Once you've seen the opening moments of William Wyler's superb "The Letter" you aren't apt to forget what great Hollywood film making is all about for a very, VERY long time. Bette Davis stars in this potent, diabolically delicious melodrama as Leslie Crosbie; the unscrupulous wife of a Malaysian rubber plantation owner. After packing six slugs into a man exiting her boudoir...not her husband...Leslie embarks on a deeply disturbing odyssey to vindicate her murder. To this end, Leslie is ably aided by the naiveté of her husband, Robert (Herbert Marshall) and by her popular following of fair weather friends, helmed by Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard).
The play by Somerset Maugham on which the film is based must have seemed like old hat to Davis. For there can be no other reason why she's so cleverly fiendish and stylishly sinister as Leslie. But then all is not to be realized in sweet escapism when a letter surfaces that could blow the whole truth wide open and send Leslie to prison for life. Superbly crafted with the fine animal instincts of a jungle cat at every turn, "The Letter" was nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture but won not a single statuette. Wyler's impeccable direction, and Davis's mesmerizing and unsympathetic performance are what transform this standard melodrama into movie art!
Unfortunately all is not well with the transfer from Warner Brothers. Seemingly contrasting a bit on the overly dark side, fine details are generally lost in the deep and foreboding blackness. Yes, most of the picture was designed to have a very dark image, but contrast and tonality in the gray scale here are what seem to be lacking over all throughout this black and white image. Also, the image is not very stable. Long shots tend to be a bit blurry and out of focus. There's also an annoying amount of edge enhancement on the horizontal slats of the bamboo blinds that figure into the mood of the piece throughout the film - making certain scenes seem unnecessarily harshly contrasted. Age related artifacts crop up now and then. Film grain becomes obtrusive and dense at moments, and practically non-existent at other moments. The audio is mono and overall nicely balanced. Occasionally dialogue is muffled. Extras include a fascinating alternative ending only recently discovered as well as 2 audio bonuses and the film's original theatrical trailer. "The Letter" comes highly recommended as a melodrama par excellence from a studio, director and a star who definitely understood the subtly of the art. As a DVD you may find the presentation somewhat disappointing.