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


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I am loving these daily five minute doses of darkness! I really appreciate the Instructor's comment that The Letter deviates from the comfortable introductions and gentle establishing shots common in classic filmmaking. I was not aware that this was something that was introduced by film noir. Having watched several noir films, I am used to the action starting quickly - for example, as I recall, Sunset Boulevard starts with a shot of a dead body floating in a pool - but it never occurred to me that this was a new element introduced by noir films. 

 

It always helps to know the context in which genres of Art developed. For example, when viewing the paintings made by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it helps to know what they were rebelling against.

 

Anyway, as for the opening clip of The Letter, I was at first engrossed in the scenes of the rubber plantation, as I visited a rubber plantation in Malaysia in 1999, and I was curious to see an older one. But, then, I was taken out of my reverie by the sound of the first gunshot (no doubt what the Director intended). Bette's calm comment that there had been "an accident" really piqued my interest, inasmuch as she had fired so many shots in front of so many witnesses, ha ha. It made me really interested in finding out what would happen next. 

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What a great opening. What I love was how no one responded to the first gunshot (except the music stopped). But it's only after the 2nd and 3rd that people started to move. It's setting up a world where darkness, violence, and gunplay is normal - but excessive shots are worth notice. 

 

Also, the way Bette Davis looks at the moon when it re-exposes what she's done is priceless. 

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Daily Dose 3 – The Letter (1940)

dir: William Wyler

based on 1927 play by: W. Somerset Maugham

screenplay: Howard Koch

cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson

note: IMBD indicates this film was made in 1940 with seven Academy nominations in 1941

 

   The opening did not surprise me but did made me want to know why the woman emptied her revolver.  There’s no hate in her eyes yet she fired six shots into her victim.  She was more upset from being lighted by that pesky moon than by her murder.  She was surprised by the moon light as it lighted the murder scene.  Her act of murder is less a surprise than her disturbing, cool calculation.  I decided to watch the full movie, with a decided caution.

   There seem several contributions to the noir genre.  The use of calm, end-of-day, hammock relaxation in the dark contrasted with the lighted doorway through which killer and victim are framed.  The deliberate use of the clear and clouded shots of the full moon which darkened the dead man and lighted up the killer’s face as she looks up in surprise which seems her only emotion.

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I was very taken completely by surprise by what happens after the peaceful beginning of this film.  I think I actually jumped when I heard the gun shot.

 

What struck me most about this scene was how tense Bette's character was.  She spins around when the moon suddenly illuminates the scene.  Then, when she stands in the house talking, her hands are completely stiff and unnatural, as if they are shocked at what just occurred.

 

What a fantastic opening!  I can see why this film was ground-breaking for film noir because of how the peacefulness of the opening is suddenly shattered by the gun shot, the frightened bird, and the man staggering out of the house, followed by the continuously firing, beautiful woman.

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Some additional context to this opening sequence can be found in the TCM page of the movie, which may interest those who loved it :

 

 

Shooting began on The Letter in May 1940 on the Warner Bros. studio lot. The first scene that William Wyler shot was the famous opening shot in which we see Leslie shoot Geoffrey Hammond. "I felt this opening shot should shock you," said Wyler. "To get the full impact of the revolver being fired, I thought everything should be very quiet first. I also wanted to show where we were, give a feeling of the dank, humid jungle atmosphere of rubber plantation country."

The opening shot, which lasted two minutes on screen, took an entire day to film, and that was before even a single word of dialogue was spoken. The studio expected him to shoot at a rate of 3-4 script pages a day, but the opening shot reflected a mere paragraph on page one. Wyler had a reputation for taking a long time to shoot, but he also had a reputation for doing excellent work. Still, his slow pace had some studio executives up in arms. "Wyler had a mania for endless takes," said producer Hal Wallis in his 1980 autobiography Starmaker, "and on The Letter, it became an obsession."

The shooting schedule for the opening scene, according to Wallis, was a particular bone of contention with the studio brass. "It was a simple setup," explains Wallis, "and could easily have been done in two or three takes, but Wyler insisted on shooting thirty-three. Bette kept running out of ammunition, the extra playing the shot man kept brushing his tuxedo free of dust, and the white cockatoo had to be taken out and brought back again and again so that it would respond to the sound of the bullets. Everyone grew weary, especially Bette, who by the last take was so exhausted she could hardly raise the gun."

Angry, Hal Wallis and Jack Warner demanded an explanation from Wyler about why it was taking so long. "He had no explanation," said Wallis. "I think he simply enjoyed the scene so much he wanted to spend two days doing it over and over."

The frustrated Wallis took the footage from all thirty-three takes of the opening shot home to look at. "I sat up all night watching the thirty-three takes," Wallis said, "then made a selection of one of them. When the picture was completed, I ran it for Wyler and asked him if he was pleased with the opening scene. He said, 'Yes. Now you see the value of doing it thirty-three times.' 'I'm sorry to inform you,' I replied, 'that I used the first take.'"

Even though there were clashes over the opening scene, there was no denying that the end result was stunning. It set the moody tone for the whole film. Bette Davis loved it. "This long opening shot in The Letter," she said in 1974, "is, in my opinion, the finest opening shot I have ever seen in a film. This was due to the genius, and I use the word advisedly, of William Wyler, our director."

 

Many thanks to Andrea Passafiume for this precious additional information on how this sequence was filmed.

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I totally agree.  Who else but Bette Davis can pull this murder off?  Plus, if it was Bette Davis, you know she has a darn good reason for emptying the gun into him.  Reminds me of the early scene in Psycho, when Hitchcock killed off Janet Leigh in the shower scene. Leigh was a big star at the time so it wasn't expected that she would die so soon in the film.  Same with Davis in The Letter.  The great William Wyler may have started the trend. I do remember at one Academy Awards ceremony that honored Wyler,  Jessica Lange said she would work for him anytime.

Back to The Letter:  great use of low key lighting to set the stage for a dark film.  The opening sequence of the dripping latex from the trees impressed me, saying that the full story will come drop by drop.  Can't wait to see the full movie.

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The first thing I notice is that there is a "class" separation by the use of the fence.  The workers in their dirty hovel "exist" with their sweat, poor sleeping conditions, undoubtable insect issues while Leslie is on the other side of the fence in her house which you assume by the look of the front of it and the expanse of the porch, is living in comfort, albeit Singapore comfort but comfort just the same.

 

I like the way she tells the servant to summon and inform that there has been an "accident".  Yes, an accident requiring her to not only empty her pistol but to keep clicking to make sure she has emptied the chamber.  Nice accident.  Something that only a strong woman of the screen can pull off.

 

I only discovered this movie fairly recently and there are so many noir touches and many of them delivered by those Bette Davis eyes.  She tells the whole story with those eyes.

 

Great movie...looking forward to seeing it again.

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The tree sap drips like blood.  Excellent foreshadowing of the murder to come.

 

Dripping liquid is an annoying, disruptive sound which contrasts, and keeps us unbalanced, with the smooth camera, idyllic setting and soothing music.

 

The tracking shot, without cuts, create a realistic, documentary style introduction as well as a peaceful, seamless, calm mood.

 

We see working class men who share and sleep in a small hut.

 

The tranquiity is harshly interrupted by a gunshot.  The first shot stops the music.  The second breaks the tracking shot changing to a series of jarring cuts.  We are lulled into an almost hypnotic state and then punched in the gut with the last thing we expect to see.

 

The shooter empties the gun, a sign of anger and rage, and is revealed to be a petite, well-dressed woman, Bette Davis.  This is not what we are expecting to see.  No thugs, gangsters, criminals or even cops.  No, we are presented with the beautiful but deadly Femme Fatale.  She is cold and emotionless almost robotic, which beguiles her actions.

 

The Moon and moonlight is presented as the inverse, carbon copy of the Sun.  Pleasant things happen in the sunlight.  Bad deeds occur under the light of the moon.

 

Brilliant acting choice by Davis to keep her hand open as if she's still holding the gun long after she dropped it on the stairs.  Again, it's as if she doesn't have control of her own body.

 

This opening is important to Film Noir because it establishes one of the most important hallmarks of the genre, the Femme Fatale.  The dangerous woman.  After WWII, the role of women in society began to change and men were scared and threatened by this so women changed from damsels in distress to beautfiul but deadly vixens who use their charms to seduce and destroy men.

 

The opening deserves to be ranked with the greatest in movie history.  It reminded me of the breath taking and staggering opening shot of Welles' "Touch of Evil" the way the continuous shot is broken by a sound.  Here a gunshot and there the explosion.

 

My DVR is set for The Letter!

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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.

 

I'm surprised by how many people are calling this a premeditated murder, and that Bette Davis is trying to cover up her crime. We get no real information about the reasons for the crime, or what Bette Davis' plans are afterwards, beyond a slight implication that the two were lovers. Likewise, she makes no move to cover up her crime. She doesn't hide from any of the men, and in fact her first instructions are to find authority figures and bring them to the plantation. I think a lot of the reactions stem from her use of the word 'accident', which may be an ettiquette thing. I don't think she's honestly going to try and claim he was shot by accident.

 

But I may be wrong. This is one I haven't seen yet, but the library just emailed me this morning to say it's in, so I'll be heading down there soon.

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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.

 

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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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.

 

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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This is the first film of the three this week that I've actually seen; and although I admire it quite a bit, it's here that the problematic racist portrayals of the era and genre are front and center. 

 

Cringeworthy.

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A very strange opening indeed, and by a director (Wyler) with little association with film noir. The scenery in the beginning is peaceful, with a full moon, somewhat orential music and workers in the plantation in Singapore resting, then suddenly gunfire disturbes the peace. The music suddenly stops, and an unknown western woman (Bette Davis) keeps on and on shooting an unknown man, then has a worker call the police, telling them it was an accident. Meanwhile, the full moon dissapears behind the clouds, only to reappear when the woman looks at it. The best thing about this opening is that, with one simple move (the shooting), it brings so many questions to the viewer.

 

What has just happened? Who is that woman, who was that man, and why she shoot him dead in such cold-blood fashion? Having watched this opening, you want to see the rest of the film just to see these questions being answered. An innovative, noir-style opening by a great director, helped by the performance (her cold, nonchalant look is really frightening) of a great actress.

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Does anyone remember if the earlier version, with Jeanne Eagles, opens the same way? I saw it last summer, but don't remember the opening.

 

I disagree that the opening shots set up tranquility and languor. As others have pointed out, the sound of the rubber sap dripping creates tension, as do shots of the moon. And it is a classic trope in Western culture to portray "exotic" (meaning non-white or non-European) locales as either sinister or "inscrutable." These locales are usually used to imply something unknown or unknowable by Westerners, serving as a psychological backdrop on which white anxieties are projected. (Think of Heart of Darkness or A Passage to India.)

 

About the femme fatale: Isn't this a film staple going back at least to the '20s? Is it used differently in film noir?

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I love Bette Davis and this movie - which I have seen many times.  What an entrance!  You are lulled into thinking this movie is going to be slow-moving and then just a few minutes into it - WHAM!  You can't turn away and have to watch to find out what happened between this woman and man to cause such a violent ending to his life.

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I have seen this film many times. It contains one of Bette Davis's most layered performances-she plays a woman who plays a role within the film-she pretends to be innocent-she was just defending herself, she is "horrified" at what she has had to do to defend herself-but those gun shots are actually quite deliberate. And look at her determined, steely facial expression. If you did not see this opening scene, you might think she was really innocent and sympathetic for most of the movie. Bette meets her match in Gale Sondergaard's Eurasian wife-she is really scary!

 

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I think it interesting to see that Betty was the only woman in the entire scene.  Such a serene setting with the full moon (LUNATIC) appearing and then going behind a dark cloud and then reappearing at just the right point.  Emptying that pistol and then telling or ordering someone to go and tell the official it was an accident.  Looks to me like a passion killing.  Again full moon/killing.  What an opening!!  THE LETTER.

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I have never seen The Letter. I love Bette Davis! This opening scene is so lovely. It starts off very innocent as the camera takes it time for the spectator to know the surroundings. The music is sweet like a lullaby just entrancing you. This is completely interrupted when the guy rushes out the door and she comes out with the gun. This was totally unexpected. The scenes with the full moon sets up that noir feeling when it shadows her and you see nothing but her silhouette. The music helps to understand that this story is going to take you on this journey of mystery and that apparently it's not going to be a positive ending.

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BANG! BANG! BANG!

 

I'm seeing a common thread among the clips in this series so far. Each sequence has shown us daily routines in somewhat ordinary worlds, and each film will eventually take a turn down a dark alley into Dark City.

 

Eddie Muller, author of the book "Dark City," wrote that noir films "weren't trying to lull you or sell you or reassure you -- they insisted that you wake up to the reality of a corrupt world. Quit kidding yourself. Stand up, open your eyes, and be ready for anything. Prayers go unheard in these parts."

 

Many years back, I rented William Wyler's 1940 film "The Letter" because I was watching a film noir montage on YouTube and was mesmerized by the shot of Bette Davis coming out of that house and blasting that poor schlub. There's something about Davis' intensity, her conviction and those eyes, juxtaposed with how well she's put together in that dress, that's so haunting, so disturbing. I had to see this film.

 

Whether I was shocked with the cold-blooded murder as it interrupts that amazing opening tracking shot of the people on a sleepy rubber plantation, I'm not so sure. All I know is the image of Davis firing that gun with those big, crazed eyes is burned into my memory forever. In fact, when I think of film noir, that image is always right there. I'd go as far as to say that the image of Davis with that gun on the porch defines film noir.

 

The Louis Calhern character in John Huston's 1950 film "The Asphalt Jungle" says, "Crime is a left-handed form of human endeavor." And that's just what that shot of Davis is -- she's doing what, in her mind, she knows is necessary for her progression.

 

Ah, noir!

 

SIDE NOTE:

 

A good exploration of the "left-handed form of human endeavor" idea is Dan Gilroy's 2014 film "Nightcrawler."

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I have been watching more classic movies in the last year, on TCM and the wonderful TCM app on my iPad. I watched classic movies with my mother my whole life, but there are many I have not seen -- I have thoroughly enjoyed it this year

 

Apparently, few of those were noir. So excited about this summer. BUT......Perhaps because of the intellectual approach of the course this week, I am having a problem: when I watched the opening of The Letter: I could not enjoy it for what it is! 

 

I saw racism in the way there is a huge plantation and the workers are outside. There were no bloody gunshots on the body. No sign of gunshot holes at all (Thanks, CSI!) Davis speaks to the workers in an imperious manner: "Send a boy."

 

OK - watched it again. Ah...the moon going in and out. She is very angry when it comes out again. This is the kind of woman who thinks she can be angry at the moon.

 

I need to turn the lights off and watch the entire movie on the big TV and remember to suspend disbelief!

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The Letter... I have seen this Bette Davis movie. Great stuff.. you really get pulled in as the gun shots break the serenity of the evening. As the action pours out onto the steps of the bungalow...what must have happened to this woman...shooting the man multiple times...with little expression on her face... knowing that she's probably killed him.

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I found the implementation of the moon and clouds for the scene's lighting to be extraordinary. The perfect stillness of Davis's expression is thrown off for a moment when she whips her head around to see the clouds uncover the moon and shed light on the murder she has just committed. This scene did not necessarily surprise me in terms of the quick murder, as others have pointed out that film noir is often about jolting us awake to reality. However, the scene had me wondering what kind of position Davis's character must hold at the plantation and how she is able to trust everyone present with plainly viewing the murder. I definitely look forward to seeing this film on Friday!

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The film noir genre can be very versatile when it wants to be, and I felt that was evident here. While "M" and many other films of the genre keep you guessing who the murderer is, The Letter pulls no punches, showing you murder being committed right at the beginning. I was surprised by the choice of setting, but then again there is no limited world in film noir. I've enjoyed Bette Davis' work in the past, particularly in All About Eve and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, so I'm pretty sure she's spectacular in this film as she always is. Besides the great shots of darkness when the moon is overtaken by clouds, I think I can see the innovation of the film noir femme fatale in this opening scene. I've never seen the movie, so I can't be sure, but that's certainly what Bette Davis' character seems to be based on these four minutes. I can't wait to watch this on friday!  

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What wasn't more exotic than the far East in the 1940's.  I love Betty but she's always too cool.  I would have loved to see her mix it up a bit get a little crazy (off topic).  The sun comes up and she stares at it as if the this is an important clue, not sure...Sweaty, Steamy, oozing with sexuality...One woman and a group of men on a distant plantation.  Sure its not a gritty opening city scene but noir cool none-the-less.  My question begs just what could her man have done out there???  Either way, you know he deserved it even if it was only for dragging her to that forsaken place...Can't wait to see the whole movie!

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She fires the gun, her face expressionless and let's it fall from her hands as if in a trance which is only broken by the moonlight's sudden reveal of what she has done. And she is now in control of herself and those around her, calmly ordering her servants and preparing herself for the interrogation to follow by the authorities and we the viewers. And with only minutes into the film we know the explanation will not be a simple one but instead will be shrouded in the mystery of the violence that has just occurred and it's connection to the film's benign title.

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