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


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The intro definitely caught me off guard. I was struck by how they played not just with lightning but white and black as well. The fleeing white bird during the gunshot reflects a loss of innocence. The shadows darken the shooters face. Nothing shown seems to be off the cuff. Every decision is deliberate.

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This opening scene is amazingly efficient in that, in less than four minutes, it perfectly sets a tone with the plantation workers resting at night, and then smashes it with one shot that startles everyone, the characters in the film and the audience. Then another five shots are fired and the victim is in full view at on the ground. Bette Davis's character is almost indignant at the moon for suddenly shedding so much light on what she has done. Wonderful.

 

Dying to see more! This is the first time I've stopped to smell the flowers as far as film noir ir concerned, and I can say that I am totally hooked to the genre so far...

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I felt it chilling that Bette Davis just shot her husband and is for the most part totally calm. The other thing that surprised me, is she seems to be in total control of the workers. Nobody tries to apprehend her, but take her orders instead. I have not seen this movie in a long time, but looking at this opening scene with new eyes, it has hooked me and I want to know why she killed her husband and why she seems to be getting away with the crime. The cinematography is great and gives you a sense of calm and then the storm hits when the first bullet is fired, then doesn't let up as she shots him multiple times to make sure she got the job done. Very intense!

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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.

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To me the most "shocking" element was who did the shooting.  In the 1940s especially, but even today, movie-goers would be much more likely to view any of the Asian characters as potential villains...certainly as opposed to a blonde-haired woman.  Hollywood was not very keen on female murderers at that time.  This sequence, therefore, challenged the more expected portrayal of "villains". 

 

In addition, I think what this sequence does is almost mocks traditional movie openings at the time by luring us in with what initially looks like a more traditional "peaceful" setting.  And then very abruptly, with the gun shot, changes our entire perspective.

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Wow! Talk about a femme fatale. One of the pillars of noir is firmly established here, not to mention the magnificent mood set by the lighting and the interplay with the moon. I was not particularly surprised because the set up in the e-mail had me expecting something shocking. Looking forward to getting the back story on the event.

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Starting with the loud, constant dripping into the bucket we are reminded of Chinese water torture.  The long continuous shot.  We are in it.  No looking away.  Peeled bark on the tree looks like flayed skin. Just the word plantation invokes thoughts of cruelty and torture.

 

The white bird (peace) flies off when a gun shot is heard. The dogs bark. The workers stir. The music is ominous.

 

We see the woman in a house dress, fire repeatedly into the man until her revolver is empty. She is stone faced the whole time.  

 

She even has contempt for the moon when it dares to shine on her crime. 

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Well first of all you know what it means to work on a plantation and just seeing the workers all sleeping in their hammocks you know that they put in a hard day's work.  I love you at first you don't see anything but just hear the gunshots and see everyone's reactions to those shots.  And of course what can be said for Bette Davis other than that she is Bette Davis.

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Beyond basic aesthetics (moonlight, slow-moving, gymnastic cameras) and the startle-centric sound design, I think the Mrs. Hammond character's handling of the killing is what can best be handled as fundamentally noir

 

Like a lot of you have mentioned above, the killing is handled deliberately, calmly, with total lack of passion. Mrs. Hammond is visibly more startled by a brief change in moonlight than she is with the grizzly sight of her dead husband. Noir treats killings, death, as the basic, inescapable work place hazard of modernity. Additionally, the empty gun is left untouched on the porch. Her instructions to treat the killing as "an accident" are obeyed unquestioningly. I don't find this to be a racially-charged power paradigm, I think it reveals the honest assessment of the scene on the part of the workers below their surface-level, play shock. They, too, are well aware of the violent, absurd world in which they live. Really, in such a world, how can it matter how he died or why he died?  

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Very effective opening scene. Feels like this would still be shocking today. Love the way the moon comes out from behind the clouds and almost puts a spotlight on the woman and the dead man bringing the violent act into the harsh light. The scene really pulls you into the action without much warning placing the viewer off balance and on guard. The essence of a noir setup.

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I don't know if being surprised is something I felt when watching this opening scene. We have grown accustomed to being placed in the middle of a mystery from the opening scene and then be forced to piece together the moments leading up to this sudden moment. Playing around with how to tell a story is something we know of. However, it is still a little jarring to open up a movie with someone we know nothing about getting killed in a cruel manner as in this scene. The camera moves deliberately across the grounds and then BAM we get gunshots. It is startling but not surprising given that we know going in that film noir is a dark genre of film.

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Given that it is film noir we are studying, I cannot say I was necessarily surprised by the opening scene in The Letter  as I had to presume that something was going to happen to establish a starting point for the story but, looking at it from an analytical perspective, I will say that the way in which the camera slowly panned throughout the grounds, and the peaceful aspect of it being night time, and everyone is at rest, enhanced the dramatic effect of the intrusion of gunshots. The fact that it is clearly Bette Davis' character doing the shooting, and that the act is literally underscored by the full moon peeking out of the clouds and placing her under its spotlight, is, I think, a classic case of there being more than meets the eye, in this story; and with this, comes the natural inclination to sit up and pay attention to the story that is to come, to find out why she did this.

 

In terms of contribution to film noir style, the opening of The Letter serves more as a restatement of an approach already established and often used (but not always), up until that point, which is to gently guide the viewer into the story by way of a visually unthreatening or even benign opening, followed by an act that is unexpected or shocking, and which leads use to ask: what's this all about?


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Opening scene…  The slow panning of the camera belies what comes next; night-time, tropical locale, nothing stirring.  Then, as if to reduce our intrigue, our vantage opens further to the entry way to the main plantation home.  We are able to relax just a bit as if we are soon to be privy to an after-dinner conversation.  Thankfully, nothing that boring l is in the offing.  Rather a man staggers out of the entry way followed by Bette Davis who has obviously shot the man and now continues to do so.  Bette Davis doesn’t simply shoot her assailant then run off in some school girl tizzy.  No she’s committed to his demise, her eyes fiery in near derangement.  She’s ticked!!  And once he’s down our tortured temptress continues shooting her lover in near execution style.  After a bit of composure, Davis defiantly places herself as victim daring anyone to consider the circumstances otherwise.  As an aside, I think this particular projection from Bette Davis is the main gear in her acting wheel-house and speculate this persona is a reflection of her real fiery self.  Essentially, I view this as her trademark. 

Of course, the film would not be noir if there weren’t a twist or two and this film certainly has its share.  Unlike ‘La Bete Humaine’ this intro moves smoothly to the opening shooting scene, whereas, the former built viewer imbalance through a juxtaposing of scene intensity; near frenetic versus the ordinary.  Interesting to note is the climax of each; the shooting versus the train arriving at the station.  The latter is anti-climactic relatively and I think this may be the take away from the week’s selection.  Noir isn’t a formula for directors to follow, but as with many situations if life, a guideline or reference with which to play.  Not all Noir is the same as a vehicle just as not all cars look alike.  Yet, all noir, seemingly, affords us mystery, intrigue, desire, and even morality, at times.  While these are perhaps the banal elements of Noir we are fortunate to enjoy the Noir canvas (no pun intended) on which many paintings have been made… and thankfully so. 

This begs a larger question though.  Where has film Noir gone?  Did our collective interests as movie goers change?  Did technology change eroding a Noir fundamental?  Did the typical age of movie goers change such that Noir no longer held its calling card?  Likely, in post-war America all the above had apart along with a few other considerations.  In all I hope the answer is more complex than ‘simply the influence of Walt Disney.’   

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The really surprising thing is that the murder takes place at the beginning of the movie, is shown in vivid detail, and the calmness with which she deals with it.  It seems that women were rarely depicted in such graphic nature.  She becomes the equal of men in being able to commit acts of violence or murder.

 

I love that the moon vanished for a few seconds as if to blot out the evil deed only to come back stronger and really shine a light on what happened.  This also seems to bring her back to reality and she starts planning accordingly to get rid of the evidence.

 

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The first thing you see are the rubber trees dripping their life fluids or blood, then the workers that collect it, after a hard day of work, playing games or sleeping in crowded conditions. Then the peace is shattered by gunfire, a man stumbles out of the door. The shooter follows and fires until the gun is empty. The clouds cover the bright moon for a short time, then recede and full light is shined on the murder she committed. Which she later calls an accident when sending for help. As she gives orders as to who must be sent for she never faces the people gathered behind her, she keeps her back to them as if they are beneath her. The light and dark themes are used extensively in this opening, setting the stage for what was to come in the next few years. In "B" films, often it was a budget issue but this was not a "B" picture. I feel it was used as an allegory for good and evil.

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I've seen the letter several times.  The first time I saw it, I was shocked at the opening scene, when Mrs. Crosbie repeatedly shoots and kills this man: first, the use of light and darkness, and the people sleeping, and the quiet night, once again pulls you into a sense of false security, and then the gun shots, secondly; the clouds passing in front of the full moon covering up and then revealing the crime and the look on Mrs. Crosbies's face, her whole demeanor, revealed to me that there was more to this than just self defense; this woman had a motive....

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


 


very much so! 


the scene started out so calmly, until the shots rang out and the cockatoo flapped it wings in panic.


the look on Bette Davis' face shows no remorse or emotion whatsoever, and this is a trademark of many of her onscreen appearances. the workers know something is up, even though they try to pretend as if it was an accident (just as Davis' character says so). a shocking murder usually doesn't happen so quickly in a film (though there are other instances, such as Scream (1996) where Drew Barrymore's characters is killed in the first 10 minutes of the movie). 


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The calmness of a night in Singapore, dripping rubber trees, worker's dwelling with sleeping workers, hot workers, workers playing music and relaxing. Then we see a house and veranda, well-kept, shuttered windows and then BAM! A gun shot that comes from the house and a man staggers out followed by a woman INTENT on shooting him again - 5 more times and she's still pulling the trigger. Geez, that man must have really **** her off! What DID he do to her? I love how the clouds and moon were used in this scene - a worker looks up when clouds roll in front of the moon creating a dark cover, then the clouds part to illuminate the dead man and the murderess who looks up at the moon as if to say "turn that light off!" The way this movie begins could also be the stunning ending of a movie. BTW: one of my all-time favorite B.D. movies :)

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wow


a great opening. Love the slow camera work. Letting the viewer take in the setting, the surroundings, before hitting us with a murder right away, with the killer standing right in front of us.


Symbolism, and darkness, and breaking traditional film themes, and styles is what Film Noir has to offer. The Letter offers this up to us in the first 3:20 of screen time. With emphasis on the full moon going behind a cloud, and spreading darkness over the face of one of the crew on the plantation, and therefore throughout the whole area. And then the moon appears again from behind the cloud to show the murderer standing over her shadow as well as her victim. 


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In the beginnings of both M and Dark Passage the killers' identities elude us. Whereas the killer in M is introduced merely as a shadow the quick jump of POV in Dark Passage allows us to become the killer. Save for a brief shot from behind and the radio description we don't know what he looks like but we are already wearing his shoes, thinking his thoughts, and especially feeling his emotions. The anxiety and fear are palpable. We have no choice but to hope that he escapes. Whether or not he IS in fact a killer as the news bulletin alleges remains to be discovered but as an escaped convict the POV has made us become the criminal.

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First of all I am a huge Bette Davis fan and when I first viewed this film, the opening sequence was unexpected.  I also like how moonlight is the only light the illuminates the scene and how the shadows fall over the characters as the clouds cover the moon for a brief amount of time.  The viewer does not know who the victim was or the reason behind the murder.  What the viewer does know is that the character portrayed by Bette Davis appears very calm. 

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The opening of The Letter wastes no time in introducing the plot. After showing the viewers the peaceful-looking rubber plantation, and the workers going to sleep, a gunshot rings out, introducing the inciting incident, or "when suddenly" moment just a few minutes in.

 

Already, a man has been murdered in front of scores of witnesses. It leaves the audience questioning why she would do such a thing, which is exactly the driving question of the movie. The opening of The Letter is a brilliant and succinct way of beginning the action and drawing the audience into the plot.

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Leslie Crosbie is one of the 6 best Davis roles.   I've seen the film a number of times over the years simply to revel in her great performance.  Thinking of it in terms of noir makes me notice first the small rubber bucket spilling over which hints at the violent explosive action to happen shortly.  The larger slowly filling bucket represents the wronged native woman whose resentment and resolve to exact vengeance is slowly building in great volume.  This hints at the inevitable punishment theme in noir.   The langorous heat and sweat symbolize the lust that drives Leslie to commit the murder.   And....the brilliant moon appears as if to let everyone know that the widow knows the truth and will judge and punish.

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