BeachGaBulldog

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

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Besides the things other have noted -- the slow drip of the rubber, the oppressive heat, the shadow passing over the moon, the juxtaposition of wild jungle and "civilization," Davis's passionless emptying of the revolver into the victim -- I noted the slow push-in of the camera after the murder, giving viewers a moment to think, as they get closer to those big, cold eyes ... what's going on behind them?

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Though I am not a fan of Bette Davis, I must admit that she is perfect for her role in this movie. I loved how the opening seems peaceful and then, all of a sudden, Miss Davis comes out shooting some man, causing so many questions to run through the viewer's mind. "Who is he?" "Why did she shoot him?" "Why did she say it was an accident?" The shadows and the camera angles give this scene the film noir characteristics and add to the suspense of the mystery.

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The intro is very lazy going as it pans to take in the scenery and the workers who are resting after the day's chores. I like the way the filmmaker brought you into a comfortable arena and then punctuated the scene with a fierce intrusion that changed the whole landscape of the movie. Bette Davis is the perfect person to make this happen since she can show deeper psychological tension and the conflicts going on beneath the surface of her actions. This was a great way of grabbing a viewer's attention and draw you into the story line very quickly. As usual, a movie like this, in the film noir vein, lets us know that a very complex situation is underfoot and you are more than happy to stay around to see how it all turns out, especially where in other films such action is done somewhere later in the film.

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I'd be hard pressed to find someone looking as glamorous as Bette Davis while committing murder. I have this film on DVD. More so than the other two opening sequences thus far, I feel this is noir - the play of shadows and light, the music cues. I love the reaction shots of the workers to the sounds of the gunshots.

 

Knowing the film from previous viewings, it occurs to me this could easily be seen as the start of ACT II after intermission - we have come into the story in the middle and all the set up happened off stage, earlier. I like that slice of life, dropped into the middle of the action 'and away we go' element of the beginning.

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Replying before reading any of the other posts, though I'm sure most of my observations wil have been stated elsewhere.

 

This to me is almost the quintessential noir opening. A quiet night interrupted by a gunshot which startles a bird perching nearby. Another shot, which awakens the dogs. More shots, and finally the humans take notice, rushing towards the sound in a crowd. A man stumbling out of a doorway, a woman following after, firing more shots, cool and steady. The Letter drops us into the end of the story with no context. We'll just have to trust that the movie will explain whats going on.

 

Out of bullets, Bette Davis drops the gun, and stares at the body before her. She's still in control of her outward emotions, but it seems now she's feeling shock, disbelief. She looks ill. The moon goes behind a cloud plunging everything into darkness, and when it returns Bette reacts as if she's been put under a spotlight. She starts, turns towards the moon in brief confusion. The crowd arrives and she backs away from the body, her hand extended so that her shadow gives the appearance of caressing the dead man, like a lover.

 

The first man on the scene says the dead man's name in shock. This is someone they all knew. Davis calls him inside, gives him instructions to bring officials, authority figures. She'll tell them, and us, the story. I'm sure she had her reasons for the crime, but for now she's trapped, scared, caught and guilty.

I'm waiting for this one to arrive at the library, which should happen this week. Really looking forward to it.

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The long crane shot that starts everything off gives us good information on the location and cultural setting of the film.

I wonder about the role of the moon, besides giving us amazing black and white cinematography.

 

 

 

The moon is almost a searchlight. It plunges things into darkness right after the murder, then returns almost as if it's shining only on Bette Davis. She reacts that way as well, turning towards it in fear.

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One ongoing motif in Film Noir is the juxtaposition of the "exotic" to the morals/character/expectations of the prevailing white, Western, bourgeois society.  The opening here establishes that clash immediately.  Other examples would include Border Incident, Shanghai Gesture, Devil's Doorway, and House of Bamboo.

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I have seen The Letter, many times.. and after seeing "M" for the first time, it seems in sharp contrast.  "M" creates tension and suspense right from the beginning.  In contrast the peaceful and sensual contrast in the opening scene of the Letter pulls the viewing in a more relaxed direction until the the Gun Shots..

 

What is brilliant and most disturbing and probably for the the very first viewers of the "The Letter" in 41 was Bette Davis' absolutely cool behavior after the murder. Noir often has cool, guiltless cold-blooded murder.  Bette Davis's cool behavior is indeed disturbing

 

The subtle lighting of the clouds rolling over the moon and blocking the murder represents the evil committed. The subservience of the workers is also rather predictable but disturbing to me.  The workers are programmed to just follow orders.  A murder is committed and they all just act to Miss Davis' wishes.  No one detains her, no one questions her.  The murder is so cool, efficient.   

 

This commentary of "we all blindly follow the one in power.. or that murder and mayhem can happen.. and there is no use. it's fate becomes a prevalent theme in noir..  I'm reminding of the children in Night of the Hunter that run to the old man for help.. and he KNOWS of their mother's murder.. and does nothing.   

 

The opening exotic calmness makes the murder that more intriguing.   It should be noted that exoticism often shows up in noir..  Lady from Shanghai, and other noirs set in exotic locations.  Exoticism can serve as a sharp and intriguing contrast to the stark reality of noir plots.  I have the dvd of The Letter and will rewatch later today.  

 

Also disturbing is the many shots into the victim.. I believe this is one of the first movies where the viewer see the cold blooded shots..  Though there are many earlier movies with murder.. I believe this is one of the first where a murder has center screen with that many shots into the victim.   Again either way it  is "cold-blooded" with no conscious. 

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Wow! What an awesome opening scene. The camera moving capturing the peacefulness of a night on a rubber plantation then gunfire and the camera gets closer to Bette Davis' character with a gun shooting a man whose face we cannot see. This is a wonderful precursor to film noir films. The camera movements, darkness, femme fatale type character of Bette Davis, murder and piecing together what led to the murder make this film a good example of film noir style.

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The moon is almost a searchlight. It plunges things into darkness right after the murder, then returns almost as if it's shining only on Bette Davis. She reacts that way as well, turning towards it in fear.

I had a similar thought - Leslie doesn't seem to be aware of anything outside of herself until the moon comes back out from under the clouds - then, it's as it she realized "someone up there" is watching and she feels fear.

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The Bette Davis character seems to have been apart in some way from the whole scene - not just the difference in class between her and the workers, but she doesn't seem to really be present - both before and after the shooting. That continues inside, when her right hand stays open, as it was when she dropped the gun.

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Great opening scene. It's another night and the workers are relaxing after a long day. It's a full moon and it's quiet until the first gunshot. It jumps right in. You don't hear an argument or the victim pleading for his life, just the gunshot. The lack of emotion on Betty Davis' face when she empties the gun into the man is a bit creepy. Her reaction when the moon comes back out shows that she feels something, but it's not guilt. Her "matter of fact" way of instructing the foreman to call the police and to get the plantation owner shows a cold, calculating, possibly disturbed person.

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I have never seen this film before, but from just watching the opening scene I'm dying to see the rest. There is a very n oir attitude towards the "civilized" world contrasting the peace and tranquility of remote Singapore with the violence of modern society. She's enveloped in darkness, at once reflecting the darkness of the deed she has committed and cloaking her from the others. This cloak is lifted when the moon escapes cloud cover shining a spotlight on her and her sin.  

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Were you surprised by what happens in the opening scene of The Letter? Of course I was surprised by what occurred in this scene.  I have always believed that setting the tone of the story in a shocking way is a sure fire way to set the tone for what is to come as the movie unfolds before you.  


 


This is an important contribution to the film noir style by allowing us a quick snapshot of the archetype we are familiar with in a shocking way as the first scene.  This scene sets us onto the path of wondering what is to come, what is the back story of this woman and the man she killed in what "seems" to be cold blood without a care of discovery. 


 


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True noir opening. What separates this opening from the others that we have viewed is that death is not cloaked by words or unseen actions that have already happened in the backstory, but rather, it opens the film. More importantly, it is the fact that a crime opens the film is what all around makes it fall into the category of film noir.

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One thing that struck me, Apart from all the excellent comments already, was the stark contrast between the workers and the big house. To start with you see them all in the one simple building, with few (if any) luxuries, then the contrast to the wealthy house and fine clothes of the people that own the plantation. Then the murder, we don't know why, but something is wrong in rich land. Maybe their life isn't all roses after all. The workers although poor, seemed content, if not happy, with their simple life. Nothing to trouble them, but where their next meal is coming from.

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Great opening scene. It's another night and the workers are relaxing after a long day. It's a full moon and it's quiet until the first gunshot. It jumps right in. You don't hear an argument or the victim pleading for his life, just the gunshot. The lack of emotion on Betty Davis' face when she empties the gun into the man is a bit creepy. Her reaction when the moon comes back out shows that she feels something, but it's not guilt. Her "matter of fact" way of instructing the foreman to call the police and to get the plantation owner shows a cold, calculating, possibly disturbed person.

That was a brutal premeditated killing no doubt Film Noir style.

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I knew nothing of "The Letter" before seeing this clip. It's a very powerful opener, in so many ways. The long, slow dolly shots, lit by moonlight, slipping into and out of shadow. It feels somewhat slow and peaceful, but there are a couple of things that create tension. The drip-drip-drip of the rubber sap. The music, plaintive and a bit sad. We're waiting, wondering what the camera is going to reveal as it glides slowly across the scene. The gunshot is a shock, both to us and the cockatoo on the fence. We watch Bette Davis (who does indeed, have "Bette Davis Eyes") very deliberately murder that man. She's calm and careful, making sure to empty the gun. If it held more bullets, she would have used them. She wants to be sure he's dead, it wasn't enough to disable him as if she were only defending herself. As we zoom in, her face remains in shadow, dark. Showing no emotion. The light flickers across the scene as the moon fades into and out of clouds. We share the stunned reactions of the plantation workers. 

 

Her calculating, cold intentions, and her power, are revealed further when she tells the foreman to contact the authorities and someone that might be the dead guy's partner, to explain "that there's been an accident". It was obviously not an accident. Which leaves us wondering "is she going to get away with this?" 

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The opening scene is classic Bette Davis! The way she continues to pull the trigger even after all six shots have been emptied into the body of her lover is what "film noir" is all about!

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WE are all of us lulled to sleep by the slow ease moving of the camera, (many of us, dare I say are in one of those hammocks,) napping, waiting; clouds cover the moon; evil portends. Has there been an accident? Bet Davis is already spinning HER narrative. Excellent noir beginning; a woman scorned, or betrayed, or crossed, or just plain murderous. The story will tell.

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Perhaps it is the noir style to not care for the kind femme fatale character to which Bette Davis is so clearly a precursor here.  However, the precision of Wyler's shots (along with the starkness of his artistic choices) and Bette Davis' inimitable vulnerability as an actress ignited a feeling of sympathy for what I assumed to be "The Letter's" heroine.  If I were to assume the remainder of the story, I'd say that it comes out that the man of the plantation was due for revenge from his wife.  

 

I worried that the plantation's workers would overrun the scene and turn on their employer after witnessing this murder.  I felt for Davis' character as she was stunned back into feeling by the stark, spotlight-like moon.  In short, my instant sympathy for this character in tandem with William Wyler's skilled precision only makes me more than eager to watch "The Letter" in its entirety.  If this is a precursor to film noir openings, I can't wait to see into what these openings eventually evolved.

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In this example of proto-film noir, I see two big elements of plot and character development that must have been stylistic shifts in this era of Hollywood filmmaking:

 

1. Opening with a murder. After the setting is briefly established, we immediately see Bette Davis shooting a man (presumably her lover-- not her husband as others have stated). I haven't seen the whole film, so I don't know if the backstory is told through flashback or other means. However, regardless, an opening like this is a more sophisticated storytelling device than simply "beginning at the beginning."

 

2. The femme fatale. As others have commented, Bette Davis' character is clearly no angel. After the murder, there is an amazing moment when the moon peeks through the clouds and the moonlight momentarily becomes very bright. Bette Davis lifts her hand off the banister and slowly pulls away from the body of the dead man. The moonlight casts a shadow that makes her outstretched fingers look like claws, much like a vampire in an old horror film. In this moment, the director is characterising this woman as a "vamp." 

 

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There are other moments of light and shadow, camera angles, etc. that prefigure film noir aesthetics, but these seem like two major advances towards the conventions of the genre itself.

post-47704-0-55324900-1433341537_thumb.jpg

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Typical day at the rubber plantation with the workers relaxing kicking back, a little music the animals doing their thing then BLAM! The action picks up, everybody startled as a man staggers out to the patio shot mercilessly by a woman. Pistol in hand she empties the rest in dude who becomes dead. Symbolism of the the moon clouding over then appearing sheds light on the true nature of the event as lady calmly orders the subordinates to her bidding. Classic noir opening.

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