William Wyler directed ‘The Letter’ (1940) starring Bette Davis in the pivotal role of Leslie Crosbie. In the opening scene Crosbie descends the steps of an expansive white residence shooting at a man. She fires several shots. Afterwards she claims that the deceased, Geoffrey Hammond, tried to push himself on her. In reality she is a spurned lover taking revenge.
The setting of ‘The Letter’ is a rubber plantation in postwar British Malaya on the island of Singapore (present day Malaysia). Leslie Crosbie lives rather comfortably with her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) and entourage of Malayan servants. After the shooting, she is investigated by family attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) and a young British police inspector. Leslie is convincing in her innocence and seems to have it all together after her shooting tirade.
The crime was committed under a clear sky with a full moon infrequently covered by passing clouds. When the moon is fully visible it seems to drive people mad. The British presence in Malaya is well-established in a country characterized by mystery, opium, treachery and a bewitching moon. Murder is avenged in the ancient ways even if the native inhabitants are instructed in the art of civility and law by the occupiers. As Joyce admits, his legal assistant may one day become his competitor. He is the not altogether trustworthy Ong Chi Seng (played by the San Francisco native and UC Berkeley graduate Victor Sen Yung, the #2 Son in Charlie Chan films) who claims there is a letter that implicates Leslie for the murder of Geoffrey Hammond. The owner is willing to sell the letter for $10,000 ($164,000 today) if Leslie personally comes to claim it. The case later goes to trial with Leslie accused of murder, but the letter is not admitted as evidence.
Howard and Leslie seem to think they can get away with concealing the truth far from home in a country with strange customs. The widow of the deceased, Mrs. Hammond, owns the letter. She is described as a Eurasian who speaks no English and is played by Gale Sondergaard, an actress from Minnesota whose parents were Danish-American. Sondergaard was the wife of Herbert Biberman who was blacklisted from Hollywood as one of the Hollywood Ten during the Red Scare of the McCarthy Era.
The transformation of Sondergaard into a Eurasian is done in the strictest sense of ethnic stereotyping. Mrs. Hammond often wears an ornate ethnic sequined dress. A scarf adorned by jewelry holds her hair back and her long dress of silk has an embossed yet stiff design. In contrast, Leslie wears a soft white lace veil that covers her from head to waist when she goes with Howard to pick up the letter.
Mrs. Hammond is depicted as sinister and evil no doubt due to her Asian roots, which in this film represent a people without morals and unscrupulous customs. It is however, as Somerset Maugham’s novel seems to suggest, the British who are unscrupulous and immoral, particularly Leslie and Howard. Ong Chi Seng represents the educated Malayan people who stand in sharp contrast to the old world of Mrs. Hammond. Her alliance with Geoffrey Hammond is inadequately described, as are her Eurasian roots, but she seems resistant to the British presence on her island, like the Crosbie’s servants and locals.
The use of lighting and costume particularly enhances the themes and stereotypes of the film. The light from the moon enters through the slats of the Crosbie’s white bungalow at night, framing Davis in white and black. Inside she is sometimes propped up by a white and black stripe pillow. As she walks in her garden, her black silhouette is shot symbolizing her duplicitous character. Even her white lace shawl is used to accentuate her elegant slyness. Mrs. Hammond is cast in shadow through most of the film and dressed in traditional clothing. Most of the educated male characters, Malay and British, are dressed in white suits representing British law on the island. Native costumes are worn by servants, shopkeepers and women.
‘The Letter’ is a well crafted film by William Wyler with excellent lighting, costume and art design, but weighted by the stereotypes of the time. San Francisco filmmaker Arthur Dong examined films like this in his brilliant documentary ‘Hollywood Chinese’. Dong illustrates how European actors have traditionally played Chinese and other Asian characters such as Werner Oland, a Swedish actor, who played Charlie Chan. In contrast Victor Sen Yung plays his bilingual American son.