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William Wyler
Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson
Writing Credits:
Howard Koch

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.

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English DTS-HD MA Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 95 min.
Price: $21.99
Release Date: 9/24/2019

• Two Radio Adaptations
• Alternate Ending
• Trailer


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The Letter [Blu-Ray] (1940)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 12, 2019)

Back in 1934, Bette Davis attained stardom via an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Davis returned to the Maugham well via 1940’s acclaimed drama The Letter.

Set in Singapore, Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) owns a rubber plantation. While he’s away to inspect it, his wife Leslie (Davis) shoots and kills their neighbor, Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell).

Leslie claims she acted in self-defense, but questions arise. In particular, a letter apparently written by Leslie casts serious doubt on her innocence.

As I noted earlier, Letter received a lot of acclaim back in 1940. Davis and director William Wyler earned two of its seven Oscar nominations, and the film also entered contention for Best Picture.

Letter lost to Rebecca, probably because Hitchcock’s movie worked a whole lot better. Oddly sluggish and bland, Letter doesn’t go much of anywhere.

Which seems odd for two reasons, mainly related to the story’s inherent drama. A wealthy white woman in a foreign land gets accused of murder, so one should anticipate lots of tension and intrigue.

Unfortunately, Letter fails to generate much heat. Even at a mere 95 minutes, it stretches to fill the time with compelling material.

Really, we just wait to see various plot twists and determine Leslie’s fate. Everything else feels like window-dressing, and the narrative doesn’t develop the characters or situations well enough to occupy the cinematic real estate in a satisfying manner.

The other surprise relates to the level of talent involved. Davis remains one of the most honored actors in Hollywood history, as does Wyler, a three-time Best Director winner.

How could so many legends create such a bland experience? Davis does fine in the role, though it doesn’t require her to do much more than play the false victim, so the film fails to tax her talent.

At all times, The Letter seems professional. It just doesn’t turn into a particularly compelling tale.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus C+

The Letter appears in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This was a consistently pleasing presentation.

Sharpness usually appeared very good. The film only suffered from a few slightly ill-defined shots, as the majority of the flick demonstrated nice delineation. I saw no problems with jagged edges or shimmering, and the movie lacked edge haloes.

In terms of print flaws, Letter looked clean. Blacks appeared deep and rich, while low-light shots demonstrated nice definition and clarity. This ended up as a solid image.

Although the DTS-HD MA monaural soundtrack of Letter didn’t demonstrate anything special, it worked fine for its era and genre. Speech seemed slightly thin but was good for its age, as lines remained intelligible and clear.

Music demonstrated reasonable range. The score didn’t impress, but it appeared acceptably bright.

Effects became a minor component in this chatty flick, and they came across as reasonably accurate. Though they had little heft, they were clean and didn’t suffer from distortion or other concerns. The audio appeared positive for its era.

We find two separate Lux Radio Theater adaptations of The Letter. One comes from April 21, 1941 (59:35), and allows Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall to reprise their roles.

The second show ran March 6, 1944 (59:51). It also brings back Davis and Marshall to play their film parts, plus it offers Vincent Price as Howard.

Price’s presence in the 1944 version makes it the preferred performance, if just due to his fame. Otherwise both renditions seem pretty similar. Neither soars, but they’re fun to have as bonus features.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we get an Alternate Ending. It goes for nine minutes, 59 seconds and barely differs from the theatrical finale

Given the talent involved, one expects a classic from The Letter. Unfortunately, the end result lacks much drama and becomes a slow ride. The Blu-ray brings pretty good picture and audio as well as a few supplements. The Letter disappoints.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2 Stars Number of Votes: 1
0 3:
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