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


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Oh Bette Davis, one of the greatest ever! I must say I was surprised by the opening of The Letter, but I wasn't surprised by who was pulling the trigger! After all, we are watching Ms. Bette Davis. She embodies every character she portrays with unshakable, raw ability.

 

The film opens on area of workers all preparing to turn in for the night as the moon shines high in the sky. Everything seems peaceful and quiet as the camera glides carelessly throughout the grounds, when all of the sudden animals and workers are startled by the sounds of gunshots. A man opens the front door and stumbles out clutching his body in agony. We then are introduced to the calm and collected shooter, Leslie (Davis). After emptying the barrel on Mr. Hammond, the camera moves slowly into Leslie furthermore revealing her stoic manner and wicked glare. The moon quickly shrinks behind the clouds and darkness falls upon the workers and Leslie. The clouds part again with the moon shining brightly, and Leslie's threatening shadow engulfs the now deceased Mr. Hammond. Her shadow looms over, hovering steadily. She is The Femme Fatale. And she is to be feared.

Leslie slinks away, and music of a threatening tone with the implication of impending doom takes over. Leslie quickly gives instruction to the workers on what must be done. Needless to say, she is The Boss.

The Letter is classic film noir, and it wastes no time in presenting a prime element of its genre: The Femme Fatale. She commands this scene with ease with no one questioning the crime she has just committed. The shadows, the music, the dark/light contrast all bleed film noir. And Bette Davis as The Femme Fatale is a lone appeal capable of captivating anyone.

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A classic Bette Davis all the way and frankly I was surprised to see this one on the noir list as we all know that our favorite "femme fatale" will soon walk us into some kind of romantic drama.

 

We cannot ignore the contribution this particular opening scene makes to the overall world of noir no matter how we feel the overall film fits into the classics world.....my opinion.  The opening scene is certainly one of a peaceful and quiet evening after a hard day's work.  This like La Bete Humaine depicts regular guys involved in their own daily lives expecting nothing more than a normal night.

 

The shot rings out and breaks the quiet of the night.  The first shot of the full moon doesn't convey any dread, the second shot of the moon begins to act as an eye witnessing what is happening.  The third shot after Davis looks up, is most definitely a "witness" to what she has done.  She tells her foreman that there has been an "accident", in reality there were five "accidents" and at the closing, we know we are about to view a story that will lead up to this shooting.  This technique was used in one of my absolute favorite noirs "D.O.A." with Edmond O'Brien.

 

This "backward sequence" in movies is always interesting to me because that unexpected action i.e. a shooting ringing out over a quiet night or the declaration that there has been a homicide.....mine, is such an attention grabber and the viewer is immediately drawn, wanting to get the story.  The audience becomes the detective at this point and the hunt for the truth begins.  It is an excellent storytelling tool and quite effective for drawing in moviegoers and getting them involved in the action right away.

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I've seen this movie once before, but it's fun to watch each and every time.  I'm looking forward to watching it again when it airs on TCM.

 

In the beginning of the film, we see the plantation hands all settled in their bunks for the evening.  There is a stillness in both the workers and the outside--no wind, no rain, nothing.  Everything is very static.  The full moon is out which brightens up the screen and lends to the calmness of the scene--nothing bad is going to happen tonight, right? Well, in my experience watching movies, full moons often bring out the worst types of creatures and events-- many horror movies feature full moons.  All of a sudden, a gunshot is heard.  Then another.  Then another.  Suddenly Bette Davis comes out of the house emptying the chamber of the gun into her victim.  Davis' face is emotionless--which lends to the feeling of noir.  At this point, she's a stone cold killer.  She has no feelings for her victim.  The plantation workers' faces echo what the audience is thinking.  They're scared and confused--especially after seeing the victim is Mr. Hammond, a well known figure in their community.  Davis calmly sends her employee to locate her husband and bring him back to their estate.  Davis' lack of remorse for her actions indicates one of two things, either: 1) She is a murderer, plain and simple; or 2) The victim did something to Davis that justifies her killing him.  Perhaps he attacked her and she killed him in self defense? We don't know.

 

On this viewing, I wasn't surprised because I'd seen the film before, but in my first viewing, it was surprising because the film starts with a calm, quiet ambiance.  Having the tranquility of the scene suddenly interrupted by loud gunshots definitely caught me off guard.  I would say that this film is important to the noir style as it introduces the femme fatale right way and immediately sets up the conflict.  The brief shots of the moon were also very important.  When Davis shoots the man, she shoots him in the glow of the full moon.  After the deed is done, the clouds move in front of the moon, which casts a shadow on Davis.  This could be foreshadowing that there's more to Davis' actions than meets the eye.  Perhaps she really is the villain in this film.  When the clouds move back away from the moon, Davis' face glows again-- is this indicative that perhaps the homicide was justified and Davis is innocent? 

 

This film is a remake of an early talkie movie from 1929, which was based on a play by the same name.  I'm not sure though if the 1929 version is an early noir, or whether it was a straight drama and then turned into a more "noir-ish" film when it was remade with Bette Davis in 1940.

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I love how the movie literally starts with a bang. In this case a murder happens and things kickstart into high gear. 

I like the gunshots and how they distract the viewer form some of the main things happening. There's a murder committed brazenly in front of murderers. Second, Davis is a master of manipulation, particularly without having to use any words. Her body language speaks volumes.

I think it is interesting that the murderer is in the foreground of the action and those who witness the murder are at the center front of the film. I also like that even when filming on a dark outside set Wyler is still able to capitalize on the use of shadows and lights to create a filmed texture.

so far we have seen 3 very distinctive films from three completely different filmmakers. yet despite all the nuances there are lots of similarities in style and presentation.

For starters each film has we've seen an uneasiness about them. This unease seems to get larger and larger as we move from film to film. In tis regard we can see Noir being affected by its predecessors while also adapting and evolving as a style.

I also think that the notion of guilt and shame at the start of The Letter is a trait that would be used again later with greater effect. Oftentimes in noir we see the killer holding or letting go of gun. At this point we then get a close shot of the culprit with a sheer look of horror, evil or disbelief on their face.

Another interesting thing here is that we see a woman in a position of strength in that she is capable of murder. gone are the delicate house wives and demure flowers of films past. I think that The letter ushers in an interesting transition in how women ar employed in film.

the use of sound is again a big part of this scene. it's quiet, then it gets very loud and there's a sense of disorientation. this is also a characteristic hat would later turn up again in noir films.

I am excited to see this film and I think its tropical setting will also be something that is returned to later in other noir films. 

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The 1st time I saw "The Letter" the opening completely caught me off guard.  I'm sure the director purposely orchestrated the calm lazy tropical scene to put the audience in an equally laid back mode to contrast the upcoming, shattering sound of gunfire.  With the film audience now fully alerted along with the rest of the plantation, we see a figure obviously mortally wounded staggering out the front door. So this is not the peaceful tropical paradise we thought.  But wait, there's another shot, and another...until the cylinder is empty.  The Betty Davis character is stoned faced after a vicious killing yet I think most of us thought there must be a reason this victim had it coming to him!  And for most of the rest of the movie we are trying to piece together how and why this happened.  That opening scene is the hook that forces us to figure out the plot and the players.  Like most of the characters in the film we try to make sense of it all but in true Noir form, it's not so easy.     

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I think the opening scene of "The Letter" is fantastic. The earliest part of the scene depicts nothing too thrilling -- all is calm. Then suddenly, the quietness and serenity of the night are disrupted by shotguns. I loved the use of the lighting coming from the moon. There was an instant where the moonlight peaks through the clouds and shines on Bette Davis. Something about her face almost appears to portray that her actions or judgment were (literally) clouded. I was surprised to see this Noir with a setting in Singapore, a location that is typically not related to films of this type.

 

A good point. There aren't many or any (?) film noirs set in Singapore.

 

Do all film noirs have to immediately draw in the viewer? The opening here is a shocker leaving you begging for answers to what just happened and why. Is this a characteristic of this genre because the opening of the train engineers was similar. The lack of dialogue leaves you watching them intently as they handle the train. This openings also leaves you wondering. The lack of yelling or noise before the gunshots means you don't know what happened or why. Was he a villain or a saint? Is Ms Davis the heroine or the criminal?

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William Wyler, whose other great films (Wuthering Heights, Roman Holiday) don't really showcase an eye for hard boiled noir, certainly does a number on this amazing scene. Similar to M, it's very clear that something is wrong amidst the calm of the warm tropical night, and we confirm this even sooner then in Fritz Lang's morbid classic. The winding camerawork and lulling nighttime sounds are expertly placed to create the illusion of peace, but all that goes right to hell as soon as Bette Davis waltzes out of the beach house with a firing pistol and a glare to match.

 

It's a fantastic scene, I'm just going to get that out the way now. It's the kind of bold opener that gives you goosebumps and makes us all excited to be taking this course - but with that being said, I'm not completely sold on the idea that this film is completely noir. It's got strong elements, particularly in this scene, but given it's time of release and the melodramatic aspects that tend to follow Bette Davis and her eyes through most of her roles, it's definitely something I'll still have to be sold on. We'll see come Friday.

 

On a bit of a side note here, the atmosphere of this opener is very similar to the Val Lewton classic I Walked With A Zombie (1943); whose director Jacques Tourneur would go on to direct the mack daddy of all classical noirs with Out Of The Past (1947). It covers the same tropical environment with a similarly eerie sensibility. Zombie isn't a noir either, but both of these pictures provide elements that would eventually play huge parts in the noir recipe.

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First off, necessary exposition is taken care of swiftly.  We're on a rubber plantation in Malaya (as it was then) somewhere near Singapore.  It is night. There is a full moon moving through heavy clouds (watch out, women go mad at these times).  The camera moves slowly, pausing at a rubber tree and languorously traveling down the trunk following rivulets of latex sliding down long grooves into buckets. There is angelic music; light tinkles and harp arpeggios.  That is soon supplanted with native music being played by rubber workers, whom we see as we slowly pass beside their living quarters in which they eat, cook, prepare for bed, sleep. The camera clears the workers' quarters and a house surrounded by a covered veranda comes into view; there is a cockatoo, no change of pace, there is a gunshot, no change of pace, the bird flies off, the camera doesn't react to the shot.  It's still moving smoothly when Bette Davis appears on the verandah, holding a pistol in her right hand, a man rushes out of the door behind her and, stooping, runs down the stairs to the yard below. Davis, otherwise motionless, lifts her arm and fires again, and again four times until the gun is empty.  There follows a flurry of reaction shots of the workers and other house servants.  Now Max Steiner takes over and tells us how the tension is still building in her.  Music and camera work together to help us feel what is roiling inside her preternaturally deadly calm face and body.  She looks up and behind her at the full moon, then turns her gaze to the dead man lying prone  at the base of the steps.  The moon casts her shadow across his body.  In every shot of her, her right arm and hand are held slightly away from her body, the fingers still in the position they held when she dropped the pistol.   A reverse shot on the steps, a low angle shot of her in the house as the houseman receives her orders, delivered in a firm voice with no music in it - always that arm and hand are angled away form the body.  It is a Wyler movie, no doubt.  I'd forgotten he'd directed it until a frame from The Little Foxes dropped into my head and the similarities came clear to me:  deep focus shots, camera free to wander where it wilt, Lighting that brings everything into 3 dimensions. Beautifully composed shots.  Camera angles as character exposition, etc.  Wonderful and if not fully noir, then more than noirish 

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The dramatic music and the full moon ominously open the scene. The tranquility of the workers is shattered by the sound of a single shot followed by a man stumbling, obviously wounded, out of the house. The character of Bette Davis follows the wounded man out of the house as she empties five more shots into him. She then stares at his lifeless body with a morose expression on her face. The light of the moon is momentarily eclipsed by clouds. It dramatically reappears and Bette stares up at it with eyes as wide as saucers. She then begins giving orders to the workers. She very coldly refers to the death of the man she just killed in (presumably) cold blood as, "an accident." Her stoicism is belied by the fact that she emptied the entire six shooter into him. Why would these men obediently follow her into the house and do her bidding even though they just witnessed her committing a murder? Will she continue to maintain her fabrication of the man's death as being an accident even though there are six holes in him?

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I love the use of both music and moonlight in The Letter. How the drip from tree to pale evolves into music to chatter as the camera pans from left to right and from up down to up. Then we hear the gunshot and the calm stillness changes to a faster pace and a panicked chatter. However, my favourite part of this opening is the use of the moonlight. As Davis shoots the moon is out. Then it conceals her with a passing cloud - as if it is protecting her, shielding her and wanting to keep her hidden. The cloud then vanishes and she is exposed brighter and more visible than before. She is illuminated, even Angelic; bathed in a pure white light that implies innocence and purity. Only we know that she can't be, we have just seen her shoot...

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The ambience in which the The Letter opens is too calm for a film-noir, and yet so heavy for a "regular" drama film. It made me thought of the opening of Citizen Kane: the moonlight and the sign as an invitation to the viewer to enter a "one man's land", the impression of the continuity of the camera's movement to instill in us a specific mood of waiting (in Citizen Kane, this impression is possible thanks to multiple fades/dissolves linking the shots, but in Wyler's film the camera wanders and wanders, and the raccords are almost imperceptible. We are introduced to a moment of complete inactivity in the plantation and yet we "feel" the hotness and the languor of the workers, so intense that we "know" that something will happen (only we don't know what will happen or when exactly, but there's a suspense in the air). It strikes me that when the first shot is heard, the animals react first and more vividly than the human beings. 

Finally, I would like to had my first impression of Bette Davis's character: the way she's introduced and the way she acts made me think of her more as a hard-boiled woman than of a femme fatale: it's rare that the main character of a film-noir is a woman, but her profile fits perfectly in the role. A lot was said about Bette Davis's eyes, and Wyler zooms in his camera to give us a close-up of her face when she shoots the last shot, but what to say about Bette Davis's shadow over the dead man's body? Overwhelming. Pure noir.
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I love the opening to The Letter.  Not until this course, though, had I thought of it as a film noir—or pre-film noir.  All the elements are there:  shadows, low-key lighting, a crime, an apparent femme fatale. However, this scene is carefully crafted to ensure that the audience, from the beginning, is aligned with Leslie Crosby (Davis), not against her.  (I think immediately of W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote the play on which the film is based, and who had a penchant for strong female characters.)  Anyway, because of the way the moonlight shines on her, the way the workers respond to her, and the way she seems to take immediate responsibility for her actions, we understand that, even though she's just unloaded her gun into a man, we're being offered a complex and compelling character, perhaps a character we can respect, even sympathize with.  That, in my mind, is the genius of the scene.

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The dramatic music and the full moon ominously open the scene. The tranquility of the workers is shattered by the sound of a single shot followed by a man stumbling, obviously wounded, out of the house. The character of Bette Davis follows the wounded man out of the house as she empties five more shots into him. She then stares at his lifeless body with a morose expression on her face. The light of the moon is momentarily eclipsed by clouds. It dramatically reappears and Bette stares up at it with eyes as wide as saucers. She then begins giving orders to the workers. She very coldly refers to the death of the man she just killed in (presumably) cold blood as, "an accident." Her stoicism is belied by the fact that she emptied the entire six shooter into him. Why would these men obediently follow her into the house and do her bidding even though they just witnessed her committing a murder? Will she continue to maintain her fabrication of the man's death as being an accident even though there are six holes in him?

I noticed, as well, that in the final scene inside the house, Davis's hand still remains opens in the release pose after drooping the gun. It is as if she cannot use her own instrument of destruction. After committing such a fatal act, she has lost the potency of that limb for the time being. Interestingly enough, her preoccupation throughout the rest of the movie is the personal control she attempts to maintain by the use of her hands creating her lace crochet.

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I noticed that in this opening scene much of the tonal atmosphere relied upon the mid to dark values as it is a pan of a night scene. All at once a white bird flutters away from his perch on a scaffold. As the action proceeds and the sounds of the gun shots pierce this sleepy landscape, the results become clear as the form of the now deceased man lies motionless on the ground. The only part of his body that is illuminated from a cast shadow is a pair of white pants. I have no idea, but the two distinct items of white value might be connected. I have to think about this until Friday. I have seen this movie many times (a fav), but as another member commented, I had not so distinctly concentrated on the visual impact of the opening scene.

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I love Bette Davis!! 

The camera captures her beautifully when it zooms into her face after the final gunshot, and the lighting moves into dark along with it.. Quite a shocking start to a film! As usual, so many questions..

 

I noticed the contrast of  white and dark, the dripping white latex, the bird that flies away with the first gunshot, the workmen all wearing white..  the trousers of the dead man.

The clouds cover the moon making everything dark and once the clouds pass, the body is revealed again and the look of shock, horror, fear upon her face - realizing what she has done... and always the question in my head - Why?

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This felt more like Noir than anything we've seen yet. The director sets up this calm peaceful evening with softness and a gentle laziness to the atmosphere which is shattered by that shot. But what struck me most was that she emptied the gun into him, it felt so cold and stark against the establishing atmospheric shots. But that was the beauty of it. The jolt sucks you in. There was a quiz asking which film you are most excited to see again or for the first time of those that will be aired friday on TCM. And I have to say this one, simply by this sequence, has jumped to the top of my list. 

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If I was not aware that The Letter had been within the sphere of film noir, I would have been more than startled by the first sequence of the film. During the film's exposition, a seemingly peaceful environment is complicated by an unexpected murder. Knowing that the film follows the formulaic norms of the film noir genre, having Bette Davis as a femme fetale who kills her assumed lover had been like clockwork.

 

This is yet another film that I have not been able to see. I look forward to watching the rest of the movie.

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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?


 


I was very surprised by the opening scene.  I felt the pan shot of everyone retiring for the day was to show the day had ended for the workers and then would end up showing a large house.  Instead there was a loud shot and i reacted like everyone else was that a gun shot?


 


I was never aware of The Letter being considered a film noir, but i can see now by the opening scene.


It is very similar to the opening in M.  You seen calm, darkness, then important looks on faces that show anger, sadness, confusion and horror.   Interesting that Betty Davis face never seems to change, so you don't really know what she is feeling.  This scene makes me definitely want to watch the entire film.


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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?

 

I was very surprised by the opening scene.  I felt the pan shot of everyone retiring for the day was to show the day had ended for the workers and then would end up showing a large house.  Instead there was a loud shot and i reacted like everyone else was that a gun shot?

 

I was never aware of The Letter being considered a film noir, but i can see now by the opening scene.

It is very similar to the opening in M.  You seen calm, darkness, then important looks on faces that show anger, sadness, confusion and horror.   Interesting that Betty Davis face never seems to change, so you don't really know what she is feeling.  This scene makes me definitely want to watch the entire film.

 

This echoes almost exactly my own reaction.  I loved how Davis' face is so impassive, except for the moment of surprise when the moon comes out from behind the clouds and illuminates the scene, and she turns her face up, startled, perhaps angry?  Anyway, I agree, can't wait to watch the entire film.

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Yeah, I was surprised. In noir, I don't expect something bad to happen THAT quickly. And Wyler does a good job of starting with a seemingly peaceful tropical scene, then interrupting it with Davis shooting a man in the back several times (I love how she informs the man to tell the police it was an "accident")

 

It's an interesting addition to noir because it shows the underbelly of seemingly privileged people. I haven't seen the film, but Davis clearly seems well off if there are that many servants on the premises.  It's an isolated paradise type setting that evil still creeps into.

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