Bette Davis: Underacting for William Wyler

Director William Wyler shows Bette Davis how to go down stairs while shooting someone. Image: Pinterest
Director William Wyler shows Bette Davis the best way to shoot somebody. Image: Pinterest

*Spoiler Alert*

They created the best opening scene in the history of cinema: On a moonlit night, on an isolated rubber plantation in Malay, a woman follows a man out of a house. As he stumbles down the stairs of the veranda, she fires at him repeatedly with a handgun, even after he’s dead.

Don't mess with Bette Davis. Image: Celebrities Off Mag
Don’t mess with Bette. Image: Celebrities Off Mag

In films from this era, a moonlit night and an exotic location often suggest adventure and romance. But here, in The Letter (1940), director William Wyler and star Bette Davis give us cold-blooded murder.

The Letter is based on a story + play by W. Somerset Maugham. The plot is modelled on a real-life murder in Kuala Lumpur in 1911.

Davis plays an English woman accused of a murder which she claims was self defence. However, the discovery of an incriminating letter contradicts her story and leads to tragic events.

It’s a film of secrets. Director of Photography Tony Gaudio drapes shadow across the sets like a fine fabric; we know there’s more to the story than we’re allowed to see. But he also teases sharp light through slats, revealing the truth about Davis’ character:

Davis says one thing, but the stripe say another... Image: Film Noir Photo
Davis says one thing, but the stripes say another. Image: Film Noir Photos

As for Wyler, he knew how to pull haunting performances from his actors. In one scene, Davis’ lawyer (James Stephenson) tells her husband (Herbert Marshall) how much it cost to suppress the incriminating letter. It’s a lot of money – a lifetime of savings – and Marshall makes us feel the weight of this unwelcome news.

It’s a remarkable scene, made more powerful by a refreshingly-subdued Davis, who remains slumped in the corner of a sofa. While Stephenson and Marshall have a terse exchange about the letter, Davis suddenly amps the tension with a quiet, “Let him see it.”

In our opinion, The Letter contains one of Davis’ best performances, because Wyler taught her how to Not Act.

Davis calmly tells James Stephenson (left) to open the letter.
Davis calmly tells James Stephenson (left) to open the letter.

It was on the set of their first collaboration, Jezebel (1938), that Wyler began to temper Davis’ tendency to overact. In A Talent For Trouble: The Life Of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler, author Jan Herman describes Wyler and Davis at work on this film.

“As filming continued [on Jezebel],” writes Herman, “Wyler convinced Davis that every moment need not be played with equal force. During rehearsals he had realized that was her greatest weakness” (p.212).

Wyler helped Davis learn how to pace herself, and we see the results in The Letter. When Davis is brought to a sketchy neighbourhood to pay off the dead man’s widow (Gale Sondergaard), a restrained Davis allows an exotic Sondergaard to make an impressive entrance, complete with dramatic backlighting.

(Incidentally, Wyler turns this scene into a religious ceremony of sorts – Davis seeking absolution from a priestess in an opium-den temple.)

Gale Sondergaard is calling the shots. Image:
Gale Sondergaard is calling the shots. Image: PaperBlog

Later, Davis said of Wyler, “No detail, however minor, ever escaped him. He would probe like a fiend, then turn sarcastic; or he’d be aloof and drive you crazy” (ibid).

He drove a lot of people crazy. Wyler was famous for not telling actors what he was looking for. “I’ll know it when I see it,” he said. It was not unusual for him to re-shoot a scene multiple times, while actors became increasingly exasperated. He was a perfectionist, as was Davis – which sometimes led to fierce arguments.

The two would collaborate a third and final time, with The Little Foxes (1941). Their three collaborations are remarkable films, but our favourite is The Letter, which received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Actress and Best Director.


  • You can read more about William Wyler’s life, including his romantic collaboration with Bette Davis, HERE.
  • For more background information on the making of The Letter, read The Lady Eve’s Reel Life review HERE.

The Letter: starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson. Directed by William Wyler. Written by Howard Koch. Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1940, B&W, 95 mins.

This post is part of the Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Click HERE to see all the fab entries.

Symbiotic Collaborations Blog



  1. Excellent post! Oddly enough, I just rewatched this yesterday for the first time in several years. I particularly like your analysis of the shadows and the light through the slats, as well as the examples you gave of Davis’s underacting. And that’s quite an opening scene, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

      • I would say I liked it more this time through, which was only my second viewing. Because I knew where the plot was going (although I didn’t remember every single detail), I was able to pay closer attention to other things, especially the performances and the cinematography.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A nice post about one of my favorite films (and collaborations) in Hollywood history. I completely agree that the opening scene of the film is one of the best in history and any aspiring actor should study it. Davis’ gestures are absolutely flawless, even the way she lowers the gun after she shoots.


    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m probably the least decisive person ever so it’s hard for me to make a list of Bette favorites (she’s one of my top actresses), but The Letter is one that I definitely count among her best. Under Wyler’s direction, every small second of her performance is on-point. What an opening, and what a film! Enjoyed your post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, good point about every small second – even Bette’s mannerisms when she’s not speaking are always in character. I hadn’t thought about it quite like that. They really were a great pair, she and Wilder, no? It must have made for some very interesting days on the set…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This movie holds a special place in my heart. I introduced it with Robert Osborne during their 15th Anniversary which featured Guest Fan Programmers. I look forward to reading this. Thanx for joining the blogathon.


  5. How I love this film. I’m a big fan of Maugham’s, who creates such complex roles for his heroines (check out how many of them have won Oscars). This pairing is inspired. Love your image of the slats–how did I not notice the significance of that? I really need to view this one again!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this movie and your description of it. Been in the mood to rematch it, actually. Thanks for the Push!! This is up there close to my favorite Davis performances too. Great choice all around.



  7. Now you mention it, it is a pretty cool opening scene (and it wasn’t what I expected when I watched it for the first time). This is a movie with its flaws, but I think I love it all the more for them. And I’ve always thought that most people don’t really *get* what it’s about – of course, I see you’re an exception 😉
    Although impossible to really decide, I think this is my favourite Davis/Wyler collaboration.


    • Same here – I wasn’t expecting that opening scene the first time I saw the film. I saw it as a young gal and I thought, “They made movies like this back then?” It was the 1st Bette Davis movie I saw and I became an instant fan.


  8. I don’t recall seeng this one, Ruth, and with that opening, I’m sure i’d remember if I did. That still of Ms Davis in the shadows is really something, isn’t it? Wyler knew her quite well and, consequently, how to use her for greatest impact. “Less is more, Bette.”

    Liked by 1 person

      • I watched this yesterday afternoon and loved it. You were so right, Ruth.Of course, there’s no mistaking Bette Davis in a film but her minimalist acting in this one is so unlike her. Too bad there are no outtakes from that first few days of filming. I envision her chewing up the scenery and Wyler shouting, “Cut, cut, CUT!”, again, and again, and again. I’d pay double to see “The Making of ‘The Letter'”. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I haven’t seen The Letter, but I was very impressed with Bette in Jezebel. I later read she didn’t like working with Wyler at first, but later they gow along. A good director knows how to mold the actors – and Wyler was a master in this craft.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Bette and Wilder had two different styles, that’s for sure – she called him a dictator(!). However, they recognized talent in each other, and we have some great films as a result. Thanks for dropping by!


  10. Great background info on the film. We often forget the impact of a director on an actor’s performance. I want to see Jezebel now.

    The opening scene was absolutely gripping. It created a dramatic question for the viewer. Will she get away with murder?

    I wrote a short essay (500 words) on The Letter called “Three Reasons Why Women Have An Affair.” If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback:

    Liked by 1 person

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