DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Letter (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED).

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Herb Kane, Dec 28, 2004.

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  1. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    [​IMG]


    The Letter





    Studio: Warner Brothers
    Year: 1940
    Rated: Not Rated
    Film Length: 95 Minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 Academy Ratio
    Audio: DD Monaural
    Color/B&W: B&W
    Languages: English
    Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
    MSRP: $19.97
    Package: Single disc/Keepcase





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    The Feature:
    Well, the votes are in and the chosen few are about to surface. Similar to last year’s Time Warner – AOL classics contest, this year WB and TCM ran a similar contest and offered up twenty potential films from the Warner vaults of which the top five would be chosen. After the votes were tallied in August, those selected were: Ivanhoe (1952), Random Harvest (1942), The Letter (1940), King Solomon’s Mines (1950) and Ice Station Zebra (1968). I must admit, I am slightly disappointed with a couple of the selections, not necessarily in what was chosen, but a few of which that were not chosen. Hopefully, we’ll see the remainder of those titles surface in 2005 as well as those that were not selected in last years poll.

    The Letter is a classic film noir playing on the side of melodrama which includes a number of noirish ingredients including murder and deceit. The film was directed by William Wyler and the screenplay was written by Howard Koch based on W. Somerset Maugham’s mid 1920’s London stage play.

    In an opening that’s as memorable in classic film as any other, The Letter is set on a rubber plantation in Singapore during a moonlit night. Amongst the din of music and plantation workers as they settle in after a long day’s work, gunshots are heard coming from the main house. As we move in on the bungalow, a man emerges clutching his abdomen as he staggers down the porch steps. He is followed out a by an expressionless woman holding a revolver who continues to shoot him until she finally empties the cylinder of bullets into the lifeless body.

    By this time, workers of the plantation have heard the commotion and have shown up to find Leslie Crosbie (played by Bette Davis) clutching the empty revolver and soon after the authorities as well as the woman’s husband, Robert Crosbie (played by Herbert Marshall) are summoned to the scene. After a very cordial period of questioning in her own home, it’s determined the dead man, a longtime mutual friend, Geoffrey Hammond (played by David Newell) had shown up with the intent of making unwanted sexual advances towards Leslie who, during the course of her own protection, shot the man in self defense. The police are cautiously satisfied with Leslie’s version of the story but warn her that the decision of criminal charges was not theirs and that she still may face murder charges.

    Robert trusts his wife implicitly but the Attorney General in Singapore has decided to proceed with a murder charge and Leslie is arrested and incarcerated. Robert decides to hire family friend and criminal attorney Howard Joyce (played by James Stephenson) to defend her. After taking the case, Howard is approached by his clerk, Ong Chi Seng (played by Victor Sen Yung) who warns Howard of a letter that has surfaced which contains incriminating evidence which is bound to be a detrimental setback in his case. The letter contains irrefutable proof that Leslie has lied while giving her account of what happened that night to the police. He presents a copy of the original letter to Howard and claims the original is held by the victim’s widow, Mrs. Hammond (played by Gale Sondergaard).

    Howard is advised that Mrs. Hammond is prepared to sell the letter which would lead to a guaranteed acquittal of his client however, he is troubled by the morality of such an act. In an effort to test the waters, Howard pretends not to be interested in the document and tells Ong that he doubts its legitimacy. Ong cheekily warns Howard that should he not be interested in the letter, then surely it would be of some interest to the prosecutor. Howard is fully aware of the importance of the letter and its evidence which proves Leslie had been having a longtime affair with Geoffrey Hammond. Howard contemplates having Robert raise the necessary funds to purchase the damning letter to save his wife’s life.

    A number of decisions have to be made. Will Howard risk his career to allow the acquisition of the letter? Will Robert purchase the letter knowing it will save his wife? And why would the widow even sell such a piece of damning evidence knowing it would seal the fate of her husband’s killer?

    In 1940 Warner Bros. produced forty five films, two of which were nominated for Best Picture. The first was All This And Heaven Too and the other was The Letter, which in fact was nominated for a total of seven Academy Awards including: Best Picture, Best Actress (Bette Davis - her fourth nomination), Best Supporting Actor (James Stephenson), Best Director, Best B/W Cinematography (Tony Gaudio), Best Original Score (Max Steiner), and Best Film Editing but failed to win in any of the categories. Film noir fans will recognize the similar storyline in the 1947 Warner Brothers film The Unfaithful starring Ann Sheridan, Zachary Scott and Eve Arden which was also loosely based on the film.

    This film makes exceptional use of shadowy images, especially those which appear during the ominous cloud-filled moonlit nights. The dark tropical settings are perfect for the tense and moody atmosphere of the film. The opening scene in the film might be among one of the very best in classic film as we instantly hear the gunshots and are witness to the cold and calculated murder of a man to which the truths of the story unfold as the movie progresses. As always, Bette Davis offers an incredibly strong performance as the duplicitous femme fatale trying to deceive everyone who surrounds her.

    Herbert Marshall also turns in a fine performance as the loyal but naïve husband, who stands by Leslie’s side at every turn. William Wyler took a rather pedestrian subject matter and turned it into two hours of magic and also worthy of praise was Max Steiner’s Academy nominated score which always seems to evoke just the right emotion. Without getting too specific, the ending of the film is a good example of The Hays Production Code which always required the injudiciousness of the subjects be dealt with.

    The Feature: 4/5
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    Video:
    As the movie started, I was slightly concerned with the amount of shimmer and jitter but thankfully that was very short-lived and lasted only a matter of a few minutes and the rest of the film was rock solid.

    The blacks were as deep as coal and the whites had a rather stark contrast to them, looking very well refined. Contrast and shadow detail were perfect and the level of grayscale was terrific.

    The image was mostly sharp throughout with only occasional signs of softness - it was, for the most part, exceptional. There were many occasions of specific detail sharpness (many of the facial close-ups for example) and they looked great… and typical of the period, many of the female close-ups were on the softer side.

    The amount of grain present was moderate and seemingly appropriate offering a pleasing film-like image with a nice sense of depth and dimension. There were occasions of film dirt and scratches but they seemed to be at a minimum and were never troublesome. Also present were instances of occasional light speck but again, it was negligible at best. Thankfully, I couldn’t detect any signs of compression artifacting or enhancement haloing. At one point (about 1/3 of the way through), I experienced some slight pixelizing which only lasted for a second or two, I don’t know if it was just my copy but I was unable to locate the problem later.

    The film has a rather unique look to it with a velvety smooth texture to it and I was extremely impressed. Great job…!!

    Video: 4.5/5
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    Audio:
    The film is presented in its original DD monaural soundtrack which also does an admirable job and is virtually flawless.

    Thankfully, the track is immaculate, free of any hiss or other distracting cracks or pops. The tonal quality of the entire track is natural, never becoming edgy or harsh. Virtually the entire film is dialogue driven (save for the opening gunshots) which was always exceptionally bold and always clear and intelligible. The pervasive score of Max Steiner is also bold and clear and is never overbearing or competing with the dialogue.

    The dynamic range of the track is, as expected, thin but good given the inherent limitations of the period.

    A very nice job!

    Audio: 4/5
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    Special Features:
    [*] The first inclusion is really a gem - an Alternate Ending. Something we rarely get to see included with classic titles and this is a welcomed addition. Even though little of the final 10 minutes changes, there are a couple of subtle changes, which admittedly I may actually prefer. Great to have this. Duration: 9:58 minutes.
    [*] The next set of special features contains two Lux Radio Theater Broadcasts both of which feature Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall. The first is from 4/21/41 and the other 3/6/44. Duration: 59:31 & 55:58 minutes.
    [*] The final supplement is the Theatrical Trailer which is grainy but in good shape. Duration: 2:17 minutes.

    Four solid supplements to enhance this fine film.

    Special Features: 4/5
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    **Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**



    Final Thoughts:
    The Letter is a solid piece of filmmaking, directed to perfection by William Wyler with fantastic performances from Davis, Stephenson and Marshall. An early noir entry for sure, it’s refined and polished lacking the grittiness and hard boiled characters of later films of the genre, but make no mistake about it, its noir all the way.

    This film is going to appeal to a wider than usual classic audience considering the presence of Bette Davis. Aside from a terrific film, the presentation is outstanding and the film is complemented by several worthwhile special features. Those who cast their 2004 votes and chose The Letter as the number one WB/TCM choice are going to be mightily impressed.

    Overall Rating: 4/5 (not an average)
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    Release Date: January 11th, 2005
     
  2. RafaelPires

    RafaelPires Second Unit

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    Thanks one more time for the excellent review, Herb.
    I'm sure picking this one as well as the other winners, but Ice Station.
    Can't wait for the Random Harvest review.
     
  3. Douglas R

    Douglas R Cinematographer

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    So what happened to the music only track and the 1929 version of the film that was supposed to be included on the DVD?
     
  4. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    ???


    From the WB Press Release:


    The Letter (1940)

    A man stumbles down the steps of a veranda, followed by a woman who pumps several shots into him and then drops the gun. In two wordless minutes, director William Wyler grabs the audience and sets the movie’s mood with one of the most stunning opening sequences ever. The mystery continues to unfold when an incriminating letter written the day of the shooting is found. The classic film noir, based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham, was nominated for seven Academy Awards®, including Best Picture and a Best Actress nod for Bette Davis.

    The extra features included on the DVD are:
    [*]Recently discovered 1940 version alternate ending sequence [*]1940 version theatrical trailer


    So the Lux Radio broadcasts would be in addition to what they promised...
     
  5. Roger Rollins

    Roger Rollins Supporting Actor

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    I don't recall any official announcement by WB that such material would be included on the DVD. Maybe wishful thinking by someone, or inaccurate info posted prematurely on a particular website?

    Sounds like what WB has there is quite bountiful, impressive, and cause for celebration for Davis/Wyler fans.
     
  6. Rob_Ray

    Rob_Ray Screenwriter

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    There was a screening of the 1929 version earlier this year at the Cinecon convention, at which it was announced in the film's introduction that the film would be included in the forthcoming DVD. As a stellar example of the work of the legendary Jeanne Eagles, I was really looking forward to getting this on DVD. The 1940 version is certainly slicker, more polished and overall the better film, but Jeanne Eagles' performance was even more electrifying than Bette Davis' carbon copy. Eagles defiantly hissed the famous line, "With all my heart I still love the man I killed!" without an ounce of the repentance heard in the remake. It would have made a fascinating bonus to the Wyler version.
     
  7. Joe Caps

    Joe Caps Screenwriter

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    There was at least three sites that mentioned a music only track. I called Warner vid to ask about it and waas tld it was highlights, NOT a complete music only track.
     
  8. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    I've sent off an email request to my contact at WB to inquire re: the '29 version/music track. I don't recall any other announcements from other sources, but I wasn't looking for them either.

    The copy I reviewed was a "test disc" and from what I understand, it is supposed to be identical to the regular street version minus the final packaging. It, along with Ivanhoe and Random Harvest are the first ever test discs I have received for review. Hopefully another reviewer from another site can chime in if in fact, they've received their finished product copies. As soon as I receive final product, I will confirm again, but I've checked and rechecked this disc and no such animal exists.
    If this turns out to be the case, obviously there'll be very little sense reviewing "test discs", if they're not representative of finished product.


    Herb.
     
  9. Derek Estes

    Derek Estes Stunt Coordinator

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    I was also expecting the 1929 version with this release. I am a little disappointed, because I doubt it would get released otherwise.
     
  10. Derek Estes

    Derek Estes Stunt Coordinator

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    From TCM Website:
     
  11. Jaime_Weinman

    Jaime_Weinman Supporting Actor

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    Is the alternate ending without the scene of Gale Sondergaard getting arrested, which had to be tacked on for censorship reasons? When The Letter started to be shown on TV, William Wyler actually wanted the TV networks to cut that last shot, and he said he was upset that they didn't bother to cut it.

    I'm not a big Wyler fan but The Letter is an exception; a terrific movie, and the pick of this DVD decision crop.
     
  12. Joe Caps

    Joe Caps Screenwriter

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    The YCM website also lists documentaries on this. Are there any?
     
  13. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    Jaime, re: the alternate ending scene...

    her arrest is also included in that scene... the biggest difference being, the alternate final scene concludes with the camera looking into Leslie's room, rather than the camera looking out of her room. The film then concludes with a closeup of the doormat and a piece of her lace work, rather than a shot of the moon - it's more fluid IMO. The alternate also focuses on Leslie doing her lace work after she retires to her room.
     
  14. Rob Tomlin

    Rob Tomlin Producer

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    More Noir!

    Always a good thing.

    [​IMG]
     
  15. Jeff Newcomb

    Jeff Newcomb Second Unit

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    I'm betting that Herb's "test disc" was side one of the final release. Warner is known for putting supplements on the B-side, which is where I suspect you'll find the '29 version and the docs.

    I hope.
     
  16. AlexHL

    AlexHL Stunt Coordinator

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    I'm looking forward to this DVD. It's the only one I'll be picking up from this batch. I'm still disappointed with the results from that poll. Just to think we could have been watching GREED next week..
     
  17. Rod

    Rod Agent

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    Alex,

    You could have watched Greed this morning ... although not on DVD. TCM aired it at 6:00 am.

    -Rod
     
  18. AlexHL

    AlexHL Stunt Coordinator

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    Unfortunately I don't have TCM, Rod. In Holland you have to be lucky to get it on cable. It would be the only channel worth watching here.
     
  19. Garysb

    Garysb Screenwriter

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    Also per Movies Unlimited:

    The Letter [DVD] (1940) Now Accepting Advance Orders!
    A classic suspense film directed by William Wyler, this drama stars Bette Davis as a woman accused of murder. She says it was self-defense, but will a mystery letter save her or condemn her? Herbert Marshall and Gale Sondergaard also star in this taut thriller, based on a story by Somerset Maugham. 95 min. Standard; Soundtrack: English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English, Spanish, French; alternate endings; documentaries; isolated music score; theatrical trailer; bonus feature "The Letter" (1929).

    and Flipside:
    http://www.flipsidedvds.com/dvds/letter.html

    Details About this DVD
    List Price: $19.97
    DVD Release Date: January 11, 2005
    Studio: Warner Home Video

    Technical Specs

    Region 1
    Video: 1.33:1 Full Screen
    Audio: English Dolby Digital Mono
    English Closed Captioned
    Optional Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
    Special Features

    Alternate Ending
    Music-Only Track
    Theatrical Trailer
    1929 Screen Version of The Letter
     
  20. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    Just heard back from my contact at WB and she confirmed the test discs are (as always) identical to final street product. In other words, the “music only track” or the 1929 version is not included as a special feature.

    The retailers who are listing it as an inclusion are doing so erroneously and as I said in an earlier post, I don’t know where they are getting their information. The official WB press release promised us two special features - we’re getting four. As much as it would have been nice for the other features to have been included, there’s very little need to complain about what has been included on this disc.
     

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