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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Letter
The Letter
Warner Bros. // Unrated // January 11, 2005
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted December 8, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The Movie:

The setting is a rubber plantation outside of Singapore at night.  The native workers are resting in their bungalows, taking or playing cards.  The night air is quiet, only filled with the sounds of insects and the rustling of the leaves in the gentle wind.  A gunshot explodes, and a man runs of a stately manor house clutching his side, he trips and falls.  A young woman follows him out, carrying a gun with a look of madness in her eyes.  When she sees the man on the ground she fires the gun again and again, emptying it into the defenseless figure.  Such is the beginning of William Wyler's The Letter, a film noir classic from 1940.  Staring Bette Davis and James Stephenson (Beau Geste and The Sea Hawk,) and based on a play by Somerset Maugham, the film was nominated for an amazing seven Academy Awards, including best picture, actress and supporting actor and director.  Warner Home video is now releasing this stunning movie on DVD with a gorgeous transfer and even an alternate ending.

After shooting Geoffrey Hammond, a neighbor who was visiting one night, Leslie Crosby (Bette Davis) is arrested, but it doesn't look like she'll be in jail very long.  She has related to everyone the story of what happened that night; how Hammond came to her house one evening while her husband was away, had a couple of drinks, and then tried to force himself on her.  She demanded that he leave, but he refused, grabbing her and trying to kiss her.  She managed to get away when he tripped on a step, and reached a table that had a gun concealed in it.  She fired, and then scarcely realizing what she was doing, followed him outside and killed him.  The trial is a mere formality, since Mrs. Crosby is an upstanding member of society and everyone expects her to get off including her distraught husband (Herbert Marshall) and her lawyer(James Stephenson.)
 
Things change though when a letter pops up.  Someone claims to have a handwritten note that Leslie sent to Geoffrey the day he was killed.  A letter that might incriminate her.  The holder offers to sell the letter for a pricey sum, but will Leslie's honest lawyer to purchase it and suppress the evidence or will an innocent woman end up going to the gallows.

William Wyler, who had a career filled with excellent films, applies his skills masterfully to this wonderful picture.  In one of the better openings in film history, he uses a long pan ending with the jarring murder to both establish the setting and tone of the film and grab the viewer's attention.  He manages to keep viewers glued for the rest of the film.  Most of the film seems to take place at night, and his use of shadows and light, with the moon hiding and emerging from behind clouds creates an eerie feel and heightens the suspense.  He manages to take a script that could easily fall into sappy melodrama and creates a film filled with moral dilemmas and shades of grey.

A good as the directing is, the film wouldn't have worked with out a very strong leading lady.  Bette Davis gives an astounding performance, creating a femme fatal who quite memorable.  In one of the best roles of her career, she is able to wrap Leslie in contradictions.  She seems both warm and honest and cool and calculating at the same time.  At the beginning you are never quiet sure if Leslie is telling the truth and is a victim of circumstance or a cold blooded killer.  At truly magnificent performance.

Even though I found the movie exceptional, it did have some flaws.  I thought the climax of the movie occurred much too soon, in the middle of the film rather than the end.   Once some key pieces if information are reveled, I thought it was easy to figure out the rest, although everything isn't explicitly spelled out until the end.  Possibly because of this, I found the ending to be a little unsatisfying.  It wasn't bad, I was just hoping for something with a little stronger impact.

The background music was the other thing I had a problem with.  Max Steiner was nominated for an Oscar for his score, so I chalk it up to changing tastes, but I felt that the swelling orchestral score was too overbearing and intrusive.  It detracted from the story rather than adding to it.
 
Even with these qualms this is a great movie.  A classic film noir picture filled with excellent directing and outstanding acting.

The DVD:


WARNING:  I received a preview disc of this movie, so I can't comment on the final packaging.  However the DVD cover that is shown on Amazon.com has a quote on the front that gives away the ending.  What were you thinking Warners????  Avoid reading it if you don't want the movie ruined for you.

Audio:

The English soundtrack is in DD mono and very clear.  There is only the smallest amount of hiss in the background, but it is only obvious in quiet parts and at high levels.   Although there wasn't a large dynamic range, the dialog based audio was full sounding.  There were also optional subtitles in English French and Spanish

Video:

The full frame video quality is very good.  There is some mosquito noise noticeable in the image, along with a rare spot or speck of dust, but this was not a major problem.  Digital defects were at a minimum.  The picture is very good with clear details and excellent contrast.  A great looking transfer especially for a 60+ year old film.

Extras:

The disc also includes an alternate ending to the movie.  This 10-minute segment adds a short scene, and removes a longer one along with some other subtle changes.  This ending was more ambiguous and subtle, and I can see why it wasn't chosen for theatrical release, though I liked it a bit more. Seeing this ending was a treat, and I'm glad they included it on the disc.

Final Thoughts:

This is a great film, and one that lovers of fine cinema should watch.  Bette Davis gives a simply incredible performance.  The rest of the cast also is in top form, and Wyler's direction is fantastic.  Though I thought the soundtrack was a little overdone and the climax came a little early for me, I still think that this was a very good film.  The image is excellent and finding the alternate ending on the disc was a pleasant surprise.  For the life of me though, I can't imagine why Warner would go an print a quote that gives away the ending on the front cover!  Giving away the end of Planet of the Apes on the back cover was bad, but this is worse.   Skip the cover, but the disc is rated Highly Recommended.
 

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