indicates that her statement perhaps was not in every respect accurate.
Howard: Have you seen the letter?
Ong: I have with me a copy, sir. The original is in possession of a woman - she happens to be the widow of Mr. Hammond, deceased.
[Howard reads the letter]
Howard: It's inconceivable that Mrs. Crosbie should have written such a letter.

Leslie: Well, I may as well tell you. We heard about his wife. And once, quite by chance, I actually saw her.
Howard: Oh? You never mentioned that. What was she like?
Leslie: Horrible. She was all covered with gold chains and bracelets and spangles, her face like a mask.
Howard: And it was after you knew about her that you stopped having anything to do with Hammond?
Leslie: Yes.

Howard: I think I should tell you that there is in existence a letter in your handwriting from you to Geoff Hammond.
Leslie: Well, I often wrote him a little note about something or other, or to get me something if I heard he was going into Singapore.
Howard: This letter asks him to come and see you because Robert was going to be away.
Leslie: Oh, but that's impossible. You see, I never did anything of the kind.
[Howard pulls out the letter]
Leslie: But that's not my handwriting!
Howard: It's an exact copy of one written on the day of Hammond's death.
Leslie: What's it mean?
Howard: That's for you to say, Leslie.
Leslie: I didn't write it. I swear I didn't write it.
Howard: If the original is in your handwriting, it would be useless to deny it.
Leslie: Then it will be a forgery.
Howard: It would be difficult to prove that. It would be easier to prove it was genuine.
Leslie: It's not dated. It might have been written years ago. Oh, if you'll just give me a little time, I'll try to remember.
Howard: Leslie, the prosecution could cross-examine your houseboys. They would soon find out whether someone took a letter to Hammond on the day of his death.
Leslie: Howard, I swear to you. I did not write this letter.
Howard: Well, if you have nothing more to say to me, I'll get back to the office.

Leslie: You see, I thought none of you would believe me if I admitted that he'd come there at my invitation. You see, I was planning a surprise for Robert's birthday and I'd heard he wanted a new gun, and oh, well I'm so dreadfully stupid about sporty things and, well I thought I'd talk to Geoff about it and ask him to order one for me.
Howard: Perhaps you've forgotten what's in the letter. [reading] Robert will be away for the night. I absolutely must see you. I am desperate, and, if you don't come, I won't answer for the consequences. Don't drive up. Leslie. This letter places an entirely different complexion on the whole case. It'll put the prosecution on the track of - suspicions which have entered nobody's mind. I won't tell you what I personally thought when I read the letter. It's the duty of counsel to defend his client, not to convict her even in his own mind. I don't want you to tell me anything but what is needed to save your neck. They can prove that Hammond came to your house at your urgent invitation. I don't know what else they can prove, but if the jury comes to the conclusion that you didn't kill Hammond in self-defense...
[Leslie faints]

Leslie: I'm afraid I've made rather a mess of things...You distrusted me from the beginning. Are you going to let them hang me?
Howard: What do you mean by that, Leslie?
Leslie: You could get the letter.
Howard: Do you think it's so easy to do away with unwelcome evidence?
Leslie: Surely, nothing would have been said to us - if the owner weren't quite prepared to sell it.
Howard: That's true. But I'm not prepared to buy it.

Leslie: You won't have to show Bob the letter, will you?
Howard: I'll do everything possible to prevent him from seeing it. He'll be an important witness and he should be as firmly convinced of your innocence as he is now.
Leslie: And after the trial?
Howard: I'm going to try and save your life.
Leslie: But if he loses his trust in me, he loses everything.
Howard: Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her.

Howard: Ong Chi Seng...what are you getting out of this?
Ong: Two thousand dollars, and the great satisfaction of being of service to you and our client.

Howard: [about her lacing] It must take enormous concentration and patience.
Leslie: I find it soothing.
Howard: You mean it takes your mind off other things?
Leslie: Is that a legal question?
Howard: You're not an ordinary client, Leslie.
Leslie: You've been watching me all evening.
Howard: I'm responsible for you to the court.
Leslie: No, that isn't it. You've been, what, trying to read my thoughts.
Howard: I'm trying to understand you.
Leslie: Why? Because I'm so - so evil. That's it, isn't it?

Robert: We'd start a new life....this is a chance in a thousand.
Leslie: I think the thing to do is to stick it out here.
Howard: Anyhow, it's not a thing you want to rush into. There are certain out-of-pocket expenses...the principal item is that letter of Leslie's I mentioned to you...I had to pay a great deal of money for it.
Robert: But what was there in the letter? Buying it was a criminal offense, wasn't it?
Howard: Yes, it was. I might be dis-barred for it.
Robert: I've got to pay ten thousand dollars for that letter, and by heaven, I'm gonna see it.

Robert: [after reading the letter] What does it mean?...What does it mean?
Leslie: It means that I was in love with Geoff Hammond.
Robert: No!
Leslie: Been in love for years.
Robert: I don't believe it.
Leslie: We used to meet each other constantly once or twice a week. Not a soul had the smallest suspicion. Every time I met him, I hated myself. Yet I'd live for the moment that I'd see him again. It was horrible. There was never an hour when I was at peace and I wasn't reproaching myself. I was like a person who was sick with some loathsome disease and doesn't want to get well. Even my agony was a kind of joy. Then there came a time about a year ago. He began to change toward me. I didn't know what was the matter. I was frantic. I made scenes. I threw myself at his feet...Then I heard about that - that native woman. Oh, I couldn't believe it, I wouldn't believe it. The last I saw her, I saw her walking in the village with those hideous bangles, that chalky painted face, those eyes like a cobra's eyes. But I couldn't give him up. I sent for him. You read the letter. Oh, we'd always been so careful about writing before. This time, I didn't care. I hadn't seen him for ten days. He came to see me. I told him I'd heard about his marriage. At first he denied it. Oh, I was so frantic. I don't know it, I said to him. I hated him because he made me despise myself. I insulted him, I cursed him. I was beside myself. At last, he turned on me. He told me he was sick and tired of me, that it was true about that other woman, that she was the only one that had ever meant anything to him. And that he was glad that I knew, because now I'd leave him alone. When he got up to go, I knew if he left I'd never see him again, so I seized the revolver and fired. I heard a cry...he staggered toward the veranda, and I ran after him and fired and fired and fired. There's no excuse for me. I don't deserve to live.
[Robert rushes out]
Howard: He's going to forgive you.
Leslie: Yes. He's going to forgive me.

Leslie: It's no use. We can't go on, can we?...You are so kind and generous. You should have the sort of wife you really deserve. Through no fault of yours, I failed you. I wrecked your life. I can't ask you to forgive me.
Robert: If you love a person, you can forgive anything. So, what about you? Can you go on?
Leslie: I'll try. I'll really try.
Robert: That isn't what I was asking.
Leslie: I'll do everything in my power to make you happy.
Robert: That's not enough, unless - Leslie, tell me now, this minute, do you love me?
Leslie: Yes, I do.
[They kiss, but then Leslie pulls away]
Leslie: No, I can't, I can't, I can't!!
Robert: Leslie, what is it? Leslie, what is it?
Leslie: With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!


  • I wish I could say I was sorry.
  • Fascinating Tantalizing and DANGEROUS!


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