In Old Hollywood, only Bette Davis could play an upper class married Englishwoman who pumps six bullets into her lover point blank and then claims, "It was an accident." That's exactly what she did while delivering a most well-deserved Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance in William Wyler's 1940 classic, The Letter.
. The little rickety stick face separating colonial privilege from minorities living in poverty -- that visual was a Wyler touch. In a way, this drama is sort of a slave revolt. Mrs. Crosbie's social class, appearance, graciousness and -- of course -- color have fellow Anglos such as their lawyer on her side. Also, Leslie never assumes that any of the plantation workers who witnessed her crime will rat her out. Why? Because she's a plantation owner and they have basically been invisible to her. She's entitled to their secrecy. The Asians know where revenge will sting the hardest and deepest -- in the Crosbie bank account. Leslie will have to pay for the letter and come face to face with her lover's widow.
Leslie refers to her in derogatory terms. She calls her a "creature" who has a "face like a mask." She criticizes her clothing and cultural fashion sense. But Leslie, the picture of British gentility to her friends, also wears a mask. She's a liar and a cold-blooded killer. She murdered her lover, changed her clothes, fabricated a story to tell her husband and lawyer, then changed her clothes yet again for the ride to her lawyer's office in preparation for a court trial. Privileged Leslie Crosbie is not as genteel as she seems living behind the walls of her own House Beautiful.
The amount the Asian widow wants for the letter is the amount Mr. Crosbie has in the bank. The slaves are taking the financial power away from the master of the plantation. When this version of the story based on a work by W. Somerset Maugham was made, certain Hollywood production codes were in effect. You could not do something like cheat on a spouse, shoot your lover and get away with it. You had to pay. Maugham's original ending had to be altered to please the powerful Hollywood censors. Even with the ending that director Wyler and star Bette Davis gave the studio against their artistic will, Wyler stills makes a gripping cinematic statement. The morally corrupt Mrs. Crosbie maintains her proper Anglo British housewife image in and out of court to most of her friends and supporters. But she does pay for what she did. When she pays, she pays outside her comfort zone. Wyler places her on the other side of the plantation wall.
and The Letter were Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. Both earned Best Director Oscar nominations for William Wyler and both earned Best Actress Oscar nominations for Bette Davis. The 1929 version of The Letter came out on DVD last year thanks to the Warner Archive Collection. I'd like to see it.