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


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She didn't murder him, she simply ended his life matter of fact-ly. Good effect with the moon shadow.

 

Well the production code censors believed she murdered him.   This is why they imposed an ending that is different from the book, where she is punished for her crime.    The pre-code version is true to the book.    

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Films are mostly about conflict. There is the status quo which exists at the beginning of the film or prior to when the film starts. In this opening scene, it is a sleepy and humid night on this plantation, evidenced by the slowly dripping fluid from the sugar cane, the swinging hammocks with the sweat-drenched workers, and the slow movement of those talking and playing simple games. There is moonlight, but it does not initially dwell on it, it is not romantic in nature. Next, we see a house, clearly not for the workers. There would not be a film if something did not interrupt this quiet, so I was not personally surprised by this sudden and shocking event, however what shocked me the most was the number of shots. It’s clearly a six-shooter, and she empties all her bullets into that man (we don’t even see his face and the actor is uncredited). She claims self-defense in the film, but after the first shot (maybe the second), it is no longer self-defense. She is outwardly calm but the sheer overkill shows that the emotion was there.

 

Additionally, the use of moonlight was breathtaking but must have been strenuous work. The moonlight highlights the dreamy, sleep quality before the shooting but once the violence occurs, the moon is blocked and darkness falls across the land. However, once the act has happened and the reactions commence (i.e. rushing workers and the killer stepping away and dropping the gun), the moon appears to reveal this act. Unrelated, but timing that the cockatoo flies away at the first gun shot must have taken quite a bit of time.

In the larger context of noir, trends emerge: violence, working class elements, exotic locales (but not in a glamorous way), exploitation, and morally gray female characters. For people who first saw it, seeing a woman on the screens in a time when the Production Code was strictly enforced doing such calm and calculated violence must have been stunning. Noir has complicated male and female characters who act out primal emotions but are also smart and quick, able to cover their tracks and put on a facade. Leslie Crosbie is one of those femme fatales.

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A glide through the plantation from our world into theirs ...why the so much lingering over the dripping sap? ...and then shots are heard and at the top of the stairs there is Bette Davis, the reason we have paid our hard earned money to be here.After the shots she holds the moment for 15 seconds ...a very long screen time. This must be important. But who is she? Is she a bad girl, a gun moll, or was she defending herself? Ms Davis for once is a cipher. And what about that moon that comes and goes?And so many men here. Are there no women in Singapore? Not even servants? Well, it's contrivance, all of it, but I've come to see Bette, so let's move on...

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This film wastes no time getting started.  The violent murder is thrust right at the viewer set up beautifully against the background of the sleepy quiet tropical night, only interrupted by the slow cadence of sap dripping from the rubber tree, just before the shattering sounds of gunshots.  The violence is emphasized by the dove frightened from its perch an the stunned looks of the awakened workers.  Dramatic devices are used to further highlight the act, the porch becomes a stage and the steps heighten the fall of the dying man, and of course, the timely appearance of the full moon spotlight on the body and the face of the murderer.  So many contrasts draw a picture that something has gone terribly wrong in the otherwise peaceful workaday existence on this plantation.

 

This is one of my favorite movies.  I still marvel at Ms. Davis' brilliant performance and Maugham's gorgeous dark tale.  Wyler hits all the right spots in this cinema masterpiece.

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I was not as much surprised by the gunshot (because I knew it was coming at some point) as jarred by it. The opening goes from busy (playing cards) to restlessness (someone is trying to get comfortable in their hammock) to a peaceful moon lit evening with the men sleeping. Then BAM! This film clip does not start out as foreboding like the other 2 so far but just shocks you into it. Then as the moon is darkened by the clouds and reappears, it is almost peaceful again with Bette Davis's character matter of factly giving directions as if she were telling the cook what she would like served at her next dinner party.

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Watched my DVD of The Letter many times, a great Bette favourite. I especially like the recurring motif throughout the movie of the moon disappearing behind the clouds (hiding Leslie Crosbie's guilt and deception?) then re-emerging to her wide eyed surprise and shock (has she been discovered?). The slowly languorous camera work at the start is very effective, with the tired workers resting, giving a feel of the enervating heat of the tropical setting and lulling the viewer into a false sense of security.

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To answer the two discussion questions:

Yes I was surprised by what happens although the slow tracking establishing shot usually means something unexpected is on the horizon (the slow tracking shot into Jack Wolz's bedroom in THE GODFATHER for instance). We know right off the bat who did the killing; its the why that will be revealed.

What this opening contributes to the noir style is the staple of the femme fatale.

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A slight detour from reactions that others had to the opening of The Letter, though I had similar thoughts too.

 

One thing that stood out for me was the 3-dimensional quality achieved by the way the opening shot was composed and lit:  That darkly lit objects in the forground partially hid the more important aspects of the shot going on in the background.  That the shot was composed with a good deal of depth.  The skillful use of darkness, shadows, and small areas of light.  I've noticed this in many other black and white 1940's films, and wonder how and when these innovations in cinematography developed.  Too bad they became more rare as color films and flat documentary style lighting became prominant in the late 40's and 50's.

 

Another thing that stood out for me was the very subservient, powerless reaction of the non-white planation workers to the white woman's action.  No one dared approach her, or her victim, take the gun from her, see if they might aid the victim.  The racism and extreme differences in social status and power were a given in the film's era, but still irk me.

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Just saw the full movie (The Letter) and what a powerful performance by Bette Davis. I was really struck by the colonial way of life, but all that gets turned on its head before the movie is done. The moon, in particular, was a very interesting motif woven throughout the story. It was lovely, of course, but it seemed to represent so many things. In the opening clip, it almost seems to remind Bette Davis of her guilt at what she has just done in shooting Hammond. Later in the movie, it reminds her of her love and what she has done to him. At the end, she walks right out into the moonlight to meet her fate. The ending really took me by surprise; I love it when a story can take me somewhere unexpected.

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One of the best openings in the history of film.  It's a calm, starry night.  It is hot and humid outside and the workers are looking for a cool breeze to come in.  All of a sudden, BANG BANG BANG!!!  A man staggers out and here comes Bette with a cold and concentrated look in her eyes.  What happened?  We know this will not be self-defense, because she kept on firing even when she ran out of bullets.  How will Bette get out of this one?

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To begin, I love Bette Davis. I started this movie once, but was unable to finish it so I am glad I'll have the opportunity to watch it again. 

The moon seems to be very symbolic in this scene. It is at first beautiful,peaceful,  shining light on happy citizens who are playing beautiful music; then it is covered by clouds, creating an ominous environment after the murder. And finally, the moon reveals itself from the clouds to shine light, not in a cheerful and nurturing way, but to reveal what she has done by showing her shadow over the dead body. Very powerful cinematography and use of symbolism to set the tone for the film. 

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Languorous. The white bird's taking flight is as startling as the gunshots. The moon's reappearance lights Bette Davis' bautiful face and, for just a very moment, her character's fear. Glorious.

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I love the start so serene and then bang bang bang! Femme fatale in the moon spotlight and that look as if she just realized everyone is there and can see. Then asking them to get the authorities and tell them there's been "an accident"! Now you are pulled in, accident? Now you got to know the story why did this happen, could it be considered an accident or justifiable? Can't wait to find out what happens which is exactly why they start the film in that manner!

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Just saw the full movie (The Letter) and what a powerful performance by Bette Davis. I was really struck by the colonial way of life, but all that gets turned on its head before the movie is done. The moon, in particular, was a very interesting motif woven throughout the story. It was lovely, of course, but it seemed to represent so many things. In the opening clip, it almost seems to remind Bette Davis of her guilt at what she has just done in shooting Hammond. Later in the movie, it reminds her of her love and what she has done to him. At the end, she walks right out into the moonlight to meet her fate. The ending really took me by surprise; I love it when a story can take me somewhere unexpected.

I, too felt that this was a powerful performance by Bette Davis and yes, the colonial way of life is immensely striking, particularly as it is juxtaposed to the very violent act that has just taken place.  Bette Davis is one of my favorite actresses, primarily due to her incredible range; she never seems to be playing the same characters in her movies, even if they have qualities in common.  And the moon motif draws the viewer into the action (the camera movement mirrors the movement of the clouds around the moon).  Yes, it is beautiful, but shrouded in moodiness and, as we later learn, danger.  In my opinion, this is an excellent example of film noir's many manifestations.

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To answer the two discussion questions:

Yes I was surprised by what happens although the slow tracking establishing shot usually means something unexpected is on the horizon (the slow tracking shot into Jack Wolz's bedroom in THE GODFATHER for instance). We know right off the bat who did the killing; its the why that will be revealed.

What this opening contributes to the noir style is the staple of the femme fatale.

I agree with you, chopper917.  I have seen The Letter many times before and it seems I always notice something that escaped me previously; in this case, it was the reality of what this woman had done and WHY she did it, which ends up taking the movie in an unexpected direction (she's acquitted, but she hardly feels victorious; instead she's eaten up by guilt which I suspect is a somewhat new experience for this privileged woman).  Aside from the gunshots, the undercurrent of darkness and danger - plus the seemingly genteel murderess - are the elements that contribute to the film noir style.

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The music by Max Steiner brilliantly complements the opening scene of the plantation as the day fades away and only to have it all shattered by six successive gunshots. Of course, no other actress except Bette Davis could pull off such a murder with such poise and certitude. Didn't realize Somerset Maugham wrote this story.

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As I've stated in response to other individuals' posts, I'm a Bette Davis fan, I have seen The Letter many times and it seems that I learn a bit more about the Leslie Crosbie character with each viewing -- and absorb more of the movie's atmosphere, which is a study of stark contrasts.  The best example of such contrasts is that magnificent opening that draws you right in; you are compelled to find out Leslie's motivation for the murder and in so doing, you learn more about her as a person.  Leslie herself is someone who is privileged, accustomed to having her own way, doing what she wants and expecting that everything will turn out in her favor, even in a case of murder; but what she doesn't count on (aside from her lover's wife!) is her own guilt.  She appears to be polished and genteel, but there's a dark side to her that is exposed in the opening scene. The elements that link everything together is that lovely moon, the skillful, inspired photography and the interplay of light and dark, which are the hallmarks of film noir.

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Davis is literally a femme fatale in this opening--but also the symbol of class privilige. Class differences/distinction is playing out here--we can see it in other classic Noir films such as The Asphalt Jungle (the newly bankrupt lawyer bankrolling the heist) and in The Big Sleep (General Sternwood and his daughters). Here, Davis is the priviliged wife of a plantation owner. The Camera shows the full moon and clouds, pans through the open sleeping quarters of the rubber plantation workers, and finally the Big House. Davis calmly comes out shooting to death a white man, Mr. Hammond. The workers approach, but only the head honcho is ordered to come inside wiby Davis, who tells him to find the new district officer and her husband. With her back turned to the head honcho, she shows that she's not very concerned about facing a murder rap--why should she? She's a white, rich colonial. Coupled with her lies, her social status and color will acquit her .

 

But that moon! Moving out from behind clouds, the moon reveals her and her crime like a prison spotlight, and foreshadows her attempt to cover the crime in lies. Where Noir film more often focuses on the seedy underbelly of urban life, it can just as well reveal the same criminal acts by the upper classes. The moon knows better.

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1. Were you surprised by what happens in the opening scene of The LetterVery much, yes. I didn't expect anyone to die first thing, nor did I expect to see the woman actually holding the gun while people watched her pull the trigger.


2. In what ways can the opening of The Letter be considered an important contribution to the film noir style? First, the woman is definitely femme fatale--she actually shoots the fellow. Second, the world one enters as one watches is one of brutal fact and violence, both of which are contained in this scene. Furthermore, the camera work is smooth, but does not feel artificially so. It's like being perched in a drone which is roaming the plantation's dwellings (as anachronistic as that is) and watching events unfold in real time.


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As I've stated in response to other individuals' posts, I'm a Bette Davis fan, I have seen The Letter many times and it seems that I learn a bit more about the Leslie Crosbie character with each viewing -- and absorb more of the movie's atmosphere, which is a study of stark contrasts.  The best example of such contrasts is that magnificent opening that draws you right in; you are compelled to find out Leslie's motivation for the murder and in so doing, you learn more about her as a person.  Leslie herself is someone who is privileged, accustomed to having her own way, doing what she wants and expecting that everything will turn out in her favor, even in a case of murder; but what she doesn't count on (aside from her lover's wife!) is her own guilt.  She appears to be polished and genteel, but there's a dark side to her that is exposed in the opening scene. The elements that link everything together is that lovely moon, the skillful, inspired photography and the interplay of light and dark, which are the hallmarks of film noir.

I couldn't agree with you more. Nice description.

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The opening sucks you in to want more, to learn more about this mysterious woman, her life and why she is willing to kill so easily and not afraid of the penalty. The moon practically has it's own lines to say, she looks at it as if it actually spoke to her.  I love the shadows and the walking into the scene point of view.

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Though there is nowhere near as much darkness as will later be characteristic of film noir, chiaroscuro is already in place with the black clouds and bright moon and the many shadows of the jungle surrounding the outpouring light from the door Leslie Crosby leaves open. The colors of black and white are also carried throughout the movie in clothing and decor to help echo the theme of innocence and guilt and justice. The film itself serves as a type of meta-trial for Leslie Crosby with the audience as the jury.

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