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


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The seemingly peaceful shot of the moon as it illuminates onto the plantation, can surely lure one into a false sense of security. The languid music resonates in the air with an almost soporific rhythm, yet it underscores perfectly the underlying tension that is laying dormant in the air. As though someone was taking a very long breath, and was waiting for the precise moment to exhale.

 

Then from a still silence, the sharp piercing sound of a gunshot, instantaneously followed by another. And a horrific scene suddenly takes place as a man is gunned down mercilessly by a woman.

 

The darkened close-up of Bette's face as she looked at him, seemed to pull you in; almost like one was trying to penetrate the impenetrable fortress that was her mind, as the polyglot tongues of the locals erode any remnants of silence. The tragedy that ocurred is well depicted in the symbolism of the moon's face being covered by dark and omnious clouds.

 

The most important aspect this opening scene contributed to the noir genre, is by its quality of leaving the viewer with more questions than answers.

 

Why did she kill him? Who was he? Was she a scorned lover?

 

Such questions can torment a viewer, till only by watching the movie, can we unravel the very core of its mystery. Its certainly a demanding film that seeks to consume its viewer, transporting it into another world, shrouded by mystery and intruige.

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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.

Absolutely!  This film is a prototype for the rich-woman-as-murderer in film noir.  Complex femme fatales are such a staple for film noir that I have to ask:  would film noir even exist without Bette Davis, who created the prototype for these types of characters?

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Quite possibly my favorite movie of all time.  The moon seems to be the stand-in for urban noir street lights and neon signs.   But the moonlight is much more powerful and elemental, so in this colonial noir, it appears that nature (sky, land, jungle) takes on the corrupting role assigned to machines and buildings in urban noir.   At first the film seems to be sending the message that the "civilized" (white European) characters, now removed from urban civilization where nature has been "conquered", are reverting to their "baser" instincts because of their proximity to nature.   It's sort of the opposite of The Asphalt Jungle, where the city is the corrupting environment and the characters want to return to the purifying rural environment (the horse farm, the beaches of Mexico).   But the real message is that the "natives" in The Letter aren't driven to this same level of depravity as a result of their environment; it's only the colonials, who by their own nature are base and depraved:  grabbing entire countries for themselves, enslaving the natives, exploiting and destroying the land.  That Leslie kills "one of her own" signals the decline of the colonials as a result of their own moral decadence at this point in European history.  The fact that Hammond's death was avenged by the native woman he loved when she stabbed Leslie signals that the colonized people will rise up and destroy their oppressors.   

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A full moon usually signifies something ominous doesn't it.  The music feels lurking and restless, then the gunshots carry through on that feeling and escalate it.  There is no doubt that Davis' character intended to kill but once it is done and she enters that house standing with her hands as though they are dirty you feel that she  is completely aware of her surroundings.

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Sometimes anticipation starts before a movie begins - and in no genre does this hold more truth than in film noir. We go to so many movies nowadays knowing everything about the film we are about to see. The movie is based on a famous book (or more likely a comic book...) or the film is a remake or sequel to a movie we have already seen. With the internet and a million amateur reviewers, how can a director keep secret his or her intentions from the audience? Not knowing what is going to happen in a movie creates anticipation and tension which is so hard to capture in today's information age. Oh to be a movie goer in the 30s and the 40s! "Say, darling, there is a film at the cinema staring Bette Davis called The Letter. I know how much you like her. Let's go check it out" The anticipation begins there. What is The Letter? Who is it from - and to whom is it addressed? What are the contents of The Letter? Clearly it is important to the plot - it is the title of the film, after all. After the opening scene I am struck with the obvious question: What does the Letter have to do with the murder (or "accident" as Bette Davis's character calls it...) in the opening scene? I guess we will just have to keep watching to find out... and now the film has you in its grasp - where it will take you is part of the anticipation that makes film noir so fascinating.

 

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THE MOON APPEARS AS AN EYE IN THE NIGHT SKY WHILE THE CLOUDS ACT LIKE EYELIDS. WHAT WE SEE AND/OR DO NOT SEE SETS THE TONE FOR THIS MYSTERY I THINK.  THE WOMAN SHOOTS THE VICTIM 6 TIMES AND SHE WANTS IT TO BE BELIEVED THAT IT WAS AN ACCIDENT. THE 4 MINUTE OPENING COULD NOT HAVE BEEN FILMED MUCH BETTER.

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Sometimes anticipation starts before a movie begins - and in no genre does this hold more truth than in film noir. We go to so many movies nowadays knowing everything about the film we are about to see. The movie is based on a famous book (or more likely a comic book...) or the film is a remake or sequel to a movie we have already seen. With the internet and a million amateur reviewers, how can a director keep secret his or her intentions from the audience? Not knowing what is going to happen in a movie creates anticipation and tension which is so hard to capture in today's information age. Oh to be a movie goer in the 30s and the 40s! "Say, darling, there is a film at the cinema staring Bette Davis called The Letter. I know how much you like her. Let's go check it out" The anticipation begins there. What is The Letter? Who is it from - and to whom is it addressed? What are the contents of The Letter? Clearly it is important to the plot - it is the title of the film, after all. After the opening scene I am struck with the obvious question: What does the Letter have to do with the murder (or "accident" as Bette Davis's character calls it...) in the opening scene? I guess we will just have to keep watching to find out... and now the film has you in its grasp - where it will take you is part of the anticipation that makes film noir so fascinating.

 

Well the movie The Letter is a remake,  so some movie goers at the time of the Davis version would have seen the original.  Also the play was popular.   

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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.

I noticed the three-dimensional quality to the film, too. But it did have its limits. I was drawn in at the beginning because we see the plantation workers in their hammocks and there's a dog (I think it was  dog!) in the background sniffing for something on the ground. When I looked farther back, I have to admit the far background looked like painted screens to me. But there's still no denying that the composition of this sequence is fluid and wonderful to watch. At the end, the director used the long shot successfully when he uses the camera to show us Bette Davis's dead body and then pans up to show the partyers dancing in the background. Really good camerawork.

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A normally tranquil night that finds the rubber plantation workers sleeping, drinking or playing cards in their off-hours is shattered by gunfire. The world of noir has come to an outpost of pre-World War II British colonial Singapore as the full moon that has illuminated the crime of Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) slips behind a cloud cover, plunging the scene into darkness that offers the audience a chance to recover from the shock and ferocity of Leslie having emptied her pistol into Hammond. This scene is pretty indicative of what Hollywood's conception of noir became, opening with a crime seemingly coming out of nowhere (like the murder at the beginning of WOMAN ON THE RUN, 1950, on a dark San Francisco street that makes a fugitive out of innocent bystander Ross Elliott). The LETTER, along with the other 1940 release STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, laid the groundwork for noir to creep into the consciousness of filmmakers and the audience (not to mention they are both outstanding productions). In THE LETTER, the full moon serves as a kind of metaphor for guilt and doom, as Leslie (with those Bette Davis eyes) gazes onto the shining orb in the night sky as the enormity of her killing Hammond becomes clear to her early in the story, and at the end as she realizes Hammond's widow (Gale Sondergaard) awaits in the garden of the Joyce home to send Leslie to her just reward. In a different vein, it's instructive to see the 1929 production of THE LETTER issued by Paramount, the only surviving talking film of the tragic stage luminary Jeanne Eagels. Herbert Marshall, who played Leslie's husband Robert in the William Wyler version, is Hammond in the former film and has more to do with the plot before Leslie unceremoniously plugs him. The 1940 adaptation of THE LETTER is the superior film, but the earlier movie, despite its staginess, makes for an interesting comparison, especially in Eagles' forceful interpretation of Leslie.

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THE MOON APPEARS AS AN EYE IN THE NIGHT SKY WHILE THE CLOUDS ACT LIKE EYELIDS. WHAT WE SEE AND/OR DO NOT SEE SETS THE TONE FOR THIS MYSTERY I THINK.  THE WOMAN SHOOTS THE VICTIM 6 TIMES AND SHE WANTS IT TO BE BELIEVED THAT IT WAS AN ACCIDENT. THE 4 MINUTE OPENING COULD NOT HAVE BEEN FILMED MUCH BETTER.

 

Hi HeyMoe,

 

Thanks for joining the discussion, and your insights into The Letter.

 

FYI, we have set up official threads pinned to the top of this message board for the Daily Dose, so please don't open new topics on the Daily Doses. Instead add your posts to the existing Daily Dose threads.

 

And I am not sure if you are aware, but if you use ALL CAPS in a post that is the Internet equivalent of shouting or demonstrating that you are angry. If that is not your intention (i.e. you don't intend to be shouting or you are not angry), then please turn off ALL CAPS. It also is easier to read longer comments when they are not in ALL CAPS.

 

Thanks for understanding, and I look forward to your next posts! 

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I love this film although I had never before considered it to be film noir, just a story of love gone terribly wrong.

After watching it again and really paying attention I can see the elements of noir: the shadows, the moon, the peaceful setting of the rubber plantation disturbed by the noise of the gun and then the calm demeanor in which our murderess requests the potential witnesses to get the authorities.

I just loved the close-up on Leslie Crosbie's (Bette Davis) face after she emptied the gun into her lover Geoff Hammond. What a cool character!

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The opening is a surprise because you don’t expect to see Bette Davis, the female star of the movie, follow a man from the house shooting him repeatedly and excessively in the back in the opening seconds. That’s not usually the way we expect our heroines in movies to behave. For this reason, it seems this approach really had to have shocked audiences when the movie first premiered and they didn’t know what was about to happen.   Because based on this small piece of the movie, the audience realizes this may be a beautiful woman, but she’s not necessarily going to be a good, likeable character, she’s flawed. She’s not a one dimensional character, who lounges around looking elegant, but instead is going to be an integral part of the action of the story.  Maybe her actions will end up being justified or maybe they won’t be.  Maybe we’ll get to liking her or maybe we won’t.  The gunshots occur and then darkness as the clouds cover the moon, but with the clearing, as she glances up and her face is revealed, it’s apparent there’s a lot going on right beneath the surface.  This element of surprise contributed to the film noir style, to expect the unexpected, that not all is what it seems based on assumptions you may not have even been aware you’ve made as the film starts.  In a way, too,  it seems to me this type of technique is similar to a plot twist used in later movies  like Hitchcock’s Psycho with Janet Leigh (and even though it’s a much later and a horror movie, Scream, with Drew Barrymore) because in both of these movies we may come in assuming something about the main female character only to have her  murdered within the first part of the movie, totally shattering our assumptions.    

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I have been wanting to watch The Letter for some time now, and I was surprised and fell head over hills for that opening scene. It starts out with a bang, and by the time the clip is over it leaves you wanting more. It makes you think why would he have deserved such a death and has you wanting answers.

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The moon over head opens to another hot, muggy, restless, and uncomfortable night illuminating the porch of the plantation where a shot rings out and a lone figures stumbles out followed by a close up of Bette Davis firing multiply shots at the stranger on the ground. When her workers reply with disbelief she takes full command of the situation with strict instruction and the viewer is left to contemplate what series of events could have led Bette Davis to commit this murder with such defiance and justification. 

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Surprise? At the beginning, yes.  BUT, nothing that Bette Davis does surprises me.  Power actress who can play any mood or role.  This film enables others to bring audience shock at any time of a film (I think of Psycho when I jumped out of my seat when watching it in a theater as a kid).  The dripping water connotes remaining drops or moments of life.  Workers resting brings a false notion to audience and is just the calm before a human storm.  Nice music leads to gun shots to silence to confusion/anxiety/pandemonium.  But the "eye" of this storm is Davis, who is calm with no remorse.  The light of the moon portrays the movie plot...light (a day of rest and leisure) vs clouds/darkness (the evil of the killer and ensuing actions); then finally light again (representing some sort of good or retribution at end of film).

 
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A lot has already been said about this opening, but I can't help but notice the class differences.  Here we see the workers, Singaporean or otherwise, who have to sleep outside, fight mosquitos in hammocks.  Then the well-off white woman living in the comfortable house made up to look as Western as possible emerges shooting an unarmed man.  Of course, we don''t know why.  The workers are supposed to obey her commands afterward.  She is seemingly calm, they are confused and upset.  She is plotting how she will use the system and her status to her advantage. 

I don't know to what extent noir is about class struggle and privilege, and I don't as a rule look for it in films, but it is so obvious here that the colonizing Europeans (English in this case) are part of the villainy here. 

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The opening manages to be shocking and suspenful despite knowing the twist in advance. Betty Davis calling it an accident in front of a dozen potential witnesses should be outlandish, but her indifference and cold command make it believable.

 

As Raymond Chandler said, “the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody only thought of two minutes before he pulled it off". Judging by the opening alone, this seems like the latter. It's not a question of how, but why.

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My apologies. This was posted on another thread title THE LETTER that someone created to talk about the Daily Dose of Darkness not realizing there was an official thread that they should use. Apparently, moderators have moved those comments to this thread. I totally get it, but just want people to know I wasn't trying to hijack THIS thread! Trying to maintain good netiquette.  :)

 

Can I hijack this thread to talk about the full movie, having just watched it on my DVR?

 

SPOILERS IF YOU CONTINUE!

 

I've read that the Hays Code demanded the ending we see. As many know, the Hays Code preferred that criminals pay for their crimes. But I would have like an ending with the husband forgiving the wife (because he loves her beyond reason) and both of them paying for her crime as they live their unhappy life together. With the ending we see, she doesn't suffer, and he moves on, able to remarry.

 

(And I hate that the wife was changed from Chinese to "Eurasian" for the movie and played by a white actress, but those were the times. Fun fact: I had to look up what a "Eurasian" just to be certain. Turns out, I am one!)

 

But I love what a cool customer Leslie is throughout, particularly when she's giving her first version of events (years of cheating have made her quite the accomplished liar by the time she plugs the ex-lover), and how doomed she is by her own obsessive love (the theme of many a film nor, as I understand it). Lots of shutters/blinds in this one for that film noir visual cue.

 

But what's with all the knitting? Does it represent the ordinary wife she's pretending to be? Does she work out her sexual frustrations with knitting needles? I'm not sure how to read that. Many people here are FAR better than I am at picking up the symbolism. Please enlighten me with your takes!

 

And seriously, best homework assignments ever.

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In stark contrast to the opening of M where the tension is built slowly with subtext and the contrast between the ordinary and the menace just seething beneath the surface, the opening to The Letter is definitely a "gut punch" as described above. Opening on a shot of the full moon, we're quickly shown the location: a rubber plantation. The camera passes over people relaxing and sleeping after presumably a hard day's work. Unlike the opening to La Bete Humaine where we spend the opening inside the world of the characters, gaining a sense of the work involved as a train engineer, we aren't shown that here. The word "plantation" alone is enough that we get an understanding of the hard work these people have been engaged in throughout the day.

 

This resting and peaceful scene is almost dreamlike as the camera slowly pans across the workers. Then with a shot, this dream becomes a nightmare. No slow build up of menace, no subtext practically, just the sound of a gun firing punctuating this serene environment. Then, as if to double down on the shocking nature of such a violent opening, we see a woman empty an entire gun into a man who has stumbled out of the main house. Almost immediately, the full moon is covered in clouds and we are plunged into darkness. Once the moon re-presents itself, it casts almost an accusing glare on the woman, as her dark shadow falls across her victim. We want to hear her story of how this came to pass. We need to understand why this happened.

 

In terms of films in general, the flashback is quite a common occurrence in film noir. Voiceover narration is usually a staple of the genre and that lends itself most readily to events that have already happened and are being shown to us for the benefit of explanation to a third pary. I'm not sure but perhaps this was one of the first. And if so, it succeeds so well in drawing the audience in, making them crave the details behind this killing, that's it is no wonder this became a popular plot device in future films of the genre.

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Yeah, that first gunshot grabbed my attention, but it was her utter disdain for the guy that got me with her 5 follow-up shots that really takes the scene! One major contribution could be opening on a crime with ambiguous reasons and answers as to why the actions take place, creating the mystery around the motives.

Something also pretty interesting (considering I have yet to see this film) is the weird form of trust that the workers have for her after she shoots the man, even going so far as to get others involved. These elements, along with many great shots (tracking from the moon, to the sleeping workers, to the house- and especially the moon spot-lighting her "crime") really establish an engaging sense of mystery.

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Yeah, that first gunshot grabbed my attention, but it was her utter disdain for the guy that got me with her 5 follow-up shots that really takes the scene! One major contribution could be opening on a crime with ambiguous reasons and answers as to why the actions take place, creating the mystery around the motives.

Something also pretty interesting (considering I have yet to see this film) is the weird form of trust that the workers have for her after she shoots the man, even going so far as to get others involved. These elements, along with many great shots (tracking from the moon, to the sleeping workers, to the house- and especially the moon spot-lighting her "crime") really establish an engaging sense of mystery.

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Exotic location. A rubber factory in Singapore. Then, we are introduced to a definite noir characteristic: the working class. Right behind the shack where the workers rest, a beautiful home. 

A gun shot! What was that? Who did the shooting?

Wyler, answers the question with the gut punch. A man stumbles out and a woman shoots her pistol again, and again.

We have just witnessed a murder. THIS IS DIFFERENT than most films noir, as far as I know. She is cool, calm and calculating. The moon hides itself under the clouds, casting another characteristic of noir films: shadows.

 

I was not surprised, but delighted by the revealed information, felt hitchkockian in many ways. Give the information and have your viewer neck deep in the thick of things. We are well in the story right out of the gates. Brilliant openning.

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