Letter, The (1940)

The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler.

It opens with its best moment: gunshots in the Singapore night, a man stumbles from the house and a woman follows him down the steps, coolly emptying her revolver into his body.

This is Bette Davis, in transition from kind-of-pretty to exotic-looks to menacing. She claims self defense: an old friend tried to assault her. Everyone believes her, ignoring minor inconsistencies in her story. There has to be a trial, but this is just a formality until an indiscreet letter becomes available for a price. She's written a love letter to the dead man which would harm her case if revealed.

Worse, the letter is held by the man's widow. Getting it back means journeying into an unpleasant part of town and dealing with Orientals who are alternately obsequious and sinister, just looking for a chance to humiliate the Europeans.

It's a melodrama nicely carried by Davis, crafty in her manipulations of men, and by James Stephenson, an attorney corrupted by her charms.

Herbert Marshall is the husband; in a 1929 version he was the murdered lover.

Everyone seems haunted by the moon. Max Steiner score.

Adapted from a play by W. Somerset Maugham.

Available on DVD.