Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA, 1940. Warner Bros.. Screenplay by Howard Koch, based on the story by W. Somerset Maugham. Cinematography by Tony Gaudio. Produced by Robert Lord. Music by Max Steiner. Production Design by Carl Jules Weyl. Costume Design by Orry-Kelly. Film Editing by George Amy, Warren Low. Academy Awards 1940.
In the exotic jungles of Malaya, Bette Davis is the wife of a rubber plantation owner (Herbert Marshall) who shoots her lover in a fit of rage. Going to jail for such a louse isn’t part of her grand design, so she comes up with an ironclad alibi to cover up her crime: the man had come over and attacked her, and she was only killing him in self-defense. Her tale is believed except that it is also vulnerable to the evidence enclosed in the titular object, held by the deceased’s wife (Gale Sondergaard once again in yellow face), who might take advantage of the opportunity to bring about Davis’ ruination or give her the letter and help save her hide. James Stephenson is outstanding as the lawyer caught in the middle of a moral conundrum, challenged to uphold his integrity as a lawyer even if it might mean losing the case. This adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s play is rife with atmosphere and tension, benefiting from Davis’ dominating performance and gorgeous cinematography. Its premise is slim, but the solid way in which it is directed and performed makes it crackle.