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Daily Dose of Darkness #3: Under a Full Moon (The opening scene of The Letter)


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I think the sequence of the first three movies that we've seen is interesting. The movie,"M", was surrealistic in style; La Bête Humaine was super-realistic; and The Letter seems to be a mix of both. The drama of Film Noir commands each in lighting, camera angle, timing, composition, and story line.

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I think the sequence of the first three movies that we've seen is interesting. The movie,"M", was surrealistic in style; La Bête Humaine was super-realistic; and The Letter seems to be a mix of both. The drama of Film Noir commands each in lighting, camera angle, timing, composition, and story line.

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-- Were you surprised by what happens in the opening scene of The Letter?

 

Yes, I was very surprised because of how the camera lazily filmed everything up until the shooting. It really catches the audience off guard.

 

-- In what ways can the opening of The Letter be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

To me, the opening of The Letter could be considered an important contribution to the film noir style in several ways.

 

First, the film doesn't open in a gritty urban setting like most noir films are accustomed to. Instead it uses the atmosphere of the grounds around a Singapore rubber plantation.

 

The sap from a rubber tree drips in quick succession into a bucket below it, workers on the plantation rest from a day's hard work in the tropical and peaceful night air under a full moon, and even the animals lay around in an almost dormant setting.

 

Then suddenly, it is disturbed with what sounds like a gunshot from inside the house... leaving the audience unsure of what's happening as a tropical white bird takes flight.

 

A man opens the door to the main house then hastily staggers outside as if to reach safety.

 

Now we (the audience) see the second gunshot from a pistol that a woman is holding behind the wounded man.

 

However, it's still not clear to us (audience) or the workers what is happening.

 

She unloads more shots until her revolver Clicks... she pauses for a moment as if to say "There... the deed is done" then drops her weapon without any thought.

 

The camera zooms in on her all the way up to a close-up shot of her face in the shadows.

 

Now everyone reacts... The head worker (I'm assuming) doesn't seem too shocked by what has taken place, instead he looks up at the light of the full moon that shines over head then is quickly covered by dark clouds then he reacts (a great use of mise-en-scene).

 

The camera goes back to the woman as she stands in the darkness over the dead man.

 

The full moon returns again then she looks up at it as if she is terrified that it will reveal some secret that she has.

 

She looks back at the dead man then moves to position herself to talk to the workers.

 

The head worker doesn't seem shocked until he discovers who the dead man is then he looks puzzled for a second before he looks at the recently used revolver.

 

The woman quickly tells him to come inside from there the story only becomes more intriguing and filled with mystery.

 

What I noticed and the thing that stood out to me, was that she never closed her hand that she used to fire the revolver.

 

Secondly, the things that I mentioned above in regard to the use of mise-en-scene make this opening scene a very important contribution to the film noir style.

 

It's unique use of lighting effects, foreshadowing between the quick succession of drips (sap) from the rubber tree to the quick succession of gunshots (bullets) from the woman's revolver, the element of denouement (the death or downfall of the central character) being revealed in the opening scene, and the use of a femme fatale (or Bette Davis' character) to engage, intrigue, and weave us (the audience) into the story.

 

To me, all of these elements explain why the opening scene of The Letter is so shocking and deliberately knocks you (the audience) off balance.

 

In addition to this, these elements that I mentioned above also explain why this opening was so important and influential to not only the film noir style but film openings within Hollywood History.

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They don't call them Bette Davis Eyes for nothing.

 

William Wyler leaves the viewer wide-eyed after this shocking opening sequence. The dominance of the plantation owner's wife (Davis) is foreshadowed by the full moon, a classic symbol of womanhood. However, in the film noir universe, the dark side of womanhood is embodied by the femme fatale, for which Davis' character--and Davis herself--is the prototype (it's all in the look -- see Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes"). Focused, unblinking (literally), stoic, and seemingly sociopathic, Wyler's femme fatale takes out her victim by shooting him in the back multiple times. Glamourizing this dystopic vision is her stylish presence: coiffed, elegant, and perfectly made up. She only loses her cool for a moment when the moon threatens to betray her, but then nature cooperates and the cloud cover returns.

 

One striking images that recurs throughout the final frames of "Under a Full Moon" is the murderer's open hand -- first with fingers spread wide and then with thumb stretched out once she moves inside. She's let go of the gun and what it represents, which is represented by the awkward way she holds her hand. However, the viewer knows that she is guilty.

 

 

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Slightly off-topic, if we are talking about the differences between the pre-code era and the Hays Code era of filmmaking, there isn't a better example to use than The Letter. One of the key differences is that in the 1940 version, the viewer doesn't know immediately whether or not Leslie is telling the truth.  The movie opens with Leslie shooting Mr. Hammond, but we don’t see what led up to it and the truth doesn’t come out until later.  But in the 1929 version, we see everything that led to Hammond’s death. We see Leslie writing the letter inviting Hammond to come over and we see what happens when he tries to end his relationship with Leslie. (We also see that Mr. Hammond is living with a woman who isn’t his wife, which would never have been permitted in Hays Code days. Hammond was married in the 1940 version.)

 

The Leslie Crosbie played by Jeanne Eagels in the 1929 version is a perfect representation of so many things the Hays Code abhorred — a completely unrepentant sinner who gets away with murder. When Jeanne delivers the famous line, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed,” it is as an act of defiance in response to her response to her husband's attempt to punish her. When it was Bette’s turn to deliver the same line, she couldn’t get away with saying it the same way. Not only is there nothing defiant about it, Leslie pays for what she’s done.

 

I wish we could have seen Bette play it the naughty way. She would have been superb. It takes a smidgen away from Hays Code movie for me when I consider what film makers had to work with - that is, an homogenized version of real life, but then, movies are about fantasy.

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I think Bette Davis' character contributes to the femme fatale mystique: the audience is immediately drawn in by this woman.  We're repulsed when she shoots the man in the back and calls it an accident, but she's so intriguing that we can't wait to find out more about her. When she looks up at the moon, I see defiance in her eyes - she's not afraid to be in the spotlight because she feels that what she's done is right and therefore, she has no remorse.

I see the plantation a little differently than some others have noted. Although the workers' quarters are sparse, they're not dilapidated shacks or cardboard boxes. Their clothes aren't tattered, they appear to be well nourished and at least one of them speaks clear English with minimal accent, and  they don't bow their heads or behave deferentially.  On the other hand, the main house isn't  opulent or spectacular, which is the case in so many other movies. So the contrast between Bette and the workers is closer to employer/employee than master/servant (notwithstanding Bette's imperious tone).

The result for me as a viewer is the feeling that the workers are going to be the moral arbiters in this film.

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Yes, there's some playing with light and shadow here, and the set resembles something von Sternberg might have offered up in a big budgeted Paramount film in the early 30s (or Florey in the late 30s in a B film for the same studio). But while the opening grabs the viewer, I find the rest of the film to be just talky melodrama that may hint to later noir efforts, but only they're just faint ones.

 

Which is not to say that it's a bad film, but were I to make a list of top 100, this would never make it just as Kings Row wouldn't.

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The clip begins with a low angle shot of a glorious full moon beaming down from a black sky amidst a corona of clouds. The shot fades to one of the objects receiving the light of this dispassionate moon, a printed sign that establishes the opening setting in a rubber plantation in Singapore.

 

There is a cut to a close-up of a tree, a portion of its bark removed and adorned with a white ring that droops and drips precious white sap into a pail. We hear the drip of the pure white sap pinging into the pail (the seeming iridescence -- my perception -- of the whiteness reminds me of the white iridescence of the glass of milk in "Suspicion" with Joan Fontain and Cary Grant).  The camera moves slowly to reveal more of these trees and pails and drifts toward a house. All the while the soundtrack is emitting music with an eastern flavor. If it weren’t for the strangeness of a rubber plantation as perhaps seen by a city dweller, there is a normalcy to it, a tranquility that maybe a city dweller isn’t used to. The sound of the rubber dripping continues, like a pulse. The camera moves to reveal men resting under an open wooden structure under a thatched roof. One man is playing a flute-like instrument, others are engaged in a game of dominoes. Men are asleep in hammocks. What could be more serene in the silent glow of a magisterial moon? Is this too good to be true?

 

The drifting camera reveals a white cockatoo peacefully perched on a wooden fence in front of the house.

 

It is too good to be true.

 

A loud gunshot shatters the mood, scares the bird who flutters into flight.  One wonders if there will ever be hope for a lasting peace on this Earth.

 

The shot apparently came from the house, somewhat obscured by the foliage of the front garden.

 

A staggering man comes through the door and a woman fires another shot at the man. The men in the hammocks are startled from their dreams and dogs bark.

 

The woman (Leslie Crosbie played by Bette Davis) follows him with more shots. Her face is determined. She obviously aims to kill this man. She empties every last round of the revolver and drops the gun right there, all the while never losing her focus on what she sees, this man whom she has killed. The look in her eyes is other-worldly. Only the moon could be this cold it seems.

 

The following is an excerpt from the first scene of William Somerset Maugham’s play (upon which the film was based (along with Maugham’s short story, “The Letter”):

 

“She looks at the revolver and lets it drop from her hand; then her eyes fall on the body, they grow enormous, as though they would start out of her head, and a look of horror comes into her face.”

 

The act of Mrs. Crosbie looked like plain, cold-blooded murder.

 

There is a cut to the stirring of the awakening men under the thatched roof and then a close-up of one of the men who has a look of great concern. Did he witness the shooting? And then the moonlight dims as a cloud drifts over, and the music changes to a dramatic somberness, seemingly confirming that this peaceful rubber plantation will probably never be the same again.

 

Now there is a cut to Mrs. Crosbie on the steps of the house, still staring steely-eyed at the dead man. Suddenly she turns as the moonlight returns as a “spotlight” on her. She looks up at the moon and her eyes widen, practically bulging out of her face.

 

The men arrive in front of the porch. The head man of the group identifies the dead man as “Mr. Hammond”. Leslie Crosbie tells the head man to come inside.

 

Inside the house, Mrs. Crosbie, in the foreground, stares ahead with her back to the men. Like an automaton she instructs the head man to get word to the District Officer that there has been an accident and that Mr. Hammond is dead. She also asks that her husband, Mr. Crosbie be notified, that he should come home at once.

 

The opening scene is noirish. IMHO, William Wyler’s achieves mastery as a story teller succeeding admirably in hooking the audience into wanting more of the story. The slow suspenseful opening  (we sense that the placid scene unfolding is too good to be true) reaches a crescendo with the first shot.  The 1940’s film in black and white is photographed gorgeously with ingenious light effects by cinematographer Tony Gaudio. Yes, and as others have posted here, there is an authentic femme fatale replete with a revolver in the film.

 

So many unanswered questions. One obvious question is how could  any reasonable person believe that what happened was an accident? Could she have committed a murder? What happened in that house before the first shot disturbed the peace?

 

I had read Maugham’s short story “The Letter” a few years ago and had the pleasure of seeing the film on TCM (Where else? :))

 

The short story begins after Mrs. Crosbie is arrested for the murder of Mr. Hammond.  On the other hand, the first scene of Maugham’s play begins with the shooting.

 

Here is a link for a collection of Maugham’s short stories that is possible to download.

 

http://englishclasses.com.ua/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/wsmaugham-sixty-five-short-stories_0905712692.pdf

 

Here is a link to the play for downloading:

https://ia801409.us.archive.org/3/items/letteraplayinthr008055mbp/letteraplayinthr008055mbp.pdf

 

Here is a TCM link for illuminating information about the film:

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/2024/The-Letter/articles.html

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The classic femme fatale...we don't know what the victim in the clip did to warrant shooting, or who he was to the shooter, but we see in Bette Davis the classic cold, emotionless, woman who in so many films and books lures the man to his grave. 

 

What struck me was how little she seemed to care as she fired: each shot deliberate and with intent, I'm sure she would have kept shooting if she'd had more bullets! And then you could almost see the cogs turn as she composed her story, what she'd say happened and to whom; the only wrinkle being when the moonlight illuminated her shadow - were the police here already before she'd had time to polish her version of events? 

 

A gripping start to the movie, it hooked me in and left me wanting to know where it goes from here. 

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I know very little about this movie (love Bette Davis, though!), so all my impressions are made blind, from the opening. 

 

I'm really struck by how the crowded quarters of the mostly sleeping Malay workers are foregrounded initially and then how we are introduced to the shooting — it's shot at a distance, so it almost resembles looking at a stage. Even the way the trees and vines hang around the shooting makes me think of curtains. Sound works great here, too. Just gentle nighttime chatter before the shot, heightened by that white bird's flight. 

 

Even down to the costuming — Bette Davis looks supremely regal and just really really looming in that long gown/robe, which adds to that eerie serenity as she's gunning down the man. 

 

I'm also struck by how *surrounded* she is by the workers, but there's never any sense of fear or tension. The workers are curious, but they follow her orders. She shows no fear whatsoever and seems to expect them to follow her. That's power, in this colonized place. She stands out. 

 

So, to answer the questions — the sound and set design and the way the camera moves really does add to the shocker of the shooting. All calm nighttime chilling then the violence. And as for how it contributes to noir, I think the use of shadow and light — huge contrast between the shadowy workers' quarters and very bright, white house — and the powerful, dangerous female figure in the person of Bette Davis. Very interesting. I'm excited by this film, and does anyone know good postcolonial criticism? (Just the setting implies there would be). 

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After she has fired the shots, she is as still as her surroundings were before the disturbance. The tranquility of what we witness beforehand indicates that murder can happen anywhere (as Hitchcock set out in Shadow of a Doubt). Her eyes barely move. She has that cold, calculating look about her. At least initially, her crimes do not seem to affect her. She remains cool and calm as she gives out orders to people who are shocked by what they have just witnessed. The moon is covered by a cloud, metaphorically bringing darkness to a beautiful, moonlit scene- the darkness representing what Bette Davis's character has just done. But then the moonlight covers her again and she is easily visible to everyone around her, indicating that there is nowhere for her to hide after shooting someone dead. In film noir, cold blooded murderers in general have nowhere to hide after committing their crimes.

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But while the opening grabs the viewer, I find the rest of the film to be just talky melodrama that may hint to later noir efforts, but only they're just faint ones.

I just thought I would take this opportunity to relate this to another of my cinematic passions with which, btw, film noir shares a similarly elusive history of definition: melodrama.  As many of us know, film noir was a retroactive term given to American films from the 40's by French critics.  People didn't make films noir.  That was a term critics and historians adopted to talk about this new sensibility coming out of Hollywood. The Hollywood trade press actually use to refer to films like these as melodramas or 'mellers' for short: crime and gangster movies, what we think of as thrillers and horror movies, and even cowboy movies.  Since the 70's, melodrama has come to mean something else with its own lineage and history (in the films of Douglas Sirk, which are amazing), but I think this might shed some light (or shadow, depending) on this observation.  

 

These observations are lifted from an essay by Steve Neale's 1993 essay "Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term "Melodrama" in the American Trade Press," Velvet Light Trap, Fall, 66-89.

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The lighting in the scene is provided by moonlight. At the moment the worker looks out of their shack, the moon is covered by as cloud. When it reappears, Betty Davis looks concerned. She looked very determined when she shot the man six times.

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The panning camera wandering from a southeast asian idyllic scene, bordering on cliché but avoiding it, in to the moonshadow reflection change setting of the sudden and powerful shooting is a fantastisk movie achievement. The absence of any explanations is wonderfully thrilling and maybe as someone suggested a noir theme.

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I have barely even heard of this one. Bette Davis already captivated me in the one minute she was onscreen, so I'll have to DVR this one. 

 

What's interesting is something I don't see often in the 40's, one take shots. The first shot is long, drawn out, very slow. Knowing that this is within the film noir genre, not all is what it seems and doom is impending. Audiences know now that they shouldn't expect to just see a shot of sleeping workers, there was something more.

 

We are thrown into the film quickly, making assumptions about Leslie shooting her husband. What did he do? Why did she do it? It is a nice change of pace for the exposition of a film to be thrown at you instead of slowly being introduced to characters and conflicts. 

 

Bette Davis personifies the femme fatale archetype that so well fits into the film noir genre. Just from her appearance in that clip, she is cold, still, almost not remorseful or reflective on what she has done. It's perfect, really. Her expression changes when the sun (or is that the moon?) shines hard on her, exposing her crime for a split second.She cunning and quietly conniving, I love it.

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What a terrific opening! The crane shot conveys a sense of calm repose under the lush tropical moon. The steady drip of the rubber sap, the workers settling in for the night signal all is well. (Am deliberately putting aside all the colonial / race issues that can upset our enjoyment of such scenes today, and taking it for what it is.)

 

Then - a gunshot shatters the peace. People and animals - and we the viewers -  are torn out of our repose. It's a shocker. Followed by five more shots which tells us this woman means to do the job right. No moment of doubt or hesitation. She even pulls the trigger once more but the revolver is empty.

 

She drops the gun and the music swells, noise increases, the workers are roused into action. The camera closes in on Bette Davis's face which gave me the sense that she's gradually coming into full awareness of her deed and its consequences and that she needs to act. But not the slightest iota of doubt or regret is there. Davis is magnificent in these moments. Then the clouds which had covered the moon and obscured the scene give way, casting the tableau of killer and victim into bright light. In a brief overhead shot, she faces the moon, then looks back down at the body of her victim.

 

In this moment I see her taking control of the situation. The framing of the next shot, with her close-up silhouette filling the left side as the workers gather in confusion and disbelief, indicates to me she dominates the scene. She continues to do so as she goes inside the house followed by the foreman. She gives her orders with quiet determination and with her back turned to the men. To me this reinforces her command position over the servants and workers of the plantation and at the same time allows us to see her face and their reaction in one shot.

 

Brilliant opening. The play of light and dark, and the peace-shattering gunshot are recurring noir elements. And of course the gun-wielding leading lady!  ...notwithstanding the line in Out Of The Past - "A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle". Fellows, start knitting! :-)

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Got your attention opening scene and fortunately it is followed by a great movie. I have seen this film many times and is one of the films that helps define "film noir". Once you become a student of noir you willbecome more and more confused as to what exactly defines a film noir movie. I say this one is a defining because it's early in the film noir era (1940) and it is a remake of a 1929 film of the same name. Both are taken from a play by Somerset Maugham. If you can get your hands on the original (shown on TCM) and compare the versions you are well on your way to discovering what film noir is all about.

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If a man is going to killed in an old black and white film, then why not by Bette Davis. The opening is not what I expected. I certainly didn't expect Davis to be the one pulling the trigger. The opening hook is a good one. You want to know what is going to happen next. In regard to film noir, I don't now if she is actually the archetypal femme fatale in this movie, but Davis is certainly a deadly woman. If she does turn out of be the archetypal femme fatale, then Bette Davis can make no better one. I see the beginnings of the genre here with the stark crime, the darkness, the dynamic characters. I've never seen this movie, but I'm going to try and catch it.

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Even though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I knew what was going to happen because that clip of Bette Davis emptying her revolver is famous.  I feel like the first minute and a half of The Letter lure us into a false sense of security.  There’s the moonlight, the tropical setting, the relaxing workers, and the plantation house.  Everything is quiet and still, and the setting wouldn’t be out of place in some sort of drama or romance taking place in an exotic locale.  There is a sense of anticipation, however, with the dripping sap and the moonlight (which is followed up later—light revealing our crimes).  Then everything suddenly bursts into action as a man stumbles out dead, and Bette Davis follows, repeatedly firing her pistol until its empty.  Immediately we wake up and take notice.  In our minds, this woman has just killed a man, and we want to know why.  Was he attacking her?  Did they have an argument?  Was he a lying jerk and she a woman scorned?  Is she just a cold-hearted murderer?  The Letter’s opening raises these questions, and we want to know the events that led to this explosive moment.  I love how cool and collected Bette Davis’s character is, even as she knows the full reality of what she has just done.  Her body language is amazing, especially the way she holds her right hand.

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I haven't seen this movie nor have I heard of it until now. From other film noir that I have seen the crane shot almost brings us into another world where we will observe the story. Dream like almost. Bette Davis seems like the classic femme fatale that will surely give the protagonist problem. Her cold calculating demenor portrays her as a woman with a plan and she will make sure that it succeeds. 

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Darkness and light seem to be the theme throughout this incredible picture - one of my favorites for many reasons. The darkness of the murder and the mind set of the murderer which is played out throughout the movie and the moonlight with its clarity,also seen throughout the film, are juxtaposed together until the

final scene. Noir captures this eternal struggle between the darkness of evil and at times the tortured

search for truth.

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The opening sequence is incredibly shocking! As far as its contribution to Noir, there are a couple of things to note. First, we are presented with the killing in the opening sequence, and then through the film we are gradually brought back to the killing as we learn more about the events that lead up to it. Second, we find out that the initial recounting of the events that lead up to the killing are false, though not all at once. It takes the majority of the movie to puzzle out what caused the event we are so shockingly presented with in the opening sequence. Both of these storytelling devices (working backwards from a shocking event to find out what lead to it and a untrustworthy protagonist/narrator) seem to be part and parcel of Noir films.

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Who could resist Bette Davis in The Letter opening scene? If you think that William Wyler is behind cameras, that these are the forties in the Warner Bros lot... Hollywood is there at it's best! The setting, the path, the climate, the point of view. A beginning with little information and much emotion, trying to disarm you and keep you from breathing and waiting for what's coming next. But in reality, what happened before. We saw the conclusion, now the previous drama must be unfold. A fine contribution to Film Noir in a A class movie.

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Saw this at the Redford Theatre in Detroit several years ago.  How peaceful and serene it all begins with the exotic music, the slow dripping of rubber from the trees, the plantation workers ready to call it a day.

 

Then everything changes when shots ring out. The scene of the man stumbling out while Bette Davis empties her gun into him reminds me of the shooting scene in "Sunset Boulevard" (perhaps the inspiration??).

 

The sounds of dogs barking and workers shouting fill our ears as the camera zooms into the cold eyes of Bette Davis. There is determination and revenge written all over her face.

 

The full moon appearing out of the clouds when the workers arrive brings everything to a head.  Yet the workers know Bette is in charge and are fearful of what she could do if they disobey her orders.

 

I think the audience was as stunned as I was in the theatre when those shots rang out.

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Wow, thanks for the links, particularly the story collection!

 

Here is a link for a collection of Maugham’s short stories that is possible to download.

 

http://englishclasses.com.ua/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/wsmaugham-sixty-five-short-stories_0905712692.pdf

 

Here is a link to the play for downloading:

https://ia801409.us.archive.org/3/items/letteraplayinthr008055mbp/letteraplayinthr008055mbp.pdf

 

Here is a TCM link for illuminating information about the film:

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/2024/The-Letter/articles.html

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