Based on Somerset Maugham's play, a woman shoots her lover, claims self-defense, and is acquitted because her incriminating letter was suppressed.
On a Singapore rubber plantation Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shoots Jeff Hammond several times. She sends for her husband, and Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) brings lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson). Leslie tells Robert that Hammond tried to make love to her, and she recounts what happened to Robert, Howard, and Withers (Bruce Lester). They urge her to turn herself in. Howard notes that Hammond was shot while on the ground. Robert calls on Howard and is distraught. Howard says that Hammond was married to a Eurasian. Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) tells Howard about a letter from Leslie to Hammond written on the day of his death and gives him a copy. Howard doubts she wrote it. Howard visits Leslie in jail and asks her about Hammond. Leslie denies she wrote the letter, then admits it, explaining why she summoned him when Robert was gone. Howard implies it looks bad, and Leslie faints.
Leslie asks Howard to get the letter. He is reluctant because it is illegal, but he agrees to try to buy it. Howard tells Ong that Leslie denied the letter; but Ong says his friend wants $10,000 for it, and Leslie must bring it to her. At lunch Howard tells Robert of the letter, and Robert agrees to pay for it. After dinner Howard and Leslie go to the China quarter to Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard), who does not speak English. She glares at Leslie and drops the letter; Leslie picks it up.
To the jury Howard argues that Leslie was justified and says there is no evidence to refute her testimony. Leslie is found not guilty. Robert asks Leslie to go to Sumatra and wants to buy a plantation with his $10,000. Howard and Leslie discourage him, and Howard tells him the letter cost that much. Robert asks Howard why he committed that crime and demands to see it. Leslie admits she was in love with Hammond. She was jealous of his wife and describes how she killed him. Leslie finds a Chinese dagger and attends a party but gets upset and leaves. She packs for Robert, who forgives her, asking if she loves him. Leslie cries that she still loves the man she killed. Leslie finds Mrs. Hammond outside, and a Chinese man grabs her as Mrs. Hammond pulls out the dagger. In the final scene the two Chinese people are arrested.
This melodrama portrays the sultry relationships of
imperialistic Europeans in Asia. They help each other for mutual
protection but commit crimes in doing so. Some racism is implied
in the message that lurking in the shadows are inscrutable Orientals,
who will get revenge for being oppressed.