The Letter: The Play and the Adaptations

Somerset Maugham wrote the play The Letter, which has been made into a movie three times, four if you include a rather loose adaptation. Set in Singapore, it is about a woman, Leslie Crosbie, who kills Geoffrey Hammond with a revolver while her husband is away inspecting a rubber plantation. She claims that Geoffrey tried to rape her, and for the most part she is believed. Though she will have to be tried for murder, yet an acquittal seems to be a foregone conclusion.

In the play, her lawyer is informed there is an incriminating letter in the hands of a “Chinese woman,” who was Geoffrey’s mistress.  Her name is Li Ti in the 1929 movie version, played by Lady Tsen Mei, who was Chinese.  In the 1940 version, in order to satisfy the Production Code Administration, this woman becomes his wife instead of his mistress, and she is changed from being Chinese to being Eurasian, played by Gale Sondergaard.

In the letter, it is clear that Geoffrey and Leslie were lovers, and that she begged Geoffrey to visit her on the night she killed him.  She has to pay blackmail to get the letter back.  After she is acquitted, her husband finds out that all their money is gone, and she has to confess what really happened.

In the original play, Leslie intends to try to make her husband happy and hopes he will forgive her, even though, as she admits to her friend, she does not love him.

In the 1940 version of this play, Leslie, played by Betty Davis, after trying to tell her husband that she still loves him, is repulsed by her own lie and tells him she does not and cannot love him, saying, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed.”  She then wanders outside, where she is stabbed to death by Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard).  Although the Production Code was gone by the time the 1982 version was made with Lee Remick as Leslie, this ending, at least in implication, was kept.  Perhaps it was the fact that it was a television movie that led the producers to decide that Leslie still needed to die as punishment for what she did.

Though the version with Betty Davis as Leslie Crosbie is the best one, yet the 1929 version with Jeanne Eagles gets the award for having the most unpunished and unrepentant Leslie.  Instead of deciding to try to be a good wife, as in the play, or being killed, as in the 1940 and 1982 movie versions, in the 1929 version she defiantly tells her husband that she does not love him and that they are stuck with each other.

Also, in the Eagles version, when Leslie goes to get the letter, there is a disturbing scene where prostitutes are kept imprisoned behind bamboo bars. Finally, this version is the most racist of them all in its depiction of Asians, which is not surprising for a Pre-Code movie.

The least satisfying version of this play, on the other hand, is The Unfaithful (1947).  It has several minor differences with the others.  First, the names of the characters are different.  Second, there is the title, which reflects the fact that there is no letter. Rather, the incriminating evidence is a bust of the unfaithful wife, sculpted by her lover, who was an artist.  Third, the setting is California after World War II.  But why go on?  There are only two differences that matter. In the other versions of The Letter, Leslie’s final confession is that she was so upset that her lover no longer wanted her that she killed him in a jealous rage. In The Unfaithful, the final confession of the “Leslie” of this version is that she was the one who wanted to break off the affair, and that her lover was obsessed with her and would not leave her alone.  The other difference is that in The Unfaithful, the married couple are reconciled at the end, because they truly love each other.

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