U.S.A.| 1940. BLACK AND WHITE. 95 MIN.

Based on a Somerset Maugham play, this film is one of director William Wyler’s finest, a study of human duplicity that crackles with the tensions of a thriller. The opening is justly famous: a nocturnal, atmospheric panning shot across a Malaysian rubber plantation, whose silence is broken by a gunshot. Davis suddenly appears on the porch, repeatedly shooting a man whom she claims has attempted to rape her. But is that the case? An incriminating letter seems to imply a different explanation.

Bette Davis’s wife is secretly an adulteress and a murderess, exuding suppressed sensuality beneath the primness: Pauline Kael described her performance as ‘very likely the best study of female sexual hypocrisy in film history.’ The supporting cast is equally fine, particularly James Stephenson as the compromised lawyer and Gale Sondergaard as the murdered man’s Eurasian wife.

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