On a moonlit, tropical night, the native workers are asleep in their outdoor barracks. A shot is heard; the door of a house opens and a man stumbles out of it, followed by a woman who calmly shoots him several more times, the last few while standing over his body. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a British rubber plantation manager in Malaya; the man whom she shot her manservant recognizes as Geoff Hammond, a well-regarded member of the European community. Leslie tells the servant to send for her husband Robert, who is working at one of the plantations. Her husband returns, having summoned his attorney and a British police inspector. Leslie tells them that Geoff Hammond "tried to make love to me" and that she killed him to save her honor.
Leslie is placed under arrest and put in jail in Singapore to await trial for murder; that she killed a man makes such a trial inevitable, but her eventual acquittal seems a foregone conclusion, as the white community accepts her story and believes she acted heroically. Only her attorney, Howard Joyce, is rather suspicious. Howard's suspicions seem justified when his clerk, Ong Chi Seng, shows him a copy of a letter Leslie wrote to Hammond the day she killed him, telling him that her husband would be away that evening, and pleading with him to come—implicitly threatening him if he did not come.
Ong Chi Seng tells Howard that the original letter is in the possession of Hammond's widow, a Eurasian woman who lives in the Chinese quarter of town. The letter is for sale, and Ong himself, whom Howard had believed to be impeccable, stands to receive a substantial cut of the price. Howard then confronts Leslie with the damning evidence and she breaks down and confesses to having written it, though she stands by her claim of having killed Hammond in self-defence. Yet Leslie cleverly manipulates the attorney into agreeing to buy back the letter, even though in doing so he will risk his own freedom and career.
Because the couple's bank account is in Robert's name, Howard obtains Robert's consent to buy the letter, but he does so deceitfully, lying about and trivializing its content, leaving out the true circumstances, and giving the man no idea that the price is equivalent to almost all the money he has in the bank. Robert, depicted as a decent man thoroughly in love with Leslie and somewhat gullible, is readily persuaded. Hammond's widow demands that Leslie come personally to hand over the $10,000 for the letter (she has been released into her attorney's custody) and requires Leslie to debase herself by picking up the letter at the widow's feet. With the letter suppressed, Leslie is easily acquitted.
During a celebration after the trial Robert announces that he plans to draw his savings out of his account in order to buy a rubber plantation in Sumatra. Howard and Leslie are forced to tell him that his savings are gone, that the impact of the letter would have hanged Leslie and its price was accordingly high. After demanding to see the letter, Robert is devastated to learn from Leslie that Hammond was her lover for years and that she killed him out of jealousy.
At a party celebrating Leslie's acquittal, Robert tells friends of his plans to buy the plantation. Leslie, overhearing him, leaves the party, and Robert breaks down. Leslie goes to her room, tries to take up her lacemaking but cannot. She sobs. Stepping onto the balcony, she sees a knife laid on the matting. She withdraws, shocked. Robert comes into the room and offers to forgive her if she can swear that she loves him. Leslie at first agrees and tells him she loves him, and that she will do all in her power to make him happy. When he kisses her, she cries "No!" and then breaks down and confesses, "With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!"
Robert rushes from the room. Leslie looks out at the patio mat, and the knife is gone. She knows that Hammond's widow had planted it there, and then has taken it away. She knows the woman waits for her--to kill her, and she realizes this is her fate. She walks out, amid the gardens and, finally, encounters the woman who glares at her fiercely. The man who accompanies her grabs Leslie and stuffs a cloth in her mouth to silence her, and then the woman pulls the knife from her garments and stabs Leslie, who falls to the ground. As the two murderers attempt to silently slip out, they are confronted by a policeman. The clouds blot out the moonlight and darken the area where Leslie was killed; then the clouds open and the moon's rays shine where her body lies, but no one is there to see it.Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie
Herbert Marshall as Robert Crosbie
James Stephenson as Howard Joyce
Frieda Inescort as Dorothy Joyce
Gale Sondergaard as Mrs. Hammond
Bruce Lester as John Withers
Elizabeth Earl as Adele Ainsworth
Cecil Kellaway as Prescott
Sen Yung as Ong Chi Seng
Doris Lloyd as Mrs. Cooper
Willie Fung as Chung Hi
Tetsu Komai as Head Boy
The Production Code Administration rejected the original story adaptation that Warner Bros. submitted on the grounds that it contained adultery and unpunished murder, so a new final scene was added in which Leslie is killed. The character of Mrs. Hammond was changed from Hammond's Chinese mistress to his Eurasian wife to placate the Hays Office.
Director William Wyler and star Bette Davis, who had previously worked together on Jezebel, disagreed about the climactic scene in which Leslie admits to her husband she still loves the man she murdered. Davis felt no woman could look at her husband when she admits such a thing. Wyler disagreed, and Davis walked off the set. She later returned and did it Wyler's way, but ever after, Davis insisted her approach would have been better.
Wyler also argued with Warner Bros. head Jack L. Warner over the casting of British actor James Stephenson as attorney Howard Joyce. Warner originally had suggested Stephenson for the role, but after Wyler cast him, the studio head had second thoughts and thought the role was too important to cast an unknown in it. Wyler stood firm, and Stephenson's performance earned him an Oscar nomination.
Herbert Marshall also appeared in the 1929 version, in which he played the lover who was killed by Leslie.
In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed, "The ultimate credit for as taut and insinuating a melodrama as has come along this year — a film which extenuates tension like a grim inquisitor's rack—must be given to Mr. Wyler. His hand is patent throughout . . . Miss Davis is a strangely cool and calculating killer who conducts herself with reserve and yet implies a deep confusion of emotions . . . Only the end of The Letter is weak — and that is because of the postscript which the Hays Office has compelled".
Variety magazine wrote, "Never has [the W. Somerset Maugham play] been done with greater production values, a better all-around cast or finer direction. Its defect is its grimness. Director William Wyler, however, sets himself a tempo which is in rhythm with the Malay locale . . . Davis' frigidity at times seems to go even beyond the characterization. On the other hand, Marshall never falters. Virtually stealing these honors in the pic, however, is Stephenson as the attorney, while Sondergaard is the perfect mask-like threat".
Time Out London says, "A superbly crafted melodrama, even if it never manages to top the moody montage with which it opens - moon scudding behind clouds, rubber dripping from a tree, coolies dozing in the compound, a startled cockatoo - as a shot rings out, a man staggers out onto the verandah, and Davis follows to empty her gun grimly into his body . . . [The] camerawork, almost worthy of Sternberg in its evocation of sultry Singapore nights and cool gin slings, is not matched by natural sounds (on the soundtrack Max Steiner's score does a lot of busy underlining)."Academy Award for Best Picture
Academy Award for Best Director
Academy Award for Best Actress (Bette Davis)
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (James Stephenson)
Academy Award for Original Music Score
Academy Award for Best Film Editing
Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black and White
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Leslie Crosbie – Nominated Villain