BeachGaBulldog

Daily Dose of Darkness #3: Under a Full Moon (The opening scene of The Letter)

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Well, although we live in an age of film in which it is not uncommon for filmmakers to try to surprise the audience, this still is a surprising opening for a film, even 75 cynical and inured years later.  The opening shot of Indonesian working men on what is obviously a rubber plantation getting ready for sleep in their dormitory, the calming effect of seeing this is completely blown away by the sound of a gunshot, then seeing the man who was shot stumbling out of the door of the main house and down the stairs of the porch--the house that has to be of the European imperialists--then being following by a woman who continues to shoot him in a back, breaks the peaceful calming sight of men getting ready for rest just like a brick unexpectedly crashing through plate glass does to the plate glass.  It is an abrupt shift in gears, to say the least.
     What is most terrifying, though, is the absolute cold-blooded calm of the woman as she continues to shoot the fleeing man in the back, even after he is down, all this being quite illegal, except in the most barbaric, uncivilized, evil and backwards of countries, perhaps like Texas.  One can see who the civilized people are and who is the beast: the Indonesian workers are shocked at what they have witnessed, while the murderer, the European woman from the main house shows absolutely no emotion at all at what she has done to another human being.  An action, she then calls "an accident," as if pointing a gun at a man's back as he is running away and filling him purposefully full of lead could be an accident. 
     Shocking indeed, even for our decadent, uncaring, brutal times

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ah, yes the bewitching effects of moonlight. Almost as though Davis is in a dream like state with cloud cover, then is thrust into the cold reality of life with the sudden exposure of the moonlight. She is transformed into robotic movement and thought as the light reflects upon her, casting her shadow over the dead man just below her. I love the fact that even in death she has the heir of superiority over the deceased, he on the ground, she above him on the steps. Directing workers and the deceased with cold disengagement.

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Having not seen the film, but coming to it in the context of this noir course I'd expected something...... unexpected! So, my first thought prompted by the dripping rubber tree sap was anticipation of dripping blood, but the graceful unfolding of the scene - the camera gliding, the careful sound mix and introduction and swell of sound music and the workers at rest was lulling. In addition to the detachment of the character portrayal by Davis, the use of chiaroscuro lighting once the shooting had occured, was as others observed, notable and for me where the dark fingerprints of noir begin to really emerge.

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I love the imagery! The workers at the rubber plantation seem to be winding down. The panning camera is used effectively to illustrate these guys' place, purpose and state of mind when the sound of gunfire interrupts their evening routine. I love the reaction of Bette Davis' character when the moon emerges from behind the clouds and shines like a spotlight on the violence she just committed!

 

The convention of "routine" or "trivial" events being disrupted by the unanticipated eruption of violence can be noted in various movies by Quentin Tarantino (scenes from "Inglorious Basterds", "Pulp Fiction" and "Django Unchained" spring into mind) It's become a cinematic convention that lulls the audience into complacency only to have them become as shocked and excited as if they were also characters in the film!

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Well, this opening with it stark contrast as has been noted, drew me right into this film. I have since watched the entire thing (no spoilers here). It's a noir opening, for a very noir film.

 

I think those who have mentioned observations regarding colonialism and class, are also right on the money (pun not intended, yet appropriate).

 

I think one of the things this opening as well as the rest of the film shows me, is at least what I consider noir, a much wider category than I originally thought.

 

And the moon is definitely a character, or at least a Greek chorus in this movie.

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Max Steiner doesn't get enough credit for his gorgeous scoring of this film. Often he can be over the top (Dark Victory), but here he is right on the money. His almost-spooky score adds greatly to the atmosphere and tension.

Amen to that! No Mickey Mouse-ing here.

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What stuck out to me the most in viewing the opening of The Letter was its use of irony. Here, we have a peaceful night in Singapore which is cut off by a woman shooting her husband in front of her house. What is also ironic is the woman's calm and collected attitude throughout, in spite of not only murdering her husband but also everyone nearby witnessing this murder. None of this deters her from directing the men to inform someone that there has been an accident.

I agree with all of this, except it's not her husband. Watch the scene again, and you'll see from what is said, that the victim is not her husband.

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I wasn't too surprised by the killing, however I was surprised by the brutality of it (how she empties the gun, well after any "threat" could be present. Although I didn't know that the movie would open with a killing, it's not unprecedented in a film of this sort.

 

Equally surprising, was the calmness that others have also noted.

 

This film, in its opening, exhibits in early example of a later much used trope: something shocking at the beginning, from which everything unfolds in retrospect.

 

The "spotlight" (both literally in the moonlight, and figuratively, in terms of the narrative), on a protagonist, who is perhaps marked for tragedy, in a very dark world, makes this film a landmark in the history of film noir.

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This is the first film of the three this week that I've actually seen; and although I admire it quite a bit, it's here that the problematic racist portrayals of the era and genre are front and center. 

 

Cringeworthy.

Not sure I agree. If anything, it is the whites and their so-called "civilized society" (Slight spoiler here so go away if you don't want to know anything about the film and haven't seen it yet):

 

 

 

 

 

Which is on trial, both literally and figuratively. I do not see the Asians as being portrayed as negative in any way shape or form. There are certainly "cringe worthy" examples in Hollywood cinema of this year and before and after. I don't see this as being one of them.

 

Don't want to hijack this thread, and I certainly feel that there are few minorities if any, who have been more marginalized in films up until this very day, than Asians. But that's a topic for another time and place.

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I love the calm peaceful opening of a warm (I assume) night on a rubber plantation.  The quiet is almost immediately dispelled with the sound of gunshots and the peaceful scene is shattered as Ms. Davis appears, gun in hand, and disposes of a man with such violence that it is quite shocking.  I haven't seen the full movie and I wonder if the full moon shown in the beginning is an allusion to madness.  The clouds pass over the moon for moment and everything is in darkness and then when the moon comes into view again fully illuminating the violence below, the look on Ms. Davis' face seems indeed rather mad.

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As has been mentioned the calm throughout the clip caught me and gave a surreal feeling to the viciousness of Ms. Davis repeatedly pulling the trigger. Her demeanor changes very little from firing the pistol to sending the men to the authorities. The moon shadowing the man's face gave a taste of the darkness to come and the moonlight reappearing showed the result of her actions to all present. Madness could be felt.

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I find myself watching Bette Davis carefully in this opening. When the moon comes out from behind the cloud bringing a bright light to the scene, to what she's done, her secrets revealed, she glares at the moon as though it has just slapped her in the face. Notice her hands. When she leaves the step to go back in the house, the shadow of her hand crosses the body looking like a claw. And in the house while she's giving directions, her right hand, the one that held the gun, is held awkwardly open and a little away from her body as though she doesn't want it near her, doesn't want the memories of what she just did.

 

It is shocking. It's shocking to see that even though this man is running from her she continues shooting til the gun is empty. What could this man have done to her? She remains very calm and composed. You can tell she must be working on her story. There's no hiding anything, so call the authorities and get it over with. Get the wheels turning as fast as the wheels in her mind.

I too found myself watching Bette Davis. My thoughts on the moon shining on her were twofold. The first was as you stated, how dare the moon revel her and what she has done. The second thought I had was that the moon symbolized a spotlight. It was shining on her to suggest that she is the spotlight of the film not only as the main character or storyline, but as the person in charge. In charge of not only the plantation and its workers, but also in charge of her actions and emotions. I saw her actions of emptying the gun on the man and the way she held her hand in the house as a sign of rage. As is signature Bette Davis, that rage is calm and controlled. I saw holding her hand in that pose as a controlled way of channeling that rage.  

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We are given a brief opening shot of a full moon, omnisciently contrasted against the night sky like an all-seeing eye from above.

This is a good observation - I have read Somerset Maugham's short stories and the whole chunk of them set in the south pacific are all about people who think of themselves as normal and level-headed, but dropped into this "foreign" land that to them is really wild and where they are the outsiders who don't understand the language, customs, landscape, weather,etc., they show their real characters when dramatic events happen. Nature usually is the only unbiased witness.

 

Away from the U.S. or England, they're not only vulnerable to being taken advantage of but also can act unlike their known personalities because no one they know is looking.

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Surprised no. but as with most film noir you have the feeling that the scene is going to take a different route. The shots of the moon fading in and out is like the moon saying I can see what you did and you cannot hide it. In this trailer it contributes to film noir with a murder scene and that dark side where it then gets you to want to know why she shot this person. You know the circumstances behind it.

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No, I was not surprised  by the opening scene.  It had the typical features of a film noir-suspense, , calm before the storm. 

The music was quiet and relaxing, the shots of the moon were also. The gunfire broke the silence and changed the mood, as is typical in  film noir. Why did she shoot so many times? This seems to be overkill. It is a dramatic effect that insures attention as the plot changes from calm to mystery/evil.

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Having watched a lot of noir films already, this was par for the course. But, putting myself into the shoes of moviegoers in 1940, it must've truly been jarring and extremely effective. This was further utilized in many films noir, having the calm and the ordinary be disrupted by extraordinary circumstances.

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THE LETTER:

First, I have to confess that I consider Betty Davis to be the best actress to ever grace the silver screen.  William Wyler knew how to use Betty Davis to get the best performance out of her.  He was also one of the best director’s ever.

 The first thing we see is the full moon with some dramatic music which is a premonition of things to come.  The music settles down and we see a sign for a rubber plantation and a tree with a collection system for the rubber.  This sets the location as a farm in the tropics.  The screen slowly pans till we see some of the workers playing the music, all is calm, the rest of the men are getting ready to go to sleep.  It appears to be the end of another average day.  Nothing unusual until we see the cockatoo and hear the shot from within the house, then watch the bird fly away; there is a pause and briefly see a man and a women emerge from the house.  One more shot is fired.  Then there are cuts to the dogs being aroused,   I really love the fact that from the tree on to the second shot, it is all pan work.  This adds to the feeling that everything is normal and as it should be.  The cuts add the jarring effect of hearing the shots and watching everyone react.  I believe that todays movies rely on using to may cuts.  A good pan or a steady shot adds a lot to a movie.  Quick cuts add suddenness and a sence quickness. 

 

The first shot is a full moon which is glowing and lighting up the night, again all is well.  After the man is shot and dies, the moon goes behind a cloud and everything goes dark indicating that he is dead.  The moon reemerges after he dies.  The ominous music begins and as the moon emerges from the darkness, Betty Davis turns to look at the moon as if in recognition of what she has done.

 

As Betty Davis is shooting the man on the porch,  she has a really **** off look on her face.  She is mad and does not care that she just shot the man.  She come out of her trance as she looks back at the moon.  

 

The foreman comes over and identifies the man as Mr. Hammond.  He stares at the gun. Betty Davis goes into the house and he follows.  She tells him to get Mr. Cosby and to get the authorities.  Watch as Betty Davis doe not move a muscle.  He hands are tense but do not move.  Her body is tense and does not move.  Only her lips move, she doesn’t even blink and the look on her face is as cool as ice. 

 

What happened?  Who is Mr. Hammond?  Is it her husband?  or some else?   What did he do that got her so made that  she shot him?  What will happen in the future?

 

The jolting beginning reminds me of Sunset Blvd.  You know there is a back story to all this but what could it be?  It is obviously a shock that this lazy night is so disrupted by the killing.  As I mentioned, I believe that this opening set a standard that many film Noir films used.

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The opening gunfire is a surprise. But the scene is also gorgeous, with the moon and tropical veranda. It's the juxtaposition of the two, plus the fact that she fires so many times, that makes this a startling opening scene.

Other films noir seem to have copied this abrupt, unexplained violent opening as a way of pulling the audience into the film.

And I agree that Max Steiner's music contributes a great deal to "The Letter."

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The movie starts so languidly; musical score certainly contributes to the peacefullness. It is quite a shooker to hear the shots! At this point, your attention is trully captured by this act and you really want to know more - why did she shoot him/? Why is she so calm? What mad her so mad as to unload all the bullets in Mr Hammond?

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It is shocking because the film seemingly begins with the climax and we have no idea what led to it.

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The quiet dripping into the pails.  The soporific music.  Men gently swaying in hammocks.  Then the shots.

Bette in her casual elegance - long, trailing robe; calm, seemingly determined face; even, steady voice.  These do not fit the suddenness of the shooting - appear to be an oxymoron.

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Wow! What a tremendous opening. My favourite of the four we watched this week.

 

As already mentioned, it's like it started in act two or three, and went from there. And even still, it never stopped being an exciting or interesting film.

 

The fact that we, the audience, get to see the cold and matter-of-fact way Bette Davis kills this man clues us in to her being a villain right from the start, the fact that we don't see the lead-up to the killing puts us right in the thick of the mystery.

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Anyone know of a site or public domain link where I can view Wyler's "The Letter" online? I was unable to catch it when it aired on TCM, and would really like to watch it before I go into this weeks lessons. Thanks in advance.

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I knew that some act of violence was bound to occur in the opening scene of the letter and was pleasantly startled by the sudden randomness of the gunshots. But I have to admit that I was taken aback, even in 2015, by the number of times that Bette Davis shot at point blank range. It was over the top and gruesome, just as noir so often is.

 

The use of lighting and shadows contributes greatly to the mise-en-scene of the scene and really laid the groundwork for what we'd see in films like a Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. her shadow cast over the corpse was a great visual effect. Her panicked reaction made it all the more visually arresting.

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The opening scene of the Letter starts with a calm pan across a plantation. People are playing games, taking naps, and listening to music. The sequence is actually relaxing. Then the tranquility is destroyed by what seems to be a crime of passion and hate.

 

Bette Davis's character shoots the man six times, emptying the gun, and even pulls the trigger a seventh time. This doesn't seem to be self defense; the man is running away from the shooter. Davis isn't trying to wound the man, and the look on her face as she is firing is a look of cold hatred. After the gun is empty, Davis's facial expression changes to a look of surprise and horror. A "What have I done?" look, or maybe a "How am I going to get away with this?" look. This was not planned. It was a spontaneous eruption of murderous intention.

 

This scene pairs the normal and the abnormal, the lawful and the criminal. This juxtaposition is mirrored in the cinematography, the use of light and shadow. Davis stands over her victim for a moment as her shadow is cast over the body. If shadow represents evil or criminality, then the shadow over the body represents Davis's crime and light represents judgement. This is why she looks at the moon with a look of madness. The moon seems to be condemning her.

 

This use of light and shadow as a symbolic representation of a person's internal struggle with right and wrong seems to be a growing trend in film noir. I can see it's beginnings with M and see it in numerous other films noir. 

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