The Letter (TV Movie 1982) Poster

(1982 TV Movie)

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Remick Is Good in Davis' role of Leslie Crosbie
theowinthrop2 June 2007
Warning: Spoilers
This television version of the Somerset Maugham short story that was the 1940 classic with Bette Davis is rarely shown. It had some nice touches in it, particularly with Lee Remick as Leslie, the murderer and murder trial defendant who we know is guilty and not innocent as she claimed. The rest of the cast, led by Ronald Pickup as Howard Joyce the barrister, and Jack Thompson as Robert Crosbie are also effective (it's nice to see Wilfred Hyde-White as the judge, small role though it is).

But what I like best is the variant on the conclusion to the story and the original 1940 film. So I am going to have to announce


In the short story, Leslie collapses when about to accept Robert's forgiveness by admitting that she still loves the man she killed. In the 1940 film Bette Davis made the same tearful admission to Herbert Marshall, who leaves her in disgust. Davis wanted that to be the end of the film, but William Wyler had to obey the idiotic Hollywood code of 1940 that insisted that a murderer had to pay for his/her crime. So Davis strolls out of her room in the house she is in, and is murdered by a killer hired by vengeful Gale Sondergaard (Sondergaard and the killer are arrested a minute later - they too fall under the rules of the code).

Now the debate is which of these two endings was more effective. It's really a toss-up, but Davis's and Maugham's approach was more subtle (Leslie will have to live for the rest of her life with the knowledge she murdered the man she really loved, and she was not punished for it). The interesting variation in the 1982 film was that the revelation Leslie made to Robert was built up on.

The Malaysian British colony had rallied to Leslie's defense because she was one of them, and the version of the killing that was her defense made the victim a rapist who deserved what he got. But when Robert hears Leslie's tearful admission, he stalks out of the bedroom they are in, and is in the main salon of the house where most of the British guests are. His comment upon leaving is so fully bitter at Leslie as a lying conniver that there can be no doubt that she is an unpunished killer. Leslie has now pulled herself together and follows Robert into the salon...only to find everyone cold and very unfriendly. She realizes they know the truth now. She walks out of the front door, and heads into the night. She now has burned her bridges behind her. The Asian widow of her victim is there with her killer, but they watch Leslie staggering down into the masses of the town - totally unlike what she or the other British people would do in Malaysia. They follow but they are watching what they think is going to be Leslie's future: she is on the way down the road to her end as a common prostitute or any case her oblivion. There is no need now to kill her.

It was an interesting variation on the ending, and worthy of considering as a third possible conclusion.
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