THE LETTER (1927) by Somerset Maugham

4112962_origAt night on a Malaya rubber plantation a gunshot rings out. A man stumbles out of a bungalow, pursued by a woman, who empties all the chambers of her revolver into him. The moonlight reveals a distraught, gun-toting Bette Davis – this is the unforgettable opening of the 1940 version of The Letter, adapted from Somerset Maugham’s celebrated short story and play, which had been filmed several times already.

The following review is for the British Empire in Film Blogathon hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon; and Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for links, click here).

“I think what has chiefly struck me in human beings is their lack of consistency” – W.S. Maugham in The Summing Up (ch. 17)

This is a story of murder, blackmail, infidelity and racial prejudice but not a whodunit – right from the opening seconds we know that Leslie Crosbie shot and killed the handsome Geoffrey Hammond on the veranda of the bungalow where she lives with her husband Robert on their plantation in Malaysia (or ‘Malaya’ as it then was). She claims that the man had made improper advances and that she was only acting in self-defence. The case is brought to trial in Singapore but the marriage is put under great financial and emotional strain once a letter is offered for sale that makes it clear the murdered man did not, despite what Leslie first said to her lawyer Joyce, turn up drunk out of the blue, but had in fact been invited …

The-Letter01

Maugham’s complex upbringing – orphaned at an early age and educated abroad, he studied medicine back in the UK before his success as a novelist and a dramatist initiated a change in career – as well as his homosexuality, at a time when this was illegal in most ‘civilised’ countries, may have helped give him a special feeling for depicting outsiders. The Letter is a good examples of this – one of his many stories set overseas during Great Britain’s colonial era, its presentation of conventional people overcome by passions they can’t properly articulate in faraway places, provides a fascinating if oblique reflection on the British character and the petty jealousies and hypocrisies that can drive people, no matter where they live.

“He tried to rape me and I shot him” – 1927 stage version

The 1940 film version (one of many – see below) offers a great part for Davis (despite a pretty dodgy British accent) as she sheds her layers of propriety slowly but surely, haunted by her passionate act of murder illuminated by moonlight. Director William Wyler apparently shot the memorable opening dozens of times, though ultimately the studio opted for the first take. Either way, it is highly dramatic and atmospheric as Tony Gaudio’s camera prowls the plantation (well, the studios at Burbank) before the gun starts to go off. The British community rallies round Leslie and her husband, the nice but dull as latex Robert (Herbert Marshall) – but her lawyer Howard Joyce (a great performance by James Stephenson, another good actor that died far too young) starts to suspect that she is not telling the truth. In Columbo-like fashion, he picks up on several inconsistencies. As he says in the original short story:

“If your wife had only shot Hammond once, the whole thing would be absolutely plain sailing. Unfortunately she fired six times.” – 1926 short story

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Maugham had in fact first sketched out the narrative for his hugely popular 1927 three-act play the previous year in his eponymous short story, which is told from Joyce’s point of view and begins with Leslie already on trial. It is otherwise very close to the play, and maintains much of the same dialogue too, albeit without its celebrated closing line:

“With all my heart I still love the man I killed.”

What drives the play is the slow reveal of Leslie’s character, her hidden passions and the deceptions she has perpetrated on her husband and, less successfully, on her lawyer. She is lionised by the expat community during the trial for her stoical reserve, refusing to give in to despair. Unlike her husband she is a tower of strength, attending to her fine lace work and seemingly standing up for all the right virtues and values in a land full of heathens. What gives this a sting though is the revelation of ‘another woman’ in Hammond’s life, who in this case is actually the wife. What makes her ‘other’ is that she is a local woman, something the conservative expat community predictably rejects – in an unguarded moment Leslie damns her for being overweight and un-attractively adorned in bangles, revealing her jealousy. Leslie is driven in fact by racial prejudice as well as sexual jealousy, but this is not revealed until the final scene in which we find out what really led to the shooting.

In the story and play Hammond’s wife is Chinese but in the 1940 film – as per the racist studio practices of the day – she becomes Eurasian and is played under heavy make-up by Gale Sondergaard, who was of Danish extraction … She is presented pretty much as clichéd dragon lady, which is infuriating not least because it completely muddies Maugham’s original intentions. Leslie knows nothing about the woman, just hates her because she is married to the man she lusts after and because she believes he has married racially beneath him. In the film Mrs Hammond, as she is billed, is presented as a Fu Manchu yellow peril-style caricature and ultimately as a murderess, though reshaping the narrative as essentially a duel between the two women (Leslie in this version meets her by going to collect the incriminating letter with Joyce) is a very smart idea that pays off in the beautifully shot moonlit finale that is designed as a counterpoint and echo of the opening sequence. Interestingly, the ending was prepared in two distinct versions, just like the original play. As released, Davis admits her feelings for Hammond to her husband and then heads into the moonlit garden to meet her destiny at the hands of the dragon lady, while her return home party continues unaware. In the alternate re-shot and re-edited version, that was ultimately unused, Davis is made more sympathetic by not bothering with her final confrontation with her husband.

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“He tried to male love to me and I shot him” – 1940 film version

The play was first performed in London in 1927 at the Playhouse starring Gladys Cooper and Nigel Bruce, and in New York later the same year at the Morosco Theater with Katharine Cornell. For the finale as originally performed, Maugham flashes back to before the opening scene to explain why Leslie shot Hammond. In the published version of the play, Maugham opted to just have Leslie relay it all verbally – both versions are presented in most editions. The play’s success lead to the first of several film version in 1929 starring the ill-fated Jeanne Eagels, with Herbert Marshall playing the man she shoots – in this version the narrative is presented in completely linear fashion, so the concluding flashback now makes up the first 15 minutes of the film. At the time the studio also made several foreign language versions, more or less simultaneously, for overseas markets (this is before dubbing became the norm). Thus Paramount also released alternate adaptations shot in French (La Lettre, 1930), German (Weib im Dschungel, 1931), Spanish (La Carta, 1931) and Italian (La Donna Bianca, 1931). You can read what Flickchick has to say about the 1929 version over at Person in the Dark, which is also participating in the blogathon. And you can watch the whole film online here.

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Since 1940 the play and story have been adapted several times for radio and television – most notably the 1982 TV-Movie remake of the Davis version for ABC starring Lee Remick. Herbert Marshall, who played the victim in the original version and the woman’s husband in the 1940s remake also has a link with the 1982 TV version as his daughter Sarah Marshall also took a supporting role. Incidentally, Marshall actually played a Maugham-like character in the movie version of The Moon and Sixpence (1942) and the author himself in the 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge.

Feature-length adaptations for film and TV include:

  • The-Letter_italianposter1929 – The Letter – starring Jeanne Eagles, Herbert Marshall
  • 1930 – La Lettre – starring Marcelle Romée
  • 1931 – Weib im Dschungel– starring Charlotte Ander
  • 1931 – La Carta – starring Carmen Larrabeiti
  • 1931 – La Donna Bianca – starring Matilde Casagrande
  • 1940 – The Letter – starring Bette Davis
  • 1947 – The Unfaithful – starring Ann Sheridan
  • 1956 – The Letter (BBC TV-Movie) – starring Celia Johnson
  • 1982 – The Letter (ABC TV-movie) – starring Lee Remick

I thought this material would be suitable for the the British Empire in Film Blogathon hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon as Maugham based it quite closely on the facts surrounding a real-life scandal from 1911. In Kuala Lumpur Ethel Proudlock, the wife of an expat British schoolmaster, was found guilty of shooting a man who had come to visit her while her husband was away. The verdict outraged British colonial society and ultimately she was pardoned and ended up settling in America after separating from her husband. For much more detail on the original case, click here.

DVD Availability: Warner released a handsome-looking DVD many years ago which also includes the alternate ending and two radio adaptations starring Davis, Marshall and Stephenson – the 1941 broadcast can be accessed here. The 1929 version has now also been released on DVD.

The Letter (1940)
Director: William Wyler
Producer: Hal Wallis
Screenplay: Howard Koch
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergaard, Victor Sen Yung, Cecil Kellaway, Frieda Inescort, Elizabeth Inglis

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘country house’ category (making it either my third or fourth bingo, depending how you count …):

vintage-golden-country-house

***** (4.5 fedora tips out of 5)

 

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This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Courtroom, Malaysia, Singapore, Somerset Maugham and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

60 Responses to THE LETTER (1927) by Somerset Maugham

  1. Sergio – No doubt about it; accent or no accent, Bette Davis did a fine job with this role. I think she was terrific in it. And I think the premise is fascinating. I’m so glad it worked well for you. In my opinion, it says something about the story’s power that it’s been adapted as often as it has.

  2. Roger says:

    “Malaysia (or ‘Malaya’ as it then was). ”
    Malaya as it still is, in fact. Malaya is a geographical term for the Asian peninsula south of Thailand. Malaysia is a nation consisting of that peninsula and parts of Borneo.

    The 1940’s reference to “the unwritten law of the Orient” isn’t true either.
    Not just keeping native mistresses and bush marriages, but formal marriages between British expatriates were often accepted and in some places- such as Burma- even common. It depended on the attitude of the natives too: in Malaya, for example, marriage to Malays was rare because muslim Malay women are only allowed to marry muslims, so the white man had to convert (such a marriage is portrayed in Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy), but marriage with Chinese women was fairly common.

    • Hi Roger, I take your points though I wanted to clarify between the region and the nation, given how they are referred to in the film since they say one thing but, in today’s parlance, mean another. That there were plenty of inter-racial marriages is plainly the case in the story, as is the fact that the main character and her friends are intolerant of it – I was referring to the situation in the story as depicted (I lived in Sigapore for several years, but post 1965).

  3. John says:

    I saw this movie for the first time when I was in my college years and have never forgotten it. To this day it remains one of my favorite over-the-top melodramas. What an opening! I had no idea it had been filmed so many times. I don’t ever recall having seen the ’82 remake, but I must’ve (I would’ve been a junior in college) because at the time I was still sort of obsessed with the movie.

    I used to make obscure references to Leslie Crosbie all the time when I was in college and hardly anyone knew who I was talking about. In one of my plays (back when I was trying to be a professional playwright) I created a housekeeper who was addicted to old movies. In a lengthy monologue that serves as my personal homage to several favorite movies she talks of The Uninvited, Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte and — to the horror of her employer — re-enacts the opening to The Letter. She doesn’t actually shoot anyone, but instead points her finger as if it were a pistol and lets go with the same determined intensity as Davis does in the movie. Oh! and I used Max Steiner’s overwrought theme as mood music in another play I wrote and directed here in Chicago. I was really obsessed with The Letter for quite some time.

    • Thanks for that chum and I can well understand your obsession John – I love Steiner’s main theme and the film is a glorious melodrama, all the better for being 100% shot in the studio. The 1982 version is closely modeled on the Davis version, and is not as stylish but certainly watchable (used to have a wicked crush on Remick).

  4. englishadjunct says:

    The film versions aside, I am intrigued by the Somerset Maugham story, which I must now search for and read. I wonder, though, as I punch out these words on the keyboard: Isn’t it odd that Maugham has somewhat dropped out of favor among critics and readers in the last half century? I wonder why that is so.

    • I was wondering that myself – he considered himself at the top of the second rank of authors (if you put the likes of Tolstoi, Flaubert and Goethe in the first rank) and I think books like Cakes and Ale and The Razor’s Edge stand up extremely well. But among 20th century authors I don’t think his work gets studied in the same way that Waugh and Graham Greene does, which I believe is a shame.

  5. tracybham says:

    Very interesting. One story adapted so many times. I have only seen bits and pieces of the Bette Davis movie; now I should watch the whole thing some time. What about the 1947 version with Ann Sheridan? Is it any good? My husband loves Ann Sheridan.

    • The 1947 remake is uncredited but Warners was notorious for how often it remade its own properties. It is great fun as I recall, though it’s been ages, but it is out on DVD. You hubby as usual demonstrates great taste – Sheridan was wonderful, though I remember the film as being a bit pedestrian compared with the original – here’s a clip:

  6. Colin says:

    Now here’s a film I’ve owned for years but haven’t watched for some unfathomable reason. Thanks for the reminder and nudge – I’ll have to get onto it. I’d also like to give the 1947 version a look, but I’ll need to buy a copy of that first.

    • You have to see it Colin and I hope I haven’t spoiled it too much! And make sure you watch the alternate ending – it looks exactly the same to start with (its the entire final reel) but then gets quite different. Beautifully shot too – just the peak of that kind of filmmaking but also very tough on its characters in a way you rarely see from the era – the concluding two shots are truly haunting

  7. Oh I love this Sergio – I’m a big fan of Maugham anyway, and I think this story and the film version with Bette Davis are both wonderful. I have seen other versions, which I think were good, but it’s Davis who lives in the memory. She really FILLS the role of Lesley, looking for love, bored with her life, terrified as everything closes in on her. Those eyes staring out – and the way she is furiously doing her craftwork (I’d remembered it as knitting but I bow to your more recent viewing and lace. You wouldn’t much trust her with a sharpened needle either way). Thanks for a reminder of a great film, and fascinating info about the other versions.

    • Thanks very much Moira – it is definitely very intricate lacework – and I hoped you might enjoy that still I enclosed from the sequence in which she wears a lacework shawl. You might want to read this post on its use in the film here at The Art of Film.

      • tracybham says:

        Interesting article about the tatting in that movie; also mentions that Davis was a crocheter. It always irritates me that crochet pieces and crocheting will be described as knitting, although it is very silly of me to worry about that. One place that I am a nitpicker. However, I mostly found pictures of Davis knitting (some in movies, some off set) although there was one where she was crocheting. Now I am really going to have to watch this movie.

        • Well, it’s definitely lacework here, i promise! It’s referred to several times in the original text and is a strong symbol used at crucial points of the film – is ‘tatting’ really the word, TracyK? 🙂

          • I’d admired the still without fully taking in the implications – that article is fascinating. There is something manic about the way Lesley manipulates the craftwork (my chosen word for it after all this inconclusive discussion), more brilliant acting by Davis.

          • There certainly is and the close of the films makes very nice play of it too.

          • tracybham says:

            There is a technique for creating lace called tatting, which involves a small shuttle. I am sure there are other techniques. I assume that The Art of Film is correct as far as this movie.I learned how to tat about 30 years ago but it has been so long, I don’t remember much.

          • Fascinating TracyK – I did learn to do rudimentary crochet one summer as a kid (and made, I think, an oven mit)

  8. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Davis was wonderful as a tortured woman, and as I haven’t read the book I must search it out – great review!

  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the short story as well as the three-act play.
    I have also seen the 1940 film.
    I prefer the play to the short story because of the addition of the remarkable opening scene of Leslie emptying the gun on Hammond as well as the celebrated closing line.
    Of the 2 end versions of the play, I prefer the one where Leslie’s confession is shown as a throwback to the incident before the opening scene.
    However, the 1940 film version is the best. It contains the famous closing line of the play, but it continues for about 5 minutes thereafter, giving a highly different ending.
    It is a brilliant film with brilliant direction, brilliant acting, brilliant script and brilliant photography. It is engrossing till the end. A must-see film. My only complaint (minor) is that the last shot of confrontation with a policeman was totally unnecessary.
    By the way, when are you reviewing Carr’s Crooked Hinge ? I have a lot to say on it !

    • Thanks very much Santosh – looks like you and I are in complete agreement here (and thanks for pointing out that Maugham refers to the flashback as a ‘throwback’ which I forgot to mention). Yes, the PuzzleDoctor and I will be posting a joint review of Carr’s classic impossible murder mystery The Crooked Hinge this Friday. He will be putting the case for the prosecution, I’ll be acting for the defence 🙂 He’ll post the review, I will launching a poll to discover what everyone’s to 10 Carr books are – so watch this space!

    • Prem Trivedi says:

      Up here you are telling that the movie has a different ending; I did watch the movie, but I have to research on the play, I’m fall to get the play online, so I have to ask you about the difference about the movie and play.
      You told that you saw the play and movie all, so please give me the answer as soon as possible, it’s so important for me.
      Thanks.

      • ***BIG SPOILERS AHEAD*** In the play, after the wife is found not guilty at trial, we learn that the wife had been unfaithful and has killed her lover. She and her husband remain together, she will the guilt of knowing that she murdered the man she really loved. In the film version, the common-law wife takes revenge on the woman after she is found not guilty and stabs her to death, before she too is arrested.

  10. Patti Abbott says:

    Maybe Davis’ finest hour. I haven’t seen it in years though. And I love Maugham and think it’s criminal how little he’s read today. CAKES AND ALE and OF HUMAN BONDAGE and ASHENDEN especially. Genius.

  11. Awesome review! Bette really does such a great job here that she makes you forget about all the post-code niceties. Can you imagine what she would have done without the censorship? Thanks for the shout out on the Jeanne Eagels version (she really was a stunner, too). Love your blog!

  12. The more I watch “The Letter” the move I am impressed with James Stephenson, particularly his byplay with Sen Yung as Ong Chi Seng. So much of the attitudes and realities of colonialism is present in their relationship, what is said and what is unspoken.

  13. I love everything about this movie – from the unforgettable beginning to the cinematography, to the casting and the script. Such a moody, atmospheric film that never gets old. I can’t get enough of it.

    Thanks for posting such an enjoyable review. 🙂

  14. neer says:

    Sergio, I read the beginning of this and then didn’t read any further as it was so gripping that I did not want it spoiled. I’ll search for the story and then read the post.

    I read a number of Maugham’s short stories in school. Some of them made quite an impression like THE UNCONQUERED, RED, and MR. KNOW-ALL. This year I read Maugham after almost two decades and felt sad that I had neglected him for so long. The coming year I plan to read more of him.

    • Thanks Neer – I feel the same about him – and yes, I do spoil a few things, so best to skip! If you haven’t read The Razor’s Edge I would really recommend it!

      • neer says:

        Sergio, THE RAZOR’S EDGE is one that I plan to re-read in the coming year. I didn’t even remember reading that book before coming across a diary entry that stated that I had read it sometime in 1996. It has one of the most intriguing opening line of all time.

        • It’s a great book – and here is that great opening line: “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving” – I love how Maugham places himself within the story – brilliantly done!

  15. It really is quite the intense film…and review. Thanks so much for adding so nicely to the blogathon!

  16. Sergio, this is a terrific review of a Maugham story I haven’t read although, like Neer, I read a fair amount of his work back in school and college, along with Shaw and Kipling. I had no idea this particular story was adapted so many times including as a three-act play. The moonlight shot of Bette Davis is a revelation of sorts for I don’t remember seeing her look anything like that. I’d also be interested in watching the Lee Remick television movie.

  17. kristina says:

    Great movie and post. Lasting movie and plot with Bette at her best. I’ve seen The Unfaithful as well, but not yet seen the earlier version with Jeanne. That’s quite an interesting bit of trivia, with the Herbert Marshall connections to 3 versions.

  18. Yvette says:

    I too love this movie, Sergio and really enjoyed reading your review. Finally, a film we can truly agree on. 🙂 Bette Davis was made for this role even if her accent is not altogether correct. Herbert Marshall ‘…dull as latex.’ Ha. Not as dull as George Brent though. It’s a wonder that Brent wasn’t in this film.

    • Well, Davis had an affair with the director so maybe having Brent on set would have stirred the pot a bit too much! Marshall is a terrific actor, it’s just the role that’s dull 🙂

  19. girlsdofilm says:

    Great choice for the blogathon and one of my favourite Davis roles (even if the accent leaves a lot to be desired!) I didn’t know Wilder filmed the opening so many times, although it makes sense as it’s pretty flawless!

    • Wyler was renowned for using lots of takes as her wasn;t very good at verbalising what he felt was wrong but just had to keep going utnil he felt it was right – but it is ironic of course that they sued the first take in the end (or at least, that’s what producer Hal wallis sais in his autobiography).

  20. Jeff Flugel says:

    Hey Sergio! Sorry for the late reply…read your excellent post several days ago but am still way behind on leaving comments on all the great pieces submitted for the blogathon. Anyway, very much enjoyed your take on the 1940 Bette Davis version of this story. Am usually allergic to Ms. Davis (though will be the first to admit that she was an extremely talented actress) but this one sounds quite good, especially for its setting, supporting cast and moody B & W cinematography.

    Thanks again for taking part in the event, chum!

  21. minooallen says:

    Howdy! What a lovely addition to the British Empire Blogathon. I’ve only seen the 1940 William Wyler release of this story but now I want to find the original short/play. To be honest, the ‘dragon-lady’ portrayal of Ms. Hammond also bothered me – I always thought it would be much more interesting and dynamic to have her be more of a sympathetic character, something opposite of Davis in the film. Look’s like I’ll head for the source material and see how she was originally written. Thanks for the review!

    -M. Allen for ClassicMovieHub

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