Jump to content
 
Search In
  • More options...
Find results that contain...
Find results in...

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


Recommended Posts

It has become common place nowadays for a film's opening sequence to be content that happens much later in the story. Someone correct me if I am wrong, but I think that story narrative began in film noir. Immediately the Letter and Mildred Pierce come to mind.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I am a huge Bette Davis fan and love this movie. It jolts you right awake, from an evening after work has finished and everyone is settling down for the night to sudden gunfire. You watch her shoot the man, deliberately emptying the gun into his body as he lays on the ground. The play of moonlight, first full light, then clouds obscure everything and then the moon is back, shining brightly on the horrific scene and Bette Davis pulls herself together and begins to issue orders. The emotions she had allowed to show in the darkness are reined in, totally under control again. Some questions come to mind, why was this man here when her husband is obviously away? In the time frame of the story this would be questionable, even is there were many servants and workers around. It leads to immediate speculation about their relationship and why she would be so angry at him. Good movie.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

I see your point.  True, the story she gives us in the beginning leaves her in the clear.  And I'll admit, there were moments when I thought, "well, maybe there's a twist and she's not guilty".  Still, by the way she kills the man and the fact that we assume she is the equivalent of a "femme fatale" in this unique noir (and frankly, the fact that it's Bette Davis) points us in the direction that this is most decidedly murder.

 

I also see your point and I clearly understand that one could see this either way.   I wonder what audience members at the time though. Bette Davis was Warner's #1 female star and typically a studio didn't have their #1 star play bad characters,  let alone a murderer.  So it wouldn't be 'out there' for someone in 1940 to assume there's a twist.     Also,   in 1940 the concept of a 'femme fatale' wasn't known.  

 

But yea,  viewing that opening sequence today and as a fan of studio-era noirs it is clear this is one lady you don't want to mess with!

 

I saw the film decades ago before I knew much about film noir.    And since Davis was and is number one in my book,  well,  that bias influenced my thinking.    i.e. I was a sucker just like her husband.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, somehow the sound of the gunshot still surprised me. The film does a good job with music, scene, and sound to lull the viewers (along with the workers) into a sense of calm, peace, and slumber, and then quickly interrupts them with Bettie Davis' gunshots. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Am I surprised by the opening of the Letter? No.  I have seen this movie many times, and the first time was in high school more thatn 35 years ago.  Considering that Bette Davis chose focused, determined, single-minded female characters, it is not shocking that she would shoot some man at the beginning of the film.  The shot of the full moon only foreshadows and confirms the feminine energy that appears in Leslie (Davis) as being volitale, capricious, and unpredictable.  The moon goes through cycles and does not stay in the same form just as women goes through cycles physically and emotinally every month.  The appearance of the sign indicating it is a rubber plant in Singapore signals the sense of the exotic and mysterious, at least for 1940.  It conjures up the allusiveness of the sneaky Chinaman stereotype.  Film noir lives with contrasts, ambiguities, sudden changes, and shades of lighting.  The covering of the moon with clouds and the reappearance of the moon's light as well as the light of the house lets the viewer know that someone or some entity, at least the moon has observed and exposed the crime of passion.

  • Like 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

To see the murder almost immediately is unusual and to know who did it is still a new thing in 1940 (long before Columbo and Motive). 

This shattering of peace and calm of the exotic tropics feels very accurate to life. In the middle of our mundane routines unexpected catastrophe comes along and smacks us upside the head, it wakes us up and all our senses are shocked, often in disbelief we are left with many questions about what happened and why.

 

Bette Davis appears very calm and controlled until the clouds part and the moon illuminates the aftermath of her actions, the reality of her sin exposed in the light bothers her and she ditances herself physically from the dead body as witnesses arrive. Calmly taking control she sends sevants for help "There's been an accident".  - definately a Femme Fatal -

 

Also it is physically impossible to empty an entire revolver into someone accidentally.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I wasn't surprised with the way "The Letter" opens because it's a classic scene that's been shown many times, but I might have been had I seen it in the theater when it was new. It is a powerful opening. I was impressed with the reactions of the people and animals that had been previously relaxing in the evening's quiet. The cockatoo flapping off its perch, the dogs in an uproar, the workers in a panic following the first shattering shots. I've noticed in many old films that when something like a shooting occurs, not much happens in the surrounding area. Nearby characters don't seem that fazed or horrified. Pets don't bark or cower in fright. Bette's character is cool and calm in contrast to the disturbance everything else in the environment is experiencing.

 

Like most noirs,"The Letter's" opening directly presents the audience with a puzzle. Why is this happening? Who are these people? Who is in the right and who is in the wrong? We don't really know whom to root for unless we take their journey. "The Letter" employs the darks and lights to heightened effect, as in the scene where Bette Davis is standing outside and the shadows of the blinds form a cage around her, as if to imprison her despite her confidence in escaping punishment for her crime.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

The film definitely didn't drag at the opening. The only thing missing was "It was a dark and stormy night. A shot rang out. A woman screamed." The almost immediate enactment of an apparent cold-blooded murder (Davis' character seemed relatively unmoved as she emptied the revolver into her husband, with a subsequent calm ordering to the servants to get the plantation manager, and a casual matter-of-fact conversation and having dinner is almost stereotypical of the British stiff upper lip and "stay calm and march on" attitude.

 

Looking forward to viewing the complete film at leisure (I had the DVD record it).

Link to post
Share on other sites

This is definitely a different opening than what was generally seen in films made during the Studio era.  Not only does the establishing shot suggest a peaceful, warm evening, we also see the perpetrator of the crime be a woman, NOT a man.  Everything is quickly off kilter in this scene, and the viewer is quickly caught up with the action of the movie.  Who? What? Why? are all questions we simultaneously ask ourselves as we are plunged headlong into masterful story telling.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm not particularly surprised by the opening. I have a sense that the languidity captured in the opening camera pan along the row of workers is going to be broken in some drastic way. The shot of the full moon carries a sense of foreboding. Surely something is going to disturb the natural order.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Aside from the elegant sweep of the opening scene it is the strobe of emotion in the sequence that makes it noir - the live tree dripping, the light of the moon (good) dark of night (evil), etc., just fantastic! I thought it interesting that the only emotion Leslie shows is slight fear as the light of the moon exposes her, and she composes herself when the shadows return.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Wow! I don't think I could've been any more surprised! I was calmed by the lovely full moon and the sleepiness of the plantation workers until it was disrupted by a murder; multiple gun shots, dogs barking, commotion from the crowd--what a ruckus!

 
The use of shadows from clouds covering the light of the moon is fantastic. In the darkness, she has little to no expression on her face, but when the light of the moon returns, she looks horrified!
 
However, she doesn't seem too worried about her fate.
 
I can't help but wonder, What is her relation to the man? Why did she kill him?
 
P.S. I counted six gun shots, and I'm wondering if there's a significant reason behind that? Why six? Hmm...
Link to post
Share on other sites

Not only is Wyler pushing the emerging film noir's equilibrium boundaries, but he's paving the way for strong female characters. A genre that is paving its own way can also give itself license to push in more ways than one.

It's great to see a complex and engaging female character that claims the screen so early on. She doesn't say much, but what she says is commanding and obeyed. She is unwavering, in control, fierce, and unapologetic. Film noir seems to have more license to push the boundaries between social groups, which is impressive in the time period. She is menacing, and those around her taker her seriously. 

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Surprised?  No, since I've seen it before, and it's been done a few times in the 70 years since the movie was made.  But I imagine at the time it was a shocker! 

 

Bette Davis is still amazing as the smart, cool-headed, and cold-blooded female who knows exactly what she's doing, and gets what she wants.  I don't think there's another actress who does it better.  Before she says a word you see detachment as she drops the gun, then hate as she stares at the body, and then cunning and planning as she goes back into the house.  Love it!

Link to post
Share on other sites

When the lesson questions asked if I was surprised by the opening of the film, I had to laugh because I've seen THE LETTER about eight times, so no, I wasn't surprised. But I don't think I was surprised the first time, either, because it's such an iconic scene that I had seen it before watching the whole film. That's kind of a problem with classic films, isn't it? The suspense and surprise are so often ruined just by a film's age.

 

Something I noticed this time was the gown Bette was wearing. Back in 1937 she'd been in a film called THAT CERTAIN WOMAN and it was the first time she'd been in this same style of gown, and the layers and the puffy sleeves and tight waist looked really great on her. For TCW she actually did a couple of glamour photo shoots for magazines in this style of dress. For whatever reason, I didn't notice until this viewing that this is an almost identical dress. Clearly, they were wanting her to look glamorous and put-together and beautiful for this scene, which I think was the perfect choice. When she looks back up at the moon peeking from behind the clouds, she looks almost like a vampire in the modern sense: gorgeous, sexy, and absolutely terrifying in the face. Love it.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

1. Were you surprised by what happens in the opening scene ofThe Letter?


 


No, because I am familiar with this movie and didn't realize it could be considered noir. Directors will film one side usually, such as the shadows, or the bucolic setting. Others will show us all the "good" then all the "bad", perhaps even vice versa. A surprise here is that Wyler doesn't show us the peaceful, white bird on the fence until it is impacted by death, nor the peaceful, white dogs sleeping until they, too, awake at the sound of Death.


 


The moon, however, and the white-clothed natives do foreshadow the end when the moon shows us the native woman hiding in shadows, ready to kill the jealous, murdering lover (from the opening shot -- well, maybe opening sequence is clearer to write than opening shot) played by Davis.


 


Even the white pants on the man show ambiguity -- yes, his affair with a married woman was (especially then) immoral but his white pants could symbolize an effort at redemption, trying (and dying)  to end the affair.


 


2. In what ways can the opening of The Letter be considered an important contribution to the film noir style?


 


The dark/light juxtaposition captured by the film lens darting from the white moon to the dark tree trunk, from the white-shirted natives to the dark, thatched roof, from the white bird flying away upon the sound of a gunshot to the dark ground as the lens goes "up the stairs" to where the man staggers out of the house, and finally to the white-speckled dogs jumping up at yet more gunshot sounds to darkness when the moon is covered by clouds -- and again back to the light when the moon is revealed once more, and we notice the white pants on the victim, dead on the dark dirt.


 


The contrast pulls us in opposites several times in the opening, foreshadowing that the main character will pull us (and the cast) back and forth as well.


 


The camera also lets us see the hard-working (buckets of raw, liquid rubber) and peaceful (sleeping -- it is very late) natives as against the duplicitous whites.

Link to post
Share on other sites

To answer the course questions, no, I wasn't surprised by what happens because the course introduction spoils it in one of its pages  :lol:

 

But still, the scene packs a punch. The way Bette Davis walks out defiantly while shooting the man shows that there's something else going on. And the way she calmly adresses the workers afterwards shows a lack of remorse or guilt.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Count me in the minority of people who did not know what was coming (though the question "Were you surprised?" does lead you to expect something) and has not seen The Letter before.

 

I suppose what surprised me the most was the look on the character's face as she fired the rest of the shots, including that great little nod when she hears the click of the empty chamber. She doesn't look distraught, overly angry, or all that emotional. She looks to me like someone who is getting something done that needs to be done.

 

I love the way that darkness falls over her face before the shot of the moon being covered by the clouds and the darkness covering the other man's face. It's like she's being plunged into a darkness independent of what is happening around her.

 

I think that the opening shot of the rubber tree, "wounded" and oozing rubber, is a nice piece of foreshadowing. I've always found the harvesting of sap/rubber kind of visually disturbing, and it added an element of heightened tension for me.

  • Like 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

The opening of The Letter did surprise me.  I think of film noir as taking me to the under world. 

But here, the focus has me "looking up."  Up to that beautiful MOON.   The first shot tells us it is all about the magic of the moon.  Lovers under the moon, and the lunacy attributed to the moon.   After Betty Davis shoots her lover, she drops the gun and immediately looks up to the moon. 

 

I like the use of the white bird to suggest the innocence of this tropical paradise. 

The first gun shot is heard, and what do we see?  The white bird fly away.   Innocence gone. 
The camera then takes us to the front door, to show us why. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

- 2 surprises for me:
  -- The workers were very slow to respond to the gunshots
  -- The was no shock until the supervisor identified the corpse

- Important contribution by showing the femme fatale making the first 
  strike and seemingly not tthe victim

 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Oh man that MOON! I agree with a few other comments that the importance of that big beautiful thing will probably continue throughout the film (haven't seen the whole thing yet, so we'll see...) but that was definitely what struck me first. It's not a great idea to commit a crime during a full moon if you want to keep it secret... but clearly that's not the case here, so the full moon gets to play the light/shadow game that became so crucial to noir.

 

Of course the biggest surprise is that we immediately learn who the murderer is, full frontal, so to speak, which is so unlike M, where all we see is that ominous shadow on the poster with the large words "WHO IS THE MURDERER?" & do not yet know this is, in fact, the murderer... This bold move foreshadows the noir sense that there was no need to build to the violence; rather, that big, sordid moment is what we're here to see, after all, and the real job of the film is to show you how we got there. The later film DOA comes to mind as a major example.

Link to post
Share on other sites

In thinking a bit about the moon, and the way Wyler used the black and white, I'm struck by how the plantation workers were dressed predominantly in white, and Bette Davis's dress was black--like the sky, but with her white face lit so well, it looks like that white moon. 

 

The panning shot at the opening doesn't stop (a little jump behind the grass roof) as it moves from the moon to Bette Davis, visually linking them. The moon is classically "female" ("th' inconstant moon"), too, so the femme fatale trope is borrowing from a classical allusion. 

ps. Is that the same cockatoo from 'Citizen Kane'? Both films from 1941, and even though 'The Letter' was Warner Bros and 'Kane' is RKO, how many cockatoos are there working in the studios in that year? Did the cockatoo have to sign a contract? 
 

Link to post
Share on other sites

In thinking a bit about the moon, and the way Wyler used the black and white, I'm struck by how the plantation workers were dressed predominantly in white, and Bette Davis's dress was black--like the sky, but with her white face lit so well, it looks like that white moon. 

 

The panning shot at the opening doesn't stop (a little jump behind the grass roof) as it moves from the moon to Bette Davis, visually linking them. The moon is classically "female" ("th' inconstant moon"), too, so the femme fatale trope is borrowing from a classical allusion. 

 

ps. Is that the same cockatoo from 'Citizen Kane'? Both films from 1941, and even though 'The Letter' was Warner Bros and 'Kane' is RKO, how many cockatoos are there working in the studios in that year? Did the cockatoo have to sign a contract? 

 

 

I assume the cockatoo wasn't under contract with either studio.   In this way he was head of his time and like Cary Grant had the balls to be independent.      But seriously;  most animals were hired from trainers to work on films for all of the studios, with exceptions being big time animal stars like Rin Tin Tin. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

We're not at the urban environment that made noir style notable, but all of its elements are there. The darkness, the shadows and the sillouettes between each take. Great direction, great cinematography!


Yes, it is really surprising to watch a murder right at the begginning. Specially because the murderer is the farm's first lady. Something really wrong must have happened there!


One of the best things in noir is that the explanations are not easy, the spectator must have attention and patience to collect all the answers, And the characters are so mysterious...


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
© 2021 Turner Classic Movies Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Settings
×
×
  • Create New...