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

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The Letter.

First of all, this is one of the most spectacular openings of any film, ever!  Full moon on Rubber Plantation No. 1, in Singapore!  Exotic. What follows is a complex and perfectly realized dolly shot that reveals a scenario that can only be described as “A” quality, major studio.  Homogenized set, hammocks in the tropical moonlight with pillowcases that look like they’ve been ironed, workers lounging, playing a board game, playing recorder. This is supposed to lead us to believe that the music is diegetic, but it is studio pre-recorded.  Even the slightly soiled t-shirts of some of the workers lounging in the hammocks have the appearance of having been “distressed” by the costumer after a quick dunk in a basin of tea.  The implication is that this is a tropical locale, but not a single native is glistening with any kind of sweat.  Even the rubber tree sap looks good enough to drink! This is a careful foray into film noir, big-studio style.  They know they’re treading new ground here. The lighting is impeccable, its design is daring in its deep shadows, the ratio from highlight to shadow greater than usual, but not as deep as what is yet to come for future film noir.  The true “noir” here is the nature of the narrative: femme fatale taken literally!  Until the unseen gunshot rings out, things seem pretty casual, even the music is exotic but not terribly foreboding. Even after the first gunshot, there is no ominous musical chord to put a pin in the idyllic scenario. However, after the dogs start barking, we’re off to the races.  A wounded man runs out of the house, followed by a woman with the gun.  Game on.  She shoots him in bursts, as if she’s spraying a troublesome insect with a can of insecticide.  What I loved was how she clicked the gun a seventh time, not in a rage, but very calmly—it seemed as if she knew no other bullets would fire, but she just wanted to make sure.  And then she just drops it; not flings it, not slams it.  She just sort of releases it from her hand.  Cold.  Back to the visual:  There is a lot going on between the clouds and the full moon.  The first time we see a moon shadow, it’s cast on the face of what appears to be the foreman of the workers.  The world as he knows it is now dark, gone.  We next the woman's face, backlit in shadow.  Suddenly, the clouds reveal the moonlight once again, and it strikes the back of her head.   She turns abruptly and looks up into the light.  She displays a flicker of some kind of emotion: Fear? Remorse?  Surprise at being caught?  Annoyance at being caught? The direction here is superb.  It reminds me of the last scene of "Queen Christina," where Garbo is looking forward and it has been written that she was directed to think of “nothing”, thus allowing the viewer to fill in what he/she thought was really going on.  Brilliant!

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Was an opening murder surprising?! Absolutely not! It's Bette Davis! I would never expect anything ordinary or uncomplicated from Ms. Davis. She's brash and ballsy. Her character in The Letter doesn't shy away from the moon's full light that reveals her deed. She is almost thankful she can see what she did. She's calm, cold, detailed, and completely rational of mind. (The coolness she displays is the hallmark of a Bette Davis film.)

 

I love the sound of the rubber dripping from the scored tree. And you can smell the uncomfortable dinginess of the worker quarters. The workers' quarters is meant to contrast against the pristine main house that appears like a bungalow set in 1940s southern California.

 

I've seen this film before and it is one of the noir greats, in my opinion. It sets the scene for us immediately. There is no thread-by-thread reveal of plot. The opening scene gives us the plot in one immediate gun shot. Now, we want to know what lead to up to her kill. Other noir films also use dramatic openings to create tension and foretell the plot to come, but their reveal is simply not as hard (harsh?) and abrupt. After The Letter, an opening gun shot was often used in other noir films, including the brilliant film debuted last night on TCM, Woman on the Run (1950).

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Having such a powerful female lead, even holding a gun in 1941 is a bold statement. Of course, I'm sure it was done for the shock factor, because guns in the hands of men can only surprise so much anymore, even at that time. Even if it was for novelty, Bette Davis slays. She is the person in control in the opening scene, and even has an army of workers to call upon.

 

That I'm torn about however, because while it's attractive in terms of showing her power it's also disturbing in terms of the obvious colonialism and essentially indentured servitude if not slavery. The contrast of the house compared to the living quarters of the workers is supposed to strike us, however I'd like to point out that we as Westerners are predisposed to view dwellings like those as "dirty" or "unsafe"when in fact they can be perfectly reasonable in certain climates. In fact, if people are able to live in dwellings like those, in a much simpler fashion, than really the sight of the elaborate overdone house should be the one that brings unease. Imagine all of the resources that went into it, all of the energy spent and for what? Far less sustainable than a  shelter made of wood, cloth, rope, a thatched roof, etc. I will be curious to see in more films if this notion of what is "exotic" to Westerners is used to add an element of mystery or discomfort. I understand why it was used, and how it can be effective, but I find it insulting. There is so much  more to this world than the American or European way. 

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What wonderful comments!!! I agree that the opening scene offers a study in the use of juxtaposition ... reminds me of the "The Third Man" in which Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles have an incredible scene while in a ferris wheel 

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The quiet, hypnotic dripping of rubber sap in a steamy Sinapore jungle on a sleepy, moonlit night serves as a peaceful foreshadowing of the shocking violent to follow in the opening scene of The Letter.  The serenity of this scene only serves to make the shooting scene more shocking, more jolting. In addition,  the scene returns to peace and quiet afterwards.  First calm,  then horror,  then a return to calm when David speaks to her workers after executing a man on her front steps.

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The setting is not atypical of what we have come to see as the noir setting, the city, in particular the city at night. There are some typical noir elements though, the use of dark and light,  and the femme-fatale, a staple element of noir. I expect that her explanation for her actions will take the viewers back to the city and explain the contrasting and unusual setting for this sequence.

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The opening scenes is awesome.  Love the contrast of serenity and homicide, light and dark, rich and poor, American wealth and power vs. international poverty and weakness.  I'm not sure one could distinguish this as noir just from this scene but it certainly draws the viewer into the film.  We all want to know why the brutal execution on the front steps of a plantation in Singapore.  Great opening scene panning the landscape and the sky.  Shadows, moonlit night, femme fatale of all time a murder, or execution, or mercy-killing? Betty Davis is ruthless in her brief scene as it clearly portrays her as the perpetrator and not the victim.  A great beginning as we all want to know...what the heck was in that letter?

 

This is not a totally unusual opening noir scene if one remembers The Killers where we see "The Swede" get brutally executed early on in the film and the rest of the movie brings us back to that point. 

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Many of the comments here identify the artistic points well. The image that stood out to me was just before the moonlight fades: you see one of the works peek through the bamboo, as if it were a jail cell. A statement on colonialism? The opening scene draws you into the mystery because it is in medias res. I wanted to know why she not only shot him, but felt the need to empty the gun into him. That's a lot of HATE and determination. This is one of the better opening scenes that I've seen for any period.

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After the shock comes the chill - "tell him there's been an accident." The juxtaposition of those words with what has been presented on screen is pure genius, and even more of a jolt than the contrast between the dripping rubber sap on the sleepy plantation and the shooting. Great visuals, but that is only part of the movie.

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I can't wait to watch the rest of this one! I love Bette Davis. I cannot believe I have missed this one. I own most of her movies.

The opening shot of the moon surrounded by clouds almost makes me think I will hear a wolf howl but the camera goes on to show the setting of the plantation and the workers as they rest after a days work.

The moon is bright, and the scene is peaceful, restful. The music is gentle and mesmerizing as we take in the scene.

Just as we begin to relax and enjoy the scene, the shot rings out, disturbing the peace. The music stops. A white bird is startled and flies away.

The gunshot has changed everything.

We see a man struggling out of the door and staggering down the steps as a gun-wielding Bette Davis shoots again and again, emptying the gun into the man now lying on the ground. She is composed, the rest of the camp are in confusion, speaking in a foreign tongue.  The head of the workers looks up toward the moon as clouds cover it, casting the scene into darkness. The moon peaks out again almost like a spotlight on Davis and causes her shadow to fall upon the dead man on the ground. She notices this, looks up at the moon and steps away.

The workers come forward and they see the dead man, Davis and the gun lying on the steps where she dropped it. She calls the head one into the house and tells him to send for the district officer. "Tell him there's been an accident and Mr. Hammond is dead."

Great stuff. The timing of the shots, the light and dark symbolism, the white bird, the shadow, all great imagery that works to start this movie off literally "with a bang!"

 

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I can almost hear Bette Davis say, as I watched the rubber tree dripping into the pail, "Oh, don't be such a sap!" 

Love the comments on the societal statements being made as the workers are sleeping outside of the big house...

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My impression was a soft, languid opening, restlessness, broken by the gun shots. Natives in cage like quarters, whites in the "big house."  The dark side of the moon (clouds passing), followed by brightness that even Bette Davis' character is aware of, but still deep shadows. All this lends an air of ominous mystery to the opening, drawing the viewer into watching more closely.

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One of my favorite Bette Davis movies. This opening is one of the best I've ever seen, if only because it makes you want to see the movie if only to answer the questions it raises: who are these people, why is she shooting him, is he her husband, what did he do, did he deserve it? It contributes to film noir by telling the audience that murder can happen anywhere at any time for any reason, even in places that seem like paradise. 

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Was I surprised by what happened?

 

To a certain extent, I'd heard the basics of the scene in advance but I think it still carries a lot of power and surprise. It opens superficially like an MGM Gable movie of the 30s, something like Red Dust or China Seas , big moon, dripping rubber, exotic music, stiffling heat and a lot of asian extras camped outside the white man's house seemingly used as more exotic scene setting. But when Davis enters the scene it's clear we aren't in that movie any more, yes it's a movie set on a rubber plantation but its not just American stars sailing through exotic scenery and offering up boys own wish fulfillment,

 

The violence seems realer, more painful, more likely the response to psychological damage than in those movies. In three minutes the movie seems to set you up for something you are used to before switching and saying 'Don't be silly it's not THAT movie, those days are gone' there is still something surprising in seeing a star like Davis shoot someone down and then act calmly afterwards. It opens with something that would be the culmination of a pre-noir movie and gives the whole thing a fatalistic heading for a bad end feel right from the off.  I dont think the surprise is just that there is a killing, it feels more of a genre surprise, how this movie will not be one like a big name star as a rubber plantation owner would have been prior to this. You feel on uncertain ground as a viewer, you feel like the rules have changed.

 

The idea of opening with the death and the story being WHY we got there is of course there in big name Noirs like Sunset Bld and the Killers as well as countless lesser ones, I'm sure this wasn't the first use of it but its an exemplary example of something that became a noir standby so yes it's an important contributor to Noir style.

 

 

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I find myself watching Bette Davis carefully in this opening. When the moon comes out from behind the cloud bringing a bright light to the scene, to what she's done, her secrets revealed, she glares at the moon as though it has just slapped her in the face. Notice her hands. When she leaves the step to go back in the house, the shadow of her hand crosses the body looking like a claw. And in the house while she's giving directions, her right hand, the one that held the gun, is held awkwardly open and a little away from her body as though she doesn't want it near her, doesn't want the memories of what she just did.

 

It is shocking. It's shocking to see that even though this man is running from her she continues shooting til the gun is empty. What could this man have done to her? She remains very calm and composed. You can tell she must be working on her story. There's no hiding anything, so call the authorities and get it over with. Get the wheels turning as fast as the wheels in her mind.

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Like some other contributors, I was fascinated by the physicality of Bette Davis' performance. From the moment at 1:28 when she strides out of the house - gun-arm outstretched without wavering, her other hand on the balustrade as if she were about to elegantly step down into a ballroom rather than brutally shoot someone down. What an entrance!  Then, the stillness on her face during that long push-in to close up. The thoughts in her mind as she looks down at the dead man. The violence of that turn to glare up at the moon! The calmness on her face before she slowly steps away. And the way she holds her hand away from her side at 2:29  and again at 2:58 - as if perhaps there was blood that she doesn't want to get on her dress. There's even a slight tremble in her body  - she sways just a little - while she so calmly states that an "accident" has left Mr. Hammond dead. She's holding herself together - but it's an effort for her. So many things going on, and so concisely expressed!

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"The moon never beams without bringing me dreams" of Bette Davis in The Letter.  The moon, the line from "Annabel Lee" and Bette Davis have been entwined in my mind since the first time I saw the movie.  The moon is a character that has aided her romance as the moon always does, but, now it's ready to reveal its true motive to her and to us--the bright light of the moon shows the dark side of love.     

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One of my faves.  This unique opening still brings chills,no matter how many times I've seen it.  The abrupt, turn-on-a-dime suddenness of the switch from tropical calm to gunfire and a body is a grabber, but to take it even more over the edge, Davis empties the entire gun into him,  slowly, deliberately.  Phew!  Definitely noir in its spin your head around change from idyllic to deadly.

 

So many good comments and observations here.  Enjoying it.

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I have not seen this film yet. The opening scene contrasts the normal routine of the workers resting for the night, seemingly just like any night, with an unexpected event - the sound of gunshots and a man dead on the dirt. It is such an abrupt change, whiplash. The slow pan of the camera through the men's sleeping hut does not give a hint of anything sinister about to happen. Betty White stands over her victim, the full moon shines and her shadow is cast on him. The clouds cover the moon and darkness falls. Yet when the clouds clear, she sees the reality illuminated, unable to cover the death of this man. Her emotion is of horror. How will she be able to get through this tragic outcome?  

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There was no way I anticipated what happened in this scene. From plantation workers, relaxing at night, a gentle breeze blowly, all to be shattered by a gun shot. The scene that followed was full impact.

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Many of the comments here identify the artistic points well. The image that stood out to me was just before the moonlight fades: you see one of the works peek through the bamboo, as if it were a jail cell. A statement on colonialism? The opening scene draws you into the mystery because it is in medias res. I wanted to know why she not only shot him, but felt the need to empty the gun into him. That's a lot of HATE and determination. This is one of the better opening scenes that I've seen for any period.

The natives may have seen the last shots, but can they say anything? Notice, only the house servant approaches. When she says their has been an accident, he just takes his orders. Davis emptied a gun into--that's no accident.

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There is a lot happening in this opening scene, from Davis's cool-detached demeanour to the sudden outburst in violence, but what really stood out is the interplay between dark and light. As the clouds cover the moonlight, Davis stands defiantly over her victim. But as the clouds pass and the light breaks through she turns towards it startled. This scene speaks to the power of shadows in the film noir genre and their role in providing coverage to commit dark deeds.

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I was completely surprised by this opening, but not by the murder.  Plenty of films start with someone being offed. The difference here is that it isn't a whodunit, it's a whydunit.  Maybe the workers only heard what went on, but we saw exactly who killed this man.  We saw that she did it with intent and hatred.  What pulls me in (and over to Netflix to add The Letter to my queue), is that I need to know the motivation behind this heinous act.  

 

That and I'm a sucker for a dangerous lady.  ;)

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