Cover of "The Letter"

Cover of The Letter

It’s rather too bad that countless American movies of the Thirties and Forties (and up) had to have literary sources, but how agreeable it is that director William Wyler knew how to handle an author’s theatrical drama, as witness his film version of The Letter (1940).  A play by Somerset Maugham becomes a solid piece of cinema, especially with Howard Koch supplying a satisfying script.

Bette Davis responds well to Wyler’s perfectionism in her part as a married woman who shoots to death the lover she loves.  A legal drama follows, and Davis’s defense attorney must purchase a letter that will incriminate Davis.  The wrinkle is that money from Davis’s unsuspecting husband is used for this!

It’s an involving film serving up the theme of wickedness and the response of retaliation, not to mention that of when death beckons the guilty soul.  Inevitably, we’re just as grateful for the literary source as for what Wyler and his fine actors have done.