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

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Lots of evil comes out in the light of the full moon. In fact, sometimes good is transformed into evil under the influence of the full moon's rise... at least in literature. The full moon used as a symbol suggests this isn't an "innocent" killing, but there is an element of evil. The moon's face being alternately hidden and revealed by the clouds suggests other things are being hidden and will be revealed eventually to a close observer.

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There is so much here that is indicative of noir in terms of score, look and lighting.  I especially like the slow zoom in at 1:35 - after the final shot is fired - to the cold look on her face.  Also, at 2:13 where the moon exposes her crime into the light.  She is so cold and matter-of-fact as she gives directions, another hallmark of noir.

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This is a great opening scene. Bette Davis is brilliant and nowhere is it more evident that in the way that she expresses herself in this scene. We see her rush out of the house, obviously furious, and empty the gun into a man. For a few moments, she appears to be in shock, and when the moon goes behind a cloud, she momentarilly registers the horror of what she has done, only to collect herself completely before the moon comes out.  When the moon comes out, she has already regained control of herself and is completely calm as she instructs the plantation workers. Her two requests - notify the police that there has been an "accident", and contact his second in command.

I love that she holds her right hand as though the gun is still in it while she makes these requests.

 

It is not at all unusual for a noir to begin with a murder - but this is one of my favorites. My first thought was "well, that's what you get for dating Bette Davis". My next thought was that he must have done something awful to her in order to make her so angry that she emptied the entire gun.

 

 

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I love the way everything is so sleepy and still in The Letter before the gunshot. The rubber is peacefully trickling out of the tree and the workers are sleeping. Even the animals are sleeping. Nothing could possibly disturb the tranquility of this scene.

 

And that lasts for maybe two minutes before Bette Davis empties a revolver into somebody. NOW we've got a movie!

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 The director draws us in to a somewhat peaceful evening- the moon is full, the rubber sap trickling into the bucket has a fountain-like effect of relaxation. the workers are winding down, playing cards or lying in hammocks and we hear a hypnotic and mysterious score in the background. Then the sudden disturbance of a gunshot resounding in the nearby house startles a bird off of its perch. We see the figure of a man emerge through the doorway to stagger down the stairs. A woman follows after him. A second shot frightens two sleeping dogs. Now chaos ensues as the woman continues to empty her pistol into her victim. As one of the workers looks to see who she is a dark cloud obscures the moon and a  shadow is cast over her face. When the moon emerges again we can see that she appears unaffected by what she has done. She coolly surveys the corpse and then retreats into the house, asking one of the men to come with her. She is calm and composed as she tells him exactly how she would like the situation handled. This opening must have been very shocking in the 1940's due to the cold, calculated nature of the woman's behavior. She clearly committed murder and yet she instructs a man to report it as "an accident", setting up an ambiguous answer to the age-old question of Right or Wrong that we will see over and over again in films noir. We need not determine "who" done it, but "Why", and this first scene tells us that we may not get a clear answer.

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The Letter opening scene:

I was surprised and shocked when I heard that gunshot after such a beautiful and peaceful nighttime scene.

Betty Davis is femme fatale.

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I assume the cockatoo wasn't under contract with either studio.   In this way he was head of his time and like Cary Grant had the balls to be independent.      But seriously;  most animals were hired from trainers to work on films for all of the studios, with exceptions being big time animal stars like Rin Tin Tin. 

Note that for a lot of the film 'Leslie' is dressed in black and white showing the dichotomy of her true nature, and showing that there is something evil (dark) about her character.

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I was not very surprised by the opening's climax.  Not because of any smug  near precognitive ability, but because this is a film noir class after all, and these movies are a celebration of a certain human ugliness, melodramatic though they may be. 

 

Nonetheless, the opening excellent. 

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I was not very surprised by the opening's climax.  Not because of any smug  near precognitive ability, but because this is a film noir class after all, and these movies are a celebration of a certain human ugliness, melodramatic though they may be. 

 

Nonetheless, the opening excellent. 

 

But just imagine the surprise of those in the audience in 1940,   going to see a film starting the #1 actress at the time, Bette Davis.    The moon glowing over a dark and very quite landscape and than,,,,bam!     Here is that star killing a man and firing a gun again and again.    

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Were you surprised by what happens in the opening scene of The LetterIn what ways can the opening of The Letter be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?


A seemingly quiet, beautiful moon-lit night. The workers benefiting from a long hard day's work, milk flowing from the tree; relaxing, wrapping up for the night. One lone shot is heard in the distance, & only the bird sense the danger at first, then men and dogs stir startled after hearing the 2nd shot, as the man tried to flee from the threat opening the door & out of the house, only making it down the steps before stumbling to the ground, where the "gunman" calmly, determinedly puts the four remaining bullets into the immobile target. Apparently wishing there were more bullets in the gun, the shooter kept pulling the trigger before realizing that it was completely empty. But the eyes, the eyes kept shooting daggers into the victims back, well after breath left his lifeless body. Just as that happened the beautiful light giving moon was overshadowed by a cloud, just as the perpetrator's face became shrouded in darkness. Only when the moon was revealed again did the killer snap out of the one track murderous focus as it became a sudden spotlight on the face of a woman. The "gunman" was a gunwoman! Film noir introducing early on that women kill too. How dark does this world have to be, to drive a woman to kill. Oh, and using an iconic actress like Bette Davis to deliver this femme fatale, so right blank in our faces, with the cover of darkness to soften the stark reality of witnessing this violation to our sensibilities, that a lady can do something so cold-blooded. 


What was even more interesting to me was that she was surrounded by men, but very in control. She commanded that they report it as an "accident", & in stating it so matter-of-fact, her employees had no choice but to go along. She seemed to have all of the power. I think it was smart of them to use Bette Davis as the actress, because she had a built-in fan base, that wanted her to be justified. Many probably thought, "what did that man do to deserve her wrath"? Whatever it was, he must have messed up and deserved what he got. But, in the end, we all must reap what we sow. I truly love this movie & almost anything Bette Davis does, so a little murder could probably be forgiven too. 


 


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The serenity of the opening panorama of the plantation is shattered by the violent entrance of Bette Davis (playing Leslie Crosbie) unloading a revolver into Geoffrey Hammond until the hammer clicks on an empty chamber. Definitely a shock for the viewer.

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The serenity of the opening panorama of the plantation is shattered by the violent entrance of Bette Davis (playing Leslie Crosbie) unloading a revolver into Geoffrey Hammond until the hammer clicks on an empty chamber. Definitely a shock for the viewer.

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-- Were you surprised by what happens in the opening scene of The Letter?

-- In what ways can the opening of The Letter be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

This is a beautiful opening scene. As we are brought into the film's world we see the workers of the rubber plantation relaxing after a hard days work. Only for this rest to be disturbed and shattered by the crack of a gunshot. The injured and lurching body of the man stumbling out of the door and down the stairs is shocking. However, this shock is intensified by the sight of his pursuer - a woman still holding the pistol, she follows his broken body down the stairs and unflinchingly empties the remaining bullets into him. The moon temporarily disappearing behind a cloud letting us know that darkness has descended (and seems to suggest a higher order of things) onto the events and when it appears again it brings with it a realisation of what has happened though Bette Davis's character remains cold and instructional in her interaction with the workers. The gun has been dropped, but we notice the empty hand still held as if the gun were still there.

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The music, the scenes, the quiet restfulness of the workers, the bird, the dogs, all jarred out of this vibe by the unexpected sharpness of a sudden crack. At first, almost an unknown sound, yet the sound is heard again and again confirming what exactly belongs to.  The serenity of the resting men is broken by the man now lying on the ground, not asleep, but dead. The coldness of Betty Davis' eyes is exactly counter to the percieved warmth of the night.  I was particularly unnerved by the constant tension in her hand, even after the gun was dropped. She seemed cool verbally and in continance, all except for her hand's refusal to return to a resting, relaxed position.

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It's been several years since I last saw The Letter and many more since I saw it for the first time, but I still remember the shock of seeing Bette so perfectly framed by the shadows, walking out of the house, down those stairs and letting those bullets fly one after the other -- then later seeing the enormity of the scene flash across her face in a flurry of emotions that I truly believe only Bette could have portrayed. She was so well cast in this role and I forget it each time I sit down to watch this movie until I watch her in this opening scene. For some reason I'm always sucked in when I see how her hand and her body react physically when she drops the gun. It just seems so natural, so un-acted. It feels fresh and raw, as though she hadn't rehearsed a bit and just walked on to the set that morning, picked up the prop gun and turned out this masterful scene... but somehow, I know that isn't the full story! It takes an amazing cast a crew to make the audience feel that from a movie, let alone an opening scene.  

 

 

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The music, the scenes, the quiet restfulness of the workers, the bird, the dogs, all jarred out of this vibe by the unexpected sharpness of a sudden crack. At first, almost an unknown sound, yet the sound is heard again and again confirming what exactly belongs to.  The serenity of the resting men is broken by the man now lying on the ground, not asleep, but dead. The coldness of Betty Davis' eyes is exactly counter to the percieved warmth of the night.  I was particularly unnerved by the constant tension in her hand, even after the gun was dropped. She seemed cool verbally and in continance, all except for her hand's refusal to return to a resting, relaxed position.

 

I was also struck by her hand! It felt so natural to me... that tension, that reluctance to fall into a more "normal" stance but the need to drop the gun... for some reason I'm always drawn to her hand in the scene. It's oddly graceful, so being such an instrument of violence merely seconds later. 

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-- Were you surprised by what happens in the opening scene of The Letter?

-- In what ways can the opening of The Letter be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

This is a beautiful opening scene. As we are brought into the film's world we see the workers of the rubber plantation relaxing after a hard days work. Only for this rest to be disturbed and shattered by the crack of a gunshot. The injured and lurching body of the man stumbling out of the door and down the stairs is shocking. However, this shock is intensified by the sight of his pursuer - a woman still holding the pistol, she follows his broken body down the stairs and unflinchingly empties the remaining bullets into him. The moon temporarily disappearing behind a cloud letting us know that darkness has descended (and seems to suggest a higher order of things) onto the events and when it appears again it brings with it a realisation of what has happened though Bette Davis's character remains cold and instructional in her interaction with the workers. The gun has been dropped, but we notice the empty hand still held as if the gun were still there.

 

I'm fascinated that so many of us felt drawn to her hand positioning and the extension of the gun, even when the gun was missing. I'm always drawn to her hand in this scene - every single time I watch this movie! I really do think that Bette is only of the only women of the era who could have taken this role and acted it as well as she did, to the very tips of her fingertips - literally.

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I haven't had the pleasure of watching this movie yet, but this opening scene has convinced me that I have to watch it the next time it comes on. I love how the camera pans over the scenery in the shadows. It lets you know that this movie doesn't have a usual setting. The people working in the shadows also kind of gives you the feel of anticipation that something is going to happen. In future noirs, we will see people working in the shadows when they're up to no good. While the workers in this scene aren't the villains, it does give you a sense of foreshadowing that something bad is about to happen. The gunshot was a great way of grabbing your attention. Suddenly you know that this movie is starting off with a bang. You wonder who got shot and why. I love the look on Bette Davis' face as she shoots the guy- it's a look of quiet determination and even coldness. The sight of the smoking gun is very iconic for film noir to me. I love the visuals of the clouds moving over the moon to fill the scene with darkness and then how it reappears to illuminate the dead body. Fabulous, fabulous opening. 

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I don't believe the element of surprise was what Wyler was trying to establish here in the opening scene. I do believe that he wanted to incite a feeling of anticipation by   showing us an eerie, cold, full moon. Instead, he plays on the audience's general knowledge of urban legends/folklore to establish those feelings. A slowly moving camera pans in closer to the scene to give us a sense of the setting for what is about to happen. The camera shot of the dwelling of the indigenous  people provides us with a glimpse of their living conditions. To have them live so close to the main house is to let us know that they are the workers/servants to the people of this rubber plantation, most obviously noted in how they are spoken to or ordered by Bette Davis to whom they are to notify of the shooting or "accident" as she calls it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The opening of The Letter is a study in contradictions and oppositions: servants and laborers next to owners; poor and rich as we start out. The moon is revealed and hidden, so light comes and goes. Organic jungle quiet is shattered by rapid pistol fire, intense and mechanical, which counterpoints the slow, languorous rhythm of edits and camera work.

 

Surrounded by life, a dead, bullet-riddled body lies on the ground. Amidst all the men we've seen, a lone woman stands over the body--the woman who pulled the trigger, over and over. And this is our unexpected connection to film noir: Bette Davis as a prototypical femme fatale. As played by Davis,  Leslie Crosbie is fiery, sensual, and revealed to be lethally dangerous within The Letter's first three minutes.

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Yet another Daily Dose revisited and yet another question... now that I have a better background on film noir and the censorships and restrictions it was going against, I can say that the opening must have been pretty challenging for the studio to make. This was 1940. Which is the farthest in time we can track a violent scene like this with a woman? 

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Yet another Daily Dose revisited and yet another question... now that I have a better background on film noir and the censorships and restrictions it was going against, I can say that the opening must have been pretty challenging for the studio to make. This was 1940. Which is the farthest in time we can track a violent scene like this with a woman? 

 

Pre-codes (talking films made from 1929 - July 1934),  feature a lot more violence from all genders.   

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