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


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This is a great film noir opening. The atmosphere and music make you want to see more and this movie doesn't disappoint. If I can't get interested in a movie in 10 minutes, then I can't watch it. This is why I love the old film noir.  It's so intriguing and immersible. I love this movie and Bette Davis.

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I agree johnranta with everything you said (I never imagined that the drippings of a rubber tree could be such an eerie and effective builder of tension), and I was also struck by how calculated Bette Davis' character's murder seemed to be. She never flinched, never revealed any kind of emotion (not shock or sadness or grief or even delight). I too have never seen The Letter but suspect this may serve as a framing device and that much of the film may be told in flashback in order to establish why she killed Mr. Hammond. My thought is that she must have had a very good reason.

 

Regarding the moon, I almost felt like it was a meta-commentary on the changing of the Hollywood landscape and the coming of film noir. The uncovered full moon is the very first shot we see, and then we are treated to fairly textbook establishing shots of the rubber plant and the workers reposing in the evening. The gunshot disrupts the traditional Hollywood opening and is immediately succeeded by clouds covering the moon and throwing the set into darkness. The summer darkness has arrived and film noir is showing how it will change Hollywood cinema. I have not yet reconciled why the moon is then quickly uncovered once again, shedding light on Bette Davis. Any thoughts?

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When someone is shot multiple times it is hardly accidental.  She obviously is trying very hard to cover up the real reason.  I think it is interesting how the quiet and peaceful atmosphere is suddenly shattered by gunshots which awaken all the workers.  Just by this scene alone makes me want to watch the rest of the movie to find out why she shot Mr. Hammond.  I have not seen this movie so I can't wait to watch it Friday.

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The Letter encompasses a lot of the classic noir styles. The traveling camera, the cold hearted femme fatale, the contrast between good and evil and the dark sinister shadows.

 

The music gradually becomes more tense to mirror what's happening in the scene. The animals all flee, as if they can sense the danger and we the viewer seems to slowly, tentatively approach the scene of the crime.

 

The zoom in on her face as she shoots show's, in true noir style, that she is detached and unfeeling in the act of murder.

 

Another superb, en-captivating opening scene.

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As someone else mentioned, I have never been a big Bette Davis fan so I wasn't sure how I would feel about even watching the scene.

 

I found it interesting, with the opening once again, similar to the last "Daily Dose" establishing a sense of normal life. Unlike the last though this scene is shattered by gunshots.

 

I liked the use of the moonlight that is covered by the clouds and results in the foreboding sense of darkness but then the clouds pass and the light emerges once more. As Davis turns to look at the moon as the light returns it seems to foreshadow the idea that she has something to fear from "the light". Perhaps the light would be the light of truth.

 

I have to say that after seeing the opening I am going to watch the film.

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First off, can we all just appreciate the magnificent queen that is Bette Davis? No one else could have done a better job at killing a man in the first three minutes of a film than her.

 

This opening scene is superb and there are so many contributing factors, like the calm and cool atmosphere it starts off with. Then all of the sudden, bam! Bette Davis is filling a man full of bullets. The way he falls and how the camera follows her as she carries after him, STILL shooting him; it leaves the viewer with a lot of intrigue. But the one thing I love is the moon and how it reveals what she has done, almost like a curtain at a play. Her cool facade quickly changes and you can see when she is telling the men to notify her husband, her hand is still in the position of when she was holding the gun.  Definitely one of my favourite openings of all time. 

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Wow! Now that's how you open a movie. I like how Wyler sets up a lazy atmosphere of the plantation with that long tracking shot observing the workers with some playing music, others playing cards and most just trying to get some sleep. It in no way prepares us for what happens next. It definitely leaves you with a lot of questions, How could this be an accident? Who was this man and what lead to her gunning him down? And why does she react so calmly afterwards? I look forward to watching the rest of this film and finding out the answers.

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It was beautiful, serene, calm, people starting to sleep after a long day's work...and then gunshots.  The woman was also quite calm after shooting the man, and she used all six of the bullets in her revolver.  She was also quite calm in directing the others to authorities in to deal with the "accident".  She also seemed to drop her gun on purpose as if to say, "Oh, yes, I'm supposed to be a victim of an argument, and this is what a victim is supposed to do and how they act."

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Great opening.  Everything looks tranquil until you hear the shots fired which is surprising.  The shots of the moon slipping in and out of the clouds reveals nothing is what it first appears to be.  Bette Davis looks cold and determined.  She is in control of the situation which she terms  an "accident."

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A hot lazy evening, with the camera leading through a moon lit plantation of tired workers, panning across to the house to that front door.  You're anticipating something, but  not expecting a gunshot or six.  She's a cool customer as she plies him with shot after shot. The clouds covering up the moon putting our dead body in the darkness and then peeking out again to have Miss Davis' shadow loom over him.  This is film noir to me.  The shadows, the murder, the unemotional stare of the murderess...classic Bette Davis.

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Holy creepy music! I love the use of music in this opening sequence of The Letter; it's eerie, slow, drops in and out where it should, envelopes the workers asleep in their beds, captures how much in the dark they are that something is about to happen...it dips out to create an opening of the sounds of a gunshot and then as more gunshots are fired, the world awakens, the moon shines down onto our femme fatale and what she is done, as she calculates how to cover up a crime she's committed in front of so many. 

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

 

I was a bit surprised by the opening of this movie. I didn’t know anything about it before I watched the Daily Dose clip and, to be honest, I was mostly surprised by the appearance of Bette Davis! Maybe I have already seen a lot of film noir (and I do watch a lot of police procedurals), so I am already used to the dead bodies showing up at the beginning. In the first two clips that we saw for this course (from M and from La Bette Humaine), the plot seems to build up to the most gut-wrenching tragedy. In The Letter, we see the dead body almost as soon as the movie opens.

 

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

 

What I noticed about the opening clip from The Letter was the smooth production. The sound, both the music and the conversation, is perfectly aligned with the action, which in turn is perfectly aligned with the panning of the camera. First we hear the dripping of the rubber and the music. Then we see that the plantation workers are playing the music, then the music fades while the camera pans to the main house. It stops after we hear the first gunshot, and the view switches now to the plantation workers and then back to Bette Davis shooting Mr. Hammond. The camera zooms in on her face, which reveals nothing. As a viewer, I am already asking the questions that Bette Davis is not answering, at least not in that first scene. I want to know: Who is Mr. Hammond? What is Bette Davis’s relationship to him? And what made her pick up that gun and shoot him? When I watch classic film noir, I ask questions like these and they are answered (mostly!) by the end.

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Love the way this one starts, immediately we are lulled into a sense of calm with the quiet dripping of the rubber trees the moon and music from the plantation worker as they settle in for the night, then the crack of gunfire and the bird taking flight. Classic use of the traveling camera close up and lighting/shadowing as the moon reappears seemingly to expose the femme fatale.

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Unlike the previous two days, I've seen The Letter many times and I've often told friends and fellow Classic Film Fans that this movie is my favorite Bette Davis film of all the many classic one's she's made. I've never thought of this film as Noir although it does have some of those elements. From this now immortal opening with Bette's gun emptying rage to her final comeuppance, this movie is the Bette Davis Legend....Defined!!!

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The opening of The Letter definitely takes no time getting into the story. Just like Woman on the Run, a gunshot sets the story. One can easily connect the dots in the evolution of Film Noir with what we've already been Daily Dosed with.

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Wow. Amazing opening!

 

Technical elements of noir:

  • Long single take, panning
  • The dolly zoom
  • Use of light/dark contrasts
  • Use of shadow
  • Tracking shot

 

Style elements of noir:

  • Serenity abruptly broken by a single gunshot
  • The Femme Fatale
  • Cold/callous murder

 

What was most surprising to me was the actual murder itself. Generally, murder is referred and not explicitly shown in classic films. There is always one scene for the shot and the second scene the victim's reaction. In this scene, both murderess and victim occupy the same screen shot lending itself to a new style of film production.

 

Stylistically, I loved the tracking shot that slowly zooms at the same speed as Bette Davis lowers her arm. The zoom picks up speed once she drops her weapon.

 

For the moon sequences, after the murder, we see the plantation covered in darkness to signify impending doom, not just for the victim in this scene, but for all those occupying the plantation. It is a place of darkness/danger. The uncovering of the moon sheds light on Davis herself. It's as if nature/God is pointing in the direction of the femme fatale; someone on which the characters and ourselves need to focus.

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Davis is wonderful!  She lets him have it with a look of 'I have had enough of YOU' .  But it seems to me that seething/cold expression is followed by fear: 'I've finally done it...omg...now what?' And she is back in control: 'an accident'.  This momentary shift from realization to resolve is mirrored by the passage of the cloud across the moon. The music is lovely, hypnotic gamalon, so peaceful.  Then everything changes, nothing will be the same.  Is this one of the characteristics of Noir, the sudden, the irrevocable, the inevitable?

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The long, sweeping shots, especially moving at such a slow pace, help to build suspense; we know something is about to happen. I was most surprised by the fact that we see very clearly who the murderer is from the start. Now the intrigue is in learning who the victim is and why he was killed. Then there's the dead body, which was shot several times at close range, yet doesn't have a single gunshot wound or blood (ahh, Hollywood!).

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Oh, this opening! One of my favorites. Just the sound of the gun shots alone is a very startling way to begin a motion picture. I like the way the dark clouds cover the moon, but then the moonlight reappears to illuminate the crime!

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The opening contains many elements that contribute to the style.

It begins at night. Sap is dripping into a bucket like blood from a slaughtered animal. Even though it does not take place in a city, the hut is still crowded, dirty, and grimy. In the supposed peaceful night a shot rings out, disturbing the natural order of life on the plantation. A man stumbles, fately wounded, into view then into the shadows, while a woman follows. She then brings the pistol up and empties the bullets into his body. Overkill. There is passion in the killing - they knew each other well (if not intimately.)

As she stands over the body ( in a state of shock?) the camera dollies in so we can see the emotionless expression on her face. Then a cloud covers the moon and darkness fills the space suggesting the realization of what she has done is  setting in. This brings her back to reality and she asks a worker (forman?) to get the authorities. She also asks for someone else she knows.

Could this be a lover? Is she going to turn herself in?  Was this really an accident as she said? These questions have us hooked. We are now invested in the film and have to find the answers.

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Now THIS is a film that I want to continue watching. I love that it grabs you from the get-go. The night seems restless in the opening shots of the workers’ slumber, and you have a feeling right away that something is going to happen. And it does!

 

This film opens with the climax and looks as though we are going to go on a journey to see how we arrived there.  That, to me, is a sign of classic film noir, a la Citizen Cane and Mildred Pierce, with the main event followed by the backstory. 

 

The lazy camera movement that continues even during the event seems to follow the slow motion that seems to occur – say, during an accident or those moments when a glass gets knocked over and is falling off the counter, just before it hits the floor and shatters.  The continued slow movement of the camera seems to mirror the thought process and provides the time for Bette’s character to figure out what she’s going to say and do from there. The moon’s movement behind the clouds over the onlookers makes you think that something is going while they can’t see it, and at the same time for Bette’s character. The moon’s movement behind the clouds and darkness upon her silhouette is like a moment of blankness in thoughts--she’s not sure what to do, she’s thinking, and then quickly the moon reemerges with the bright light and she with an idea. She knows what to do and what to tell the witnesses, authorities, etc. 

 

Going to check the listings for this one and calendar it for sure!

 

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I'd have to agree with solarplaya's comment!  Bette Davis' demeanor throughout the scene is amazing!  I was surprised when the tranquility of the dripping rubber and the plantation hands' sleep or quiet recreation was shattered by the gun shots.  It was startling to see how the white bird flew off at the first shot.  Hats off to Wyler for capturing that and the moon being hidden and then re-emerging from the clouds.

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