129 user 61 critic

The Letter (1940)

Not Rated | | Crime, Drama, Film-Noir | 23 November 1940 (USA)
2:18 | Trailer
The wife of a rubber plantation administrator shoots a man to death and claims it was self-defense, but a letter in her own hand may prove her undoing.


William Wyler


W. Somerset Maugham (play), Howard Koch (screen play)
Nominated for 7 Oscars. Another 1 win & 2 nominations. See more awards »





Complete credited cast:
Bette Davis ... Leslie Crosbie
Herbert Marshall ... Robert Crosbie
James Stephenson ... Howard Joyce
Frieda Inescort ... Dorothy Joyce
Gale Sondergaard ... Mrs. Hammond
Bruce Lester ... John Withers
Elizabeth Inglis Elizabeth Inglis ... Adele Ainsworth (as Elizabeth Earl)
Cecil Kellaway ... Prescott
Victor Sen Yung ... Ong Chi Seng (as Sen Yung)
Doris Lloyd ... Mrs. Cooper
Willie Fung ... Chung Hi
Tetsu Komai Tetsu Komai ... Head Boy


The wife of a rubber plantation administrator shoots a man to death and claims it was self-defense. Her poise, graciousness and stoicism impress nearly everyone who meets her. Her husband is certainly without doubt; so is the district officer; while her lawyer's doubts may be a natural skepticism. But this is Singapore and the resentful natives will have no compunction about undermining this accused murderess. A letter in her hand turns up and may prove her undoing. Written by J. Spurlin

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


With all my heart I still love the man I killed See more »


Not Rated | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


The 1929 version was Jeanne Eagels' last film and her only Oscar nomination. See more »


When Howard Joyce is in his office talking to Robert Crosbie, he is sitting on the arm of a chair and holding a cigarette with his right hand. But on the next immediate cut when he stands up, the cigarette is in his left hand. See more »


Robert Crosbie: I'll do whatever you think is right.
Howard Joyce: I don't think it's right, but I think it's expedient. Juries can sometimes be very stupid, and it's just as well not to worry them with more evidence than they can conveniently deal with.
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Alternate Versions

Also shown in computer colorized version. See more »


Referenced in Five Came Back: The Mission Begins (2017) See more »

User Reviews

Memorable & Very Well-Acted Melodrama
17 February 2005 | by Snow LeopardSee all my reviews

With a fine cast, an atmospheric setting, and a tight, tension-packed plot, this is a memorable adaptation of the Somerset Maugham story. Both the story and the film are well-constructed, and indeed both are also aptly titled, in that "The Letter" is what drives the characters and most of the action.

The opening sequence starts out with a languid look at the rubber plantation, immediately establishing the atmosphere, and then suddenly grabs your attention with the shooting. From then on, most of the suspense is psychological, and the scenario is very well-crafted, wringing everything it can out of the setup.

The cast is led by Bette Davis, who gives a vivid performance in the kind of role that she seemed born to play. Herbert Marshall is also excellent as the husband, using little mannerisms and gestures to complement his lines, as he convincingly portrays his earnest, naive character.

The supporting cast has many good moments of their own. James Stephenson's performance is essential to making the movie work so well. His portrayal of the anguished lawyer could not have been surpassed, as he flawlessly shows his outward restraint and inner torment. Victor Sen Yung also performs well - his oily character is perhaps somewhat uncomfortable to watch, but he is essential to the plot, and Yung plays him to good effect. Gale Sondergaard has very few lines, but she establishes an imposing presence all the same.

The British colonial setting, with its clubby atmosphere, its social inequalities, its opportunities, and its contrasting cultures, is done well, and even the tropical heat is believably rendered. Light and darkness are also used well - in addition to the frequent shots of the moon, the slats on so many of the windows not only make for attractive scenery, but at times they are also used creatively, as they let just a little bit of light shine on characters who themselves might not want too much light to come into their lives.

Everything adds up to a memorable melodrama with many strong features, well worth seeing both for the cast and for the story.

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Release Date:

23 November 1940 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

The Letter See more »


Box Office

Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

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Company Credits

Production Co:

Warner Bros. See more »
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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (RCA Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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