The Letter began life as a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, published in 1926. In 1927 it was made into a play, also written by Maugham. It was then twice adapted into films: an early talkie in 1929, starring stage actress Jeanne Eagels, and a 1940 adaptation by director William Wyler starring Bette Davis.
Leslie Crosbie, the wife of Howard Crosbie, who manages a rubber plantation in Malaya, puts six bullets into one Geoffrey Hammond, when he visits her house. Mrs. Crosbie insists that Hammond, a friend of the family, had come to the house uninvited and attempted to rape her. Everyone believes her, and it seems that she will win an easy acquittal at the ensuing trial, until Howard Joyce, her attorney, receives a disurbing message from his Chinese assistant. It seems that Hammond's lover (in the 1929 film) or wife (in the 1940 film) is in possession of a letter that indicates that Hammond came to the house at Mrs. Crosbie's invitation, and that in fact they were lovers.
Both film versions earned Academy Award nominations for their lead actresses, Eagels and Davis. Eagels, who died of a drug overdose not long after The Letter was released, remains the only person in history to receive a posthumous nomination for Best Actress.
- Asian Speekee Engrish: Happens with various Chinese characters in both films, including Hammond's mistress/wife and Joyce's devious assistant.
- Blackmail: Hammond's mistress/wife sells Leslie the incriminating letter, but not without humiliating her first.
- Blatant Lies: In the 1929 film, as Leslie tells a ridiculous story about an Attempted Rape. In the 1940 film it is not obvious that Leslie is lying until the letter is mentioned.
- Demoted to Extra: The 1929 film starts off with some establishing scenes in which Hammond, Leslie's lover, receives the letter and goes to Leslie's house. He breaks up with her, and she shoots him. The 1940 film deletes these scenes and opens with Leslie emptying a revolver into Hammond. In this version the actor playing Hammond does not have any dialogue.
- Dragon Lady: Hammond's mistress/wife, dressed up in Chinese garb, who is overtly threatening towards Leslie.
- Fainting: In the 1940 film Leslie pulls this stunt after her lawyer's questions start getting uncomfortable.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Leslie murders Hammond in a jealous rage after he breaks up with her.
- Inscrutable Oriental: Joyce's Chinese assistant, who maintains his air of obsequious politeness even while blackmailing Joyce and Leslie with the incriminating letter.
- Karma Houdini: 1929 film (see Lighter and Softer below).
- Laser-Guided Karma: 1940 film (see Lighter and Softer below).
- Lighter and Softer:
- The 1929 film preserves Maugham's original ending, in which Leslie gets away with murder. It ends with her defiantly shouting that she's still in love with the man she killed. By 1940 The Hays Code dictated that a movie couldn't have a character get away with murder, so an additional scene was tacked on in which Hammond's lover comes to the plantation and kills Leslie.
- Additionally, while in both the play and 1929 film Hammond has a Chinese lover, in the 1940 film she is his secret wife.
- Maligned Mixed Marriage: Leslie feels no shame in saying that she excluded Hammond from their social circle after finding out about his Chinese mistress/wife. Everyone else agrees that the revelation about Hammond's personal life changed opinion against him and resulted in Leslie's acquittal.
- Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Hammond and his Chinese mistress in the 1929 film. He tells Leslie that he doesn't love her, he loves Li Ti. (Also true in the backstory of 1940 film, but not shown, as the film starts with Hammond's murder.)
- Opium Den: The club that Mrs. Hammond lures Leslie to in the 1940 film is pretty clearly an opium den. In the 1929 film it's a little more vague.
- Race Lift: Hammond's Chinese mistress is made "Eurasian" in the 1940 film.
- Remake Cameo: Remake Starring Role, actually. Herbert Marshall, who played the murdered lover in the 1929 film, plays the cuckolded husband in the 1940 film.
- Sex Slave: In easily the weirdest scene in the 1929 film, Li Ti pulls a curtain and reveals to Leslie a bunch of Chinese women being kept in a cage. They seem to be in good spirits, though, laughing when Li Ti embarrasses Leslie.
- Villain Protagonist: Leslie Crosbie, adulterer and murderer.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Everyone is only too eager to believe that Leslie was justified in shooting Hammond—six times.
- Yellowface: Gale Sondegaard as a half-Chinese woman in the 1940 film.
- Yellow Peril: The overt racism by the white colonials towards the Malay and Chinese natives in both films is overwhelming. Given that most of the white characters are despicable people, however, it's somewhat unclear to what extent either film expects the audience to agree with this point of view.