Archive of films The Letter / The Letter

1940, 95 min

Section: Tribute to William Wyler
Year: 2007

Starting with a crime of passion committed by a married woman with cold-blooded resolution against her lover in the film’s opening scene, cinematically renowned still today, the melodrama The Letter offers a tale of one individualistic woman’s emotional conflict that skilfully gradates right up to the last moments.


“After Jezebel, I would have jumped into the Hudson River if he had told me to. That’s how much belief I had in his judgment as a director,” declared Bette Davis after first working with William Wyler. The opportunity to make another film together, this time based on a play by William Somerset Maugham, came in 1940. A cold and calculating woman, the wife of a rubber tree plantation owner, who murders her secret lover in a rush of injured pride, tries to escape the consequences of her crime by deliberately relying on colonial-world conventions. Her attempt at impunity, however, is jeopardised by a single piece of compromising evidence – a letter to the victim. Using a crime-plot blueprint, Wyler gives play to themes that society had not yet opened up to: adultery, the hidden emotional life of a married woman, domination and subordination in relationships, the position of women in a male society, inner temperament hidden behind a facade of conventionality and snobbery, and the racial hypocrisy of colonial society. Not even in the case of this film, however, did the director avoid censorship: as opposed to the literary original, where the heroine’s punishment is “merely” her mental anguish, the cinematic version had to make a clearer formulation. In addition to its popularity among moviegoers, the film also received seven Oscar nominations and was made famous by one scene in particular. Wyler was able to get such a rarity out of the opening, very suggestive, scene, in which the murder plays out amid an impeccable setting, atmosphere, and plot line in which the protagonist’s character is precisely defined.


Hollywood Classics
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About the film

Black & white, 35 mm

Section: Tribute to William Wyler
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Howard Koch podle divadelní hry / based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham
Dir. of Photography: Tony Gaudio
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: George Amy, Warren Low
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Production: Warner Bros.
Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Frieda Inescort, Bruce Lester
Contact: Hollywood Classics, BFI


Catherine Wyler

Festival Organizer


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