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Directed by William Wyler

United States 1940 95 mins.

This second adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 stage play features Bette Davis’ turn as Leslie Crosbie, an adulterous yet misunderstood plantation wife in what is now Malaysia. Leslie, married to Robert (Herbert Marshall) yet unapologetically in love with another man, is caught in a bind when she kills her lover, ostensibly out of self-defense. However, the titular letter—a paradoxically threatening love note sent on the night of her crime—makes the truth murky at best, and sets up what amounts to a sham trial with racial overtones. The letter, miraculously for sale at a life-destroying price, forms the crux of further backroom machinations as shady characters spill forth from the shadows to vie for a piece of the prize. And while the duped Robert unknowingly heads toward financial ruin, Leslie tragically cannot escape her love for the other man, no matter how hard she tries. Davis is captivating, and was again nominated for Oscar in this “brilliant melodrama.”—Preston Wilder, Theo’s Century of Movies. 35mm print courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Genres: Thriller

Appears in: Bette & Joan