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The Letter
Under the sturdy direction of three time Oscar winner William Wyler, the Queen of Warner Brothers offers one of her most duplicitous characters in a chilling melodrama from 1940 called The Letter, a film that has become an icon in the melodrama genre and so engaged audiences and critics that it earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Bette Davis turns in another of her icy performances as Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a rubber plantation owner in Malaysia, who is observed shooting a man multiple times in the opening scene and then claiming later to her husband, attorney, and to authorities that she shot the man in self-defense, Even though the viewer knows the man was not shot in self-defense, Leslie's well-rehearsed story has everyone else convinced...until a copy of a letter turns up written by Leslie to the deceased the day he died proves otherwise, and ends up in the hands of Leslie's attorney, who learns the deceased's widow wants $10,000 for the original.

The film is based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham that opened on Broadway on September 26, 1925 with theater legend Katherine Cornell playing Leslie. Howard W. Koch's adaptation to the screen effectively opens up the story beyond the Crosbie living room and a courtroom. It's not a typical murder mystery because we see what happens right at the beginning, but we're amazed as we watch everyone around Leslie automatically believe everything this woman says. We see a woman in complete self-preservation mode from the beginning of the film to the end, not caring what she has to do or who she has to hurt to save her own neck. Loved the moment when her lawyer, Howard Joyce, beautifully played by James Stephenson, puts the pieces together and in order to avoid answering anymore of his questions, Leslie pretends to faint.

Two years prior, Wyler directed Davis to an Oscar in [i][Jezebel/I] and once again, they prove to be one of the most formidable actor/director collaborators of the 1930's and 40's. There were few directors who understood Davis as well as Wyler and it is his storytelling skill combined with his trust in this gifted actress that make this film such a pleasure to watch. It's also Wyler's direction that is responsible for keeping elements of the story viable despite their predictability and a surprise or two during the final act that we actually don't see coming.

It goes without saying that Davis is dazzling here, a chilling dramatic turn that earned her the fifth of her ten career Oscar nominations. Stephenson's slick performance as attorney earned him a supporting actor nomination as well and Gale Sondergaard's performance as the widow redefines the word "creepy". I've never been so chilled to the bone through a performance where the actor doesn't say a word but Sondergaard does exactly that. Herbert Marshall was his usual dull self as Leslie's dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks husband, but Davis is so spectacular you almost don't notice. Wyler earned a richly deserved Best Director nomination as did Tony Guado for cinematography, Warren Low for film editing, and, of course, for Max Steiner's lush music. Another classic from the Davis library that is appointment viewing.