The Letter
1940 - United States - 95 minutes
Writer - Howard Koch from a play by W. Somerset Maugham
Director - William Wyler
Internet Movie Database User Rating - 7.7/10 - Link to IMDB
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars

The Little Foxes
1941 - United States - 115 minutes
Writer - Lillian Hellman
Director - William Wyler
Internet Movie Database User Rating - 7.9/10 - Link to IMDB
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars

Bette Davis was one of those old-fashioned working actresses who took just about any part available until the day she died. If you are under forty, you may not even know who she was or just think of her as that old broad who showed up in some horror movies when you were a kid. If you are my age or older, you probably think of her as one of those icons of the Hollywood Era, and of course, you know about "Bette Davis Eyes." She was all of the above, but most importantly, she was a very good actress.

Even though she played an unlimited variety of characters in her early career, she is probably best remembered for being the flighty rich girl or the personification of evil. Her portrayals of the evil women in The Letter and The Little Foxes are probably her two best. They also show her range as an actress.

In The Letter, she is Leslie Crosbie - a woman who cold-heartedly murders her lover and then uses her considerable charms to make everyone think it was an act of self-defense. In The Little Foxes, she is Regina Giddens who stands and watches her husband die while he begs her for help - all this in order to have control of his finances. Regina, unlike Leslie, appears as cold and hard and is Leslie's senior by probably twenty years. Bette Davis made the viewer believe she was those two women.

William Wyler directed both films and was nominated for an Academy Award for both. As I stated in my earlier review of Mrs. Miniver, he was a woman's director, and we can be grateful for these two teamings of Davis and Wyler - not to mention the third, Jezebel. In The Letter, Wyler created a mysterious, atmospheric setting using shadows and music to perfection. For The Little Foxes, he offered a film more like a play where the characters and acting were highlighted to their utmost.

Of course, the writing - by no less than W. Somerset Maugham and Lillian Hellman - that invented the characters made for a fascinating view of complex people with a range of motives from the most innocent to the most despicable.

Herbert Marshall played Bette's husband in both films and was smartly "done in" by her - actually and figuratively - in both films. He did a fine job of showing men who did well in life but were the victims of extreme femmes fatales.

The Letter contains exotic - if somewhat prejudicial - Asian characters headed by Gale Sondergaard and Victor Sen Yung. It also has its share of pseudo-sophisticated English characters who call each other "Darling." It's all great melodramatic fun and solid entertainment.

The characters in The Little Foxes are drawn from classic southern decadence, innocence, and insanity. The leads are well supported by Teresa Wright, Richard Carlson, and Dan Duryea.

I have friends younger than forty who refuse to watch black and white movies because they are "boring." I can assure that these two films are in no way boring. As a matter of fact, The Letter wouldn't have been nearly as good had it been filmed in color. If you feel like indulging in two classic dramas in which Bette Davis shines at her evil best, I heartedly recommend these two.

Neil Turner
August 28, 2006

Bette Davis at Her Evil Best