Leslie Crosby (Bette Davis) has just shot a man in cold blood, but her motivations remain unclear, at least to everyone but herself. The man she gunned down was Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell), a man who was once a close friend of her, though of course, that seems to have disintegrated. A peaceful rubber tree plantation is where the incident took place, as the quiet was shattered by the sound of gunshots. When he stumbles to escape her shots, Geoffrey finally collapses, at which time she empties the revolver into him, even after he is clearly dead from the assault. Her eyes are filled with rage and she is obviously under extreme duress, but what would drive a woman to such an attack? Her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) is told that the shooting was the result of an unprovoked sexual assault. She claimed that Geoffrey showed up without notice, obviously drunk beyond his level of control. He then tried to force her to have sexual relations with him, which prompted Leslie to do whatever she could to fend off his dangerous advances. Robert relays the story to his friend, who happens to be a lawyer and he feels like Leslie will be found innocent. But when Geoffrey’s wife surfaces with a letter from Leslie to Geoffrey, in which she requests his presence that night, things turn into chaos. The lawyer is torn, as he now knows his client is guilty of murder, but his loyalty to her husband conflicts with that knowledge. When the case goes to court, will the truth be told, or just Leslie’s side?
This is one of the titles hand picked by film fans to be released, as part of Warner’s DVD Decision 2004, a program we can all appreciate. After all, who better to decide which movies to be released than us, since we’re the ones that spend our cash. But is The Letter a masterful thriller that deserved so many votes, or is this another overrated suspense picture? I don’t think I would quite call the film masterful, but The Letter is a well crafted movie, one which notched seven Oscar nominations in 1940. Those nominations included Best Picture, but Bette Davis’ nod for Best Actress is the most deserved. Of course, The Letter went home with no awards, but Davis does turn in a standout performance. But as good as she is, she couldn’t have carried this one alone, which is where Gale Sondergaard comes in. She is the raise to Davis’ ante, a duel of performances that is potent, yet never tries to reach beyond the material. Of course, director William Wyler has to be given some credit, as I am sure he helped to guide the performances somewhat. He also keeps the suspense consistent, especially as we close in on the big moment when the femme fatales clash. In the end, The Letter is well directed, well written, and well performed, a terrific thriller with some potent moments. I still wouldn’t file this film as a true classic, but it is a great movie and film noir fans should be quite impressed. Warner’s DVD is solid all around, though not remarkable, but I’d rather have this than a bare bones disc, to be sure. I can’t recommend The Letter as a purchase, but as a rental, the movie is well worth a look.
Video: How does it look?
The Letter is presented in full frame, as intended. This one looks pretty good, but nowhere as impressive as some of the other Hitchcock releases. I was pleased with the clean source print, but the image seems too soft at times, which lessens the visual impact. The main flaw lies with the contrast, which is never dark enough and seems very weak most of the time. It seems like a lot of edge enhancement is also present, which doesn’t help matters much either. But the colors look solid for the most part, with natural flesh tones and no signs of smears in the least. This isn’t quite as good as I would have liked, but given the age of the picture, I suppose this transfer is good enough in the end.
Audio: How does it sound?
A mono track is used and it sounds good, but as usual, don’t expect much. This one is driven by vocals and as such, the mono track performs well and never seems too limited, although some range would have been welcome a couple times. A slight amount of distortion is present, but nothing more than you’d expect from a track this old. I found this to be a clean, clear effort for the most part, which is more than enough. The dialogue is the main selling point and since it comes through in fine form, I have no real complaints here. This disc also includes subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
Supplements: What are the extras?
A fantastic supplement has been included here, an alternate end sequence that was removed due to some interference from censors. I don’t want to spoil the end of course, but suffice it to say that fans will be most pleased with this recently uncovered material. You can also listen to two Lux Radio Theater adaptations, including one from 1944 that features Davis and Marshall. The other is from 1941 and has the talents of Davis, Marshall, and David Stephenson. I love these Lux Radio Theater presentations, so I am quite thrilled to find someone other than Criterion including them with releases. The final extra here is the film’s theatrical trailer, so while not packed, the extras here are well chosen.