Dead Set on Deceit: Ethical Dilemmas in Wyler’s "The Letter"
Updated: Mar 31
Author Note: This paper was created for Case Studies in Business Ethics and Law, MG552, in the Broadview University MBA program.
On a dark night in Malaysia, a full moon hangs in the air as a man stumbles from a wooden porch, clutching his chest.
A woman, who combines a long dress with a short temper, fires a gun repeatedly at him. The heat in her eyes is matched only by the sweltering Malaysian temperature that encompasses the rubber plantation on which they are located. This scene sets the stage for director William Wyler’s 1940 film noir classic, The Letter.
Starring Bette Davis, this film centers around an adulterous woman, Leslie Crosbie, who kills her lover when she learns he has married a local woman. A quick and collected thinker, Leslie claims self-defense and tells her husband and her lawyer that the man was drunk and tried to take advantage of her. Soon after, a letter—an incriminating invitation—from Leslie to the deceased surfaces.
The dead man’s widow blackmails Leslie: she must pay $10,000 for the letter. Ethics concerns how one behaves, both privately and professionally, and the extent to which the act honestly and consistently with their values (Stonehouse, 2015; Yukl, 2013). Leslie creates her own ethical dilemmas and selfishly drags her lawyer down with her; similarly, the lawyer begins his own unethical journey of hiding evidence and defending a client he knows to be guilty. Hugman (2005) states that the purpose of ethics is to pose questions that challenge thought and action. To that end, the purpose of this paper is to describe the characterization, ethical dilemmas and alternatives, and character resolution in The Letter.
Leslie Crosbie is the wife of a rubber plantation owner. She is proper, elegant, privileged, and beloved among her social circle. Her role in the movie is a moral compass that never sways from the dark side of human behavior. From the moment she shoots Geoff Hammond, the femme fatale lies so well that one gets the idea she almost believes it. The audience witnesses Leslie’s ruthless determination through her crime of passion, but her words reveal much more about her character. A literary, wordy characterization seems logical, considering the film was adapted from a W. Somerset Maugham stage play (AMC, n.d.).
For example, when her lawyer, Howard Joyce, arrives, Leslie light-heartedly asks about his wife and niece, as if they were at a cocktail party or had bumped into each other at the market. Leslie describes the events that led to the shooting to Howard and to her doting husband, Robert.
Punctuated by heavy sobs and an occasional hand to the forehead, Leslie begins her story:
“I never mind being alone, you know, a planter’s wife gets used to that,” she begins (Wallis & Wyler, 1940).
Immediately, Leslie uses her words to paint herself as the hapless, hopeless, and helpless victim. She explains that while working on her knitting, she heard a knock on the door. It was Geoff. Surprised, she invited him in for a chat when suddenly, the tone changed.
“It’s hardly worth repeating," Leslie explains. “He paid me a little compliment. He said ‘you have very pretty eyes. It’s a shame to hide them under those ugly spectacles.’ ”
Howard asks if she answered him.
“Of course,” Leslie says, explaining she told him she didn’t care “two pins” what he thinks. “He only laughed and said ‘I’m going to tell you just the same.’ ”
Geoff compliments Leslie on her hands.
She was offended because a woman does not care to be complimented on her worst feature, she explains. Robert tells her she has lovely hands.
“Robert, you silly thing,” Leslie says so pleasantly that one would not be surprised if a cartoon bird landed on her shoulder and chirped a lullaby.
Leslie continues her tall tale.
Geoff helped himself to another whisky and soda. “You have to wonder if he hadn’t been drinking before.” With this overt statement, Leslie insulates herself further from the incident. Still, Leslie was friendly because she didn’t want to make a scene—the reason she did not kick him out up to this point, she explains innocently.
Leslie describes the moment when the conversation turned more serious. “He said: ‘don’t you know I’m awfully in love with you?’ ”
“That swine,” Robert says in disgust.
She pauses, hanging her head in exasperation, and says she is ashamed. But it’s the shame of a victim, not of a murderer. She stands and reenacts how she tried to kick him out. “You poor fool. Don’t you know I’ve never loved another man except Robert?” With that, Leslie continues, Geoff grabbed her and kissed her “like a madman.”
She pauses her story for the appropriate amount of tears. Then, calmly, she explains how Geoff picked her up but stumbled to the floor. Leslie got away, and, suddenly remembering Robert’s revolver was in a night stand, grabbed the gun.
She doesn’t remember anything else except the “funny little click” of the empty weapon.
Robert says thank heaven he remembered to load the gun before he left.
Her story completed, Leslie sits back with a look of satisfaction that quickly turns to exhaustion. She knows she has told her tale convincingly and has won them over. Her speech tells the viewer everything they need to know about her character.
Her words paint the picture of a woman who performs perfectly under pressure and has no ethical problem with lying.
Ethical Dilemma and Alternatives
The Letter is a tale of carefully plotted evil (Crowther, 1940). There are three main ethical dilemmas in the film. First, Leslie makes the choice to cover up the murder, manipulating the truth and taking advantage of a devoted husband along the way. Her alternatives, at any time, are to tell the truth about the affair and, subsequently, the murder.
But Leslie is too flippant and unsympathetic to exercise the honorable alternative. Often, when an individual is aware of their unethical behavior, they will try everything possible to cover their tracks (McGannon, 2016). Leslie exhibits what German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes as a “unique dignity,” wherein people treated as commodities is never just, even if a decision minimizes overall happiness (Bredeson, 2012, p. 8).
Through her distorted view of ethics, Leslie considers maximization of happiness, and minimization of pain, as saving herself from prosecution.
Second, Howard lies to defend his client. As an attorney, he willingly buries the evidence and risks his own reputation. He tells Leslie he won’t share his personal thoughts. It is the duty of counsel to defend his client, not to “convict her even in his own mind.”
Often, an attorney’s knowledge of client guilt is a complicated legal and moral issue; however, legal guilt is not established until a jury or trial court hears evidence and arrives at a verdict (Sullivan, 2014). Judgements about ethics take into account purpose, morals, consequences, and outcomes (Yukl, 2012). Still, Howard falls easily into the lie out of duty to spare Robert from the ugly truth. This sense of obligation parallels a Deontological view of ethics: the highest justification stems from a sense of duty (Bredeson, 2012).
When Leslie admits to writing the letter, Howard’s reaction reveals his inner struggle.
“I don’t want you to tell me anything but what is needed to save your neck,” he says, clearly disgusted with his client and with himself.
Later, he tells Leslie he is heavy with guilt and has the feeling he will be made to pay the piper for jeopardizing his career and relying on her discretion.
Once locked in to the lie, Howard cannot entertain his alternative—to tell the truth—for fear of being disbarred and disgraced.
The two share a third dilemma: agreeing to the wife’s blackmail demands. Unscrupulous individuals invent unethical approaches and misuse processes (McGannon, 2016). In this case, the process is the law. Misplaced blame is another red flag of unethical behavior (McGannon, 2016). Leslie places blame for the murder where it does not belong—on the wife. She was driven to rage because of Geoff’s surprise marriage.
Leslie describes the wife as being covered in gold chains, possessing a “face like a mask.” It is more the comment of a jealous lover than that of a defendant seeking leverage for her case. Outside of the affair and the murder, Leslie is cold, racist, and elitist. For his part, Howard brokers the blackmail deal surreptitiously through a third party. It is an action straight from the unethical actions playbook, creating a scene where Howard could easily say: “no one will ever find out;” “technically, this is against policy;” or “this goes no further than this room.” (McGannon, 2016, Chapter 5, 3:15).
Howard must tell Robert about the letter in order to procure money; however, he describes the letter as a minor blemish. It would be safer just the same, Howard explains, to pay the price.
The film illustrates the pain-staking effort it takes to maintain a cover-up and how lies beget other lies. Leslie and Howard are well-dressed on the outside, but naked in moral character.
After her acquittal, Robert discovers the truth when he attempts to buy a new plantation but discovers his bank account is empty. He asks Howard if the letter is present. Howard pauses, but Leslie’s expression tells the viewer she is tired of the lies. She instructs Howard to hand over the letter. This is Leslie’s third-act resolution.
She allowed the charade to continue long enough to jail time. Now, she seems too tired to keep the truth from her husband. Howard, in his character’s resolution, hands the letter to Robert. It is an action that partially absolves the lawyer from his part in the debacle.
Howard respects his friend enough to shield him but he knows that full disclosure presents the right thing to do. Robert leaves the room sad and shocked.
Howard says: “He’s going to forgive you.”
“Yes. He’s going to forgive me,” Leslie replies.
Robert and Leslie throw a celebration party at their home, but it becomes clear that Robert cannot forgive her. She finally admits she still loves the man she killed. In the end, Leslie’s ultimate resolution comes from the hands of the widow—who stabs Leslie and leaves her on the ground to die. In Maugham’s theatrical version, Leslie’s was acquitted, only to realize she was trapped in a loveless marriage—a different kind of prison (Crowther, 1940).
But due to The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, or the Hays Code, no picture could lower the moral standards of viewers or break with ethical and moral standards (Mondello, 2008).
Thus, Wyler crafted an ending in which Leslie paid for her crime in a way that balanced moral values of the time and ensured audience sympathy would never sway to the side of crime, evil, or sin (Crowther, 1940; Mondello, 2008).
Leslie is as far from ethical behavior as the the Malay Peninsula is from the United States.
Howard, wanting to protect his friend from the true nature of his wife, sinks into the muck of unscrupulous professional behavior. Although unethical, each lie stems from different motivations: Leslie wants to save herself and Howard wants to shield Robert. One could argue that Howard’s lie is more acceptable because he sought to protect someone—the ends justifying the means (Bredeson, 2012).
Howard aligns with the deontological view of ethics, acing out of a sense of duty or obligation (Bredeson, 2012). Ethical questions arise when one faces a choice framed as how they should act versus how must they act (Bredeson, 2012). Leslie acts entirely outside of ethical conduct.
Leslie’s behavior benefits her alone, although one could say it would have benefitted her husband through an “ignorance is bliss” defense. She contradicts what utilitarian philosophers define as ethics: benefitting the greatest number of people and inducing harm to the fewest possible numbers (Bredeson, 2012).
The Sixth Amendment guarantees, among other protections, the right to a lawyer (Cornell, n.d.). However, Von Moltke v. Gillies (1948) added further definition: a notorious or unpopular client, charged with horrific crimes, still is entitled to undivided allegiance and faithful, devoted service.
In The Letter, this brand of blind allegiance describes the characterization, ethical dilemmas, and resolution for a crime of passion and a cover-up. Ethical dilemmas often involve behaviors that create enthusiasm for a risky strategy, induce people to change their fundamental beliefs and values, and influence decisions that will benefit some at the expense of others (Yukl, 2012).
Once they started down the path, Howard and Leslie banked on an integrative solution through compatible objectives—finding wisdom along the way through the use of intelligence, creativity, and balance of interests (Yukl, 2012; West, 2012).
Perhaps Howard sums up the ethical turmoil of the film best—that despite the repercussions, some people are dead-set on deceit.
“Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years," he begins, "and not know the first thing about her.”
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