17 February 2005 | Snow Leopard
Memorable & Very Well-Acted Melodrama
With a fine cast, an atmospheric setting, and a tight, tension-packed plot, this is a memorable adaptation of the Somerset Maugham story. Both the story and the film are well-constructed, and indeed both are also aptly titled, in that "The Letter" is what drives the characters and most of the action.
The opening sequence starts out with a languid look at the rubber plantation, immediately establishing the atmosphere, and then suddenly grabs your attention with the shooting. From then on, most of the suspense is psychological, and the scenario is very well-crafted, wringing everything it can out of the setup.
The cast is led by Bette Davis, who gives a vivid performance in the kind of role that she seemed born to play. Herbert Marshall is also excellent as the husband, using little mannerisms and gestures to complement his lines, as he convincingly portrays his earnest, naive character.
The supporting cast has many good moments of their own. James Stephenson's performance is essential to making the movie work so well. His portrayal of the anguished lawyer could not have been surpassed, as he flawlessly shows his outward restraint and inner torment. Victor Sen Yung also performs well - his oily character is perhaps somewhat uncomfortable to watch, but he is essential to the plot, and Yung plays him to good effect. Gale Sondergaard has very few lines, but she establishes an imposing presence all the same.
The British colonial setting, with its clubby atmosphere, its social inequalities, its opportunities, and its contrasting cultures, is done well, and even the tropical heat is believably rendered. Light and darkness are also used well - in addition to the frequent shots of the moon, the slats on so many of the windows not only make for attractive scenery, but at times they are also used creatively, as they let just a little bit of light shine on characters who themselves might not want too much light to come into their lives.
Everything adds up to a memorable melodrama with many strong features, well worth seeing both for the cast and for the story.