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If I were asked to cite one film as an example of “High Hollywood,” it might be The Letter. That is not unalloyed praise, but the film is undeniably a trim example of what the studio system could achieve at its peak. I would choose it over more high profile examples, like Gone With The Wind, for instance, because the very scale of the latter makes it somewhat atypical. The studios have never been afraid to spend money, but the standard classical Hollywood film was made as economically as possible, both in terms of money spent and the expressive means employed. Everything counted.

Glossy, star-centered, formulaic, with a thumping Max Steiner score underlining every fervid moment, The Letter is the kind of full throttled melodrama that is easier to parody than to equal. Start with the star: how many actresses would dare to play a sex-starved Englishwoman sweating in the tropical heat, driven to murder, with the tightly coiled energy that Bette Davis brings to the part? If anyone doubts that Davis was as much an actress as a star, just look at the way she handles her character’s evasions, half-truths, and lightning fast shifts in emotion. In the blink of an eye, she moves from feigned victim, to calculating machine to manipulative monster, all the while seeming to remain the virtuous, hurt, meek, horribly confused and contrite housewife. (Her madonna-like pose when she visits the victim’s widow, pictured above, borders on blasphemy.)

Then there is her lawyer’s quandary: which is more important, to defend his client to the best of his ability as his profession demands, or to do the ethical thing and turn her in? Few filmmakers today can even conceive of such strong moral dilemmas, much less have the guts to pursue them to their logical conclusion. In this story, and in the best of classical Hollywood, conflict is difficult for characters and, more importantly, viewers. Of course, if The Letter is Hollywood at its best, it is still Hollywood, so the morality is predictable, the ending never really in doubt. The journey to that affirmation of conventional “right thinking,” however, is lined with significant emotional turmoil.

Director William Wyler had worked with Davis before, so it is unsurprising that he elicited her no holds barred performance. What is less expected is to see such richly atmospheric camerawork, lighting and decor. As the camera creeps sinuously along the ground like a serpent slithering through the paper mache forest, a full moon breaks from behind passing clouds to cast sharp shafts of light through slatted windows, or sparkle in reflection off wind chimes, bead curtains, mirrors and drawn knives. The echoes of Sternberg and Murnau are unlike Wyler’s usual self-effacement, but the material demands such a steamy environment to bring the melodrama to full boil. The results may not be profound, but they are repeatedly enjoyable, a triumph of superb craftsmanship, synthetic as hell and always totally engrossing.