Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Letter


A dark night on a rubber plantation somewhere near Singapore. Inside the owner’s bungalow a shot rings out. A man staggers out onto the verandah. Bette Davis follows him, and shoots him again. He falls to the ground and Bette shoots him four more times in the back, until the revolver clicks on an empty chamber. He lifts his head and says, “Does this mean the affair is over?”

Well, I made up that last part, but he would have said it if he was still alive. The police come, and Bette tells a story I didn’t believe for a split second, that the man had “tried to make love to me.” She means rape, but you couldn’t say rape in 1940. Her husband, Herbert Marshall, and his friends, including lawyer, James Stephenson, think it’s a clear-cut case of self-defense, a woman defending her honour. Still, she must be indicted and tried, and put in gaol until the trial.

However, a letter turns up that she wrote the day of the killing, proving she lied when she said she had had no contact with him for several weeks. What really went down was what we knew all along, that the dead man was ending their love affair, because he had married a “native” woman (Gale Sondergaard, who manages to look very Chinese, and a real dragon lady). The letter is for sale, priced at $10,000. Bette works her feminine wiles on the lawyer and he violates both the law and his own sense of ethics to purchase the letter. She is found not guilty, which makes hubby happy, but he doesn’t yet know she was really in love with the dead man, and that the cost of the letter has wiped him out financially.

From that point it moves on to a rather silly ending, but it’s a lot of fun getting there. You know that no one was allowed to get away with an evil deed in 1940s movies, so you know Bette is toast, one way or another. It would have been a lot more fun if she had walked away. A Hitchcock touch would have been nice. The unconscious racism displayed here is stunning, with the obsequious Chinaman who is brokering the deal, and the head “boy” at the plantation, a man in his 40s or 50s. But that was the world back then, with whites basically owning all the land and the yellow peril never to be trusted. BTW: Though Marshall gets top billing, the real meaty part is Stephenson’s. He had a short career in the movies, dying fairly young, but in those few years he played a lot of villains.