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


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Three Things:

 

1. High-contrast chiaroscuro: from the rubber-tree milk, and from the whiteness of Mr. Hammond's pants and the workers' outfits. The moonlight is also a recurrent image.  Obstructing clouds dampen the moonlight to hide what has been done in darkness; they move again to reveal the crime at 2:13.

 

2. The cunning of the long, slow take: the film starts with a long, sleepy and sensual shot (actually really two shots) that takes the time to glide over the surfaces of things.  The wipe at 1:07 is gentle, smooth, and langrous.  A lot of people have being talking about tension and dread in regards to how they feel watching the previous films.  Here is an opening that overturns that notion, or at least uses its opposite to charge what will come with an even greater force (the murder).  The last bit of this sequence is interesting to me when, as soon as the camera focuses in on the foreground with the cockatoo, the gunshot rings out and the camera immediately focuses on the background to locate the source of the sound.  

 

3. Un Chien Andalou anyone?

 

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I'm not positive if the opening moments of the scene produce a serene effect. Perhaps it's because I know I'm watching noir that I anticipate something happening. Having said that I have no problem about adding that the next few seconds when the man rushes from the bungalow and gunshots ring out  - not one or two but a whole magazine emptying salvo - I am surprised. The fact that the woman doing the shooting stands over the man's prostrate form and fires more rounds into him as she wears an almost unconcerned expression makes the viewer want to know the why of it all. Shadows again set a scene. As a cloud passes over the moon and then reemerges the actress' (Bette Davis) face is almost desperately mad - not angry, but mad in the sanity sense of the word. I have not seen "The Letter"  but  you can be sure I will.

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

 

I think, after watching M and the opening of The Bete Humaine, I'm starting to grow accustomed to the main genre convention: that is, that everything seems peaceful at first, but that peace will soon be dislogdged by the darkest side of human nature. Thus, I was not particularly surprised with what happens. Although, I guess, to be fair, I also had read about this in the 1st module. What's most surprising is how Bette Davis holds herself throughout. This is true cold-blooded murder and the only thing that disrupts her demeanor is the Moon which illuminates a dark nature that demands to be submerged in darkness. I also love the detail at the end in which her hand is open, tight, still probably fighting the urge to hold the gun again.

 

 

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

 

Probably as mentioned, the convention of just jumping into the action with little set up. Also, I read from someone the "femme fatale," and, lastly, the (murder)-mystery typical of these movies.

 

Overall, incredibly strong opening. I wonder if the Singaporeans will play a role later on in the movie. I think that would be a great contrast between "savage" and "civilized" here, where one faction sleeps at peace and the other is wreaking havoc among its fellow humans.

 

I also liked Davis' expression. Mostly cool and collected, but her lips show certain disdain or disgust, which later evaporates at the sight of the moon, perhaps her own recognition and acceptance of her regretless crime.

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Opening scene of The Letter: site is set: rubber plantation, vaguely shabby. The liquid dripping down from one collection vessel to the next suggests that actions and activities are dependent on one another and will flow forward. Panning shot of the workers and their families shows the community of man quiet and collected: a contented tribal unit. The initial shot sends a white bird flying, then the dogs start barking. Only after the animals are stirred up do the humans start to stir. Cold and unaffected Bette Davis plugs a faceless and nameless guy and the sky goes dark: The action has disrupted the calm and darkness has come. When the moon comes out again it is a spotlight on the guilty. Shockingly, Bette initiates the mendacity with the commend to disseminate the news as a "terrible accident".

 

Its a lovely evocative opening sequence that concludes by rattling the soul. 

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What stands out for me in this clip, as in the others this week, is the source of the music and other sounds.  In all of the clips, all of the sounds we hear in the opening moments come from directly within the story.  The background music that opens this clip is not played over the action, but is actually being performed by musicians in the scene.  Similar to the children singing in the opening of 'M' and the sound of the train that opens the second clip.  Sourcing all sounds and music from directly within the action place's us in the film's reality, pulling us into the story from the start.

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Ooh La La!....Now we're talking! Good old Warners Brothers did it better than all,when it came to dirt.

I love this intro,with the whole Singapore set-up.The full moon and clouds,the dripping sound of the rubber tree,

the man playing his flute instrument with all the men relaxing,after a long days work in the humid air. All done in a nice pan to the right. Then the bird perched on his fence startled by the sound of Warners classic (and best I might add) stock gunshot bang. The men rising up to see Davis emptying her chamber into a man on the porch,

giving one last empty click for good measure,as if to sweep him out of her house,porch and life for good.The look in her eyes,is classic Davis...just pure unapologetic malice. When Bette kills you...she does it with conviction and means it! You can tell she enjoys it too,and matter of fact....that's who I want doing the deed,if I'm to be shot down in a Warners film. "I'll teach you a thing or two Chris,for double crossing me!!"

(I can out die anyone in a film...no lie.Always had a talent for that,and don't mind saying it either.Just like the famous "Wilhelm Scream" they could have had the famous.."Chris Pierce Death" Loool

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What stands out in this opening is the questions. Why was he killed? Why wasn't everyone surprised by the action of the lady? Why was the serenity of the plantation and the workers, all of a sudden, destroyed by a crime that they witnessed? That is where the importance of the genre lies, to me. It's amazing, the movies that I am being turned on to. and this has been a fun thing to learn! But the calm of the masses definitely stands out during the killing.  

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The thing that surprised me the most was how incredibly in control Bette Davis was as she shot the man repeatedly in the opening. She was cool, calm, and precise.  She maintained that demeanor when she led the men back into the bungalow.  I love her acting choices!

 

I think the opening fits in well with the film noir style.  She is clearly a femme fatale, and you don't want to cross this woman!  The event was unexpected by the other people present, and it completely breaks up the peaceful evening they were experiencing. 

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This opening did surprise me. The scene starts with a peaceful, moonlit night and the workers are relaxing. The shots come out of nowhere and change the peacfulness to tension. This is the first indication that this film is an example of film noir. Just when you think things are going to be one way, something happens suddenly that changes the whole direction of the film. My first thought was that the lady was shooting an intruder. However, when the workers come closer and identify him by name, Mr. Hammond, we know he must be someone important, especially if he is called Mister. When Bette Davis' character says it was an accident, which it clearly was not, you  know you are in of store of a rollercoaster ride of suspense, lies, and secrets.

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I'm not positive if the opening moments of the scene produce a serene effect. Perhaps it's because I know I'm watching noir that I anticipate something happening. 

I can relate to that anticipation simply because I have film noir expectations! But I will say the way in which the camera moves seamlessly through the scene and the pleasant Southeast Asian rhythms do create a more calm, relaxed vibe that is abruptly shattered by the murder scene. Bette's cold, determined facial expression while continuously shooting her victim is also a stark contrast. I detected maybe slight shock in her from what she has just done, but definitely no remorse. I really enjoyed the way this opening sequence jumps right into the action and sucks the viewer into the story. It was definitely a tease for me!

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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.

 

That's something worthy of discussion. I try to judge a movie's morals primarily by the timeframe it came from. It's why a movie like Birth of a Nation can be considered morally repugnant, because it was full of racial stereotypes that were already outdated. But then, to use a noir example, House of Bamboo almost qualifies as progressive, even though it's just as stereotypical in it's portrayal of Japanese society. The difference is that House of Bamboo came out right after the war, and although it has some unflattering stereotypes of Japanese culture, it seems to actually be trying to honestly deal with the culture clash of the film.

 

I haven't seen this one yet, so you know more about it than I do. Would the characters and events have seemed racist at the time, or is it just with hindsight that we cringe?

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What stands out in this opening is the questions. Why was he killed? Why wasn't everyone surprised by the action of the lady? Why was the serenity of the plantation and the workers, all of a sudden, destroyed by a crime that they witnessed? That is where the importance of the genre lies, to me. It's amazing, the movies that I am being turned on to. and this has been a fun thing to learn! But the calm of the masses definitely stands out during the killing.  

Why wasn't everyone surprised by the action of the lady? 

I agree. It seems as though the field hands seem to be used to this sort of behavior, and the coolness in which Davis does the deed seems to say it aint the first time.

 

My first thought, "Gee lady was it something I said?"

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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!

 

I think this is something everyone should do; suspend disbelief. Also, appreciate a movie for how it would have appeared in it's time. When I saw the workers I didn't immediately think the film's characters were being racist for making them sleep outside, I assumed that, in Singapore in 1940, many people would be sleeping outdoors in such conditions. I mean, obviously cities would be different, but in many rural parts of the world those arrangements are not uncommon. Instead what struck me was the way the workers rustic, practical living arrangements contrasted with the lavish out of place plantation the white folks lived in.

 

Also, a few scattered notes; I think Bette Davis was showing fear at the moon, not anger. It was shining on her and her crime like a spotlight. And, really, don't expect to see any CSI level realism when it comes to blood or shell casings. They were limited in what they could show in these films, and realistic corpses would have been right out.

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There are lots of elements in this opening that have just blown my mind. I haven't watched the film and now have multiple expectations; specially with that woman (magnificent Bette Davis), the assassin. Who is she? What is she going to do now? She shown us some ecstatic stupor in her face, but besides that, she seems to be quiet calm and determined. 

Now, aesthetically, I would highlight the tremendous effect of light and darkness, as a metaphor for hiding the truth of our actions and our thoughts, but also as a biblical and ascendant myth that connects our human actions with divine ones. Actually, I've never witnessed such a powerful look in anybody's eyes. At that specific moment, when she looks at the sky she seemed to be fighting back the gods and celestial beings for having interfere in her part.

Love it

Love it

Just loooooove it  

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My breath was taken away when the clouds parted and the light of the moon made the shadow of Bette's character fall over the dead man. I love that when the clouds were covering the moon, everything was dark, yet when the clouds parted and the light of the moon came out again, the shadows in the scene became more defined and symbolic.

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The presence of the moon as watchful, even judgmental eye is clearly in evidence in the first scene from William Wyler's The Letter, the great Bette Davis vehicle from the novel by Somerset Maugham.  It has justly been called the greatest study in female sexual hypocrisy ever placed on film.  The opening scene shows us why.  The unrelenting drip of the rubber tree harvest is matched by the monotonous relaxation of the plantation workers, all forced into restrictive spaces by various grids that the camera photographs through.  When shots ring out, it is Davis who vigorously but dispassionately dispatches a man with her gun.  We don't know until later that the man his her lover, and that the plotted tension comes from wanting to know whether or not she will be set free after her trial, or whether her passive husband will continue to accept her... or whether she cares.  

 

To begin with, we see the aforementioned grids keeping workers in restive stasis until the gun fires, the moon appearing to reveal the action, then disappearing as we wonder what will come next. If the opening scene were a precursor to noir style (which it obviously is) then it would be because these images so powerfully comment on the story before we know what the story is.  In other words, the mood is the story.  

Director Wyler was always concerned with the effect of light and shadow.  In 1938's Jezebel, also with Davis, the frustrated director painted the correct shadows on the floor for the climactic Olympus Ball scene.  He may have done so again as pools of shadow surround Davis' character like malevolent spirits while she empties the chambers of her weapon into the man who lies at her feet.  Light and shadow bespeak noir when people who can't stand to be confined get themselves into trouble. That's when light recedes into the moral shadow realm; when noir protagonists can't stand the confinement any more.  

Little known fact:  Davis had trouble shooting this scene because she couldn't stand guns, or the thought of firing one.  The noir like shadows come to her aid here, unforgettably so.

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The opening is like a flashback (key noir element). in that you see a murder committed, the murderer, and that the murderess seems so cool about it. The questions I get is who is the man who got shot, why was  he shot, why is this non-native living in Singapore.  When I first watched it I thought of it as a mystery, like Columbo where you see the murder and the detective tries to catch the murderer. But no this movie was so much more. The Letter literally opens with a bang. And Bette Davis was made to be a femme fatale. She does evil good

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Instead what struck me was the way the workers rustic, practical living arrangements contrasted with the lavish out of place plantation the white folks lived in.

 

Yes. Also, the workers' communal huts are so very alive, people are crammed in on top of one another, and they're hanging out, smoking, playing an instrument, chattering. It's very intimate and vital. Then the Big House stands alone, at a distance, almost sterile in its emptiness, despite the teeming jungle around it. The only sign of life is death when shots ring out and Bette Davis and her victim come striding and tumbling out.

 

ETA: I meant to also point out how the sterility of the Big House is symbolic of that repression with which Maugham's work is so often concerned. 

 

Obviously, we're also viewing the scene through the post-colonial lens, so we may be more sensitive to how problematic some aspects of the story are. I love the fascinating dichotomy between Bette Davis standing above her victim and the workers crowding into the yard; they're mostly male and therefore her superiors, but as the natives, they're inferior, and unable to challenge her. Instead of the one who speaks up taking charge to demand to know what's going on, we have puzzlement and an almost diffident inquiry, and Bette Davis issues her instructions--gently, not stridently. As the boss' wife, she is in absolute control of all the lives on the plantation, and it's her duty to start the wheels of justice turning. 

 

I think Bette Davis was showing fear at the moon, not anger. It was shining on her and her crime like a spotlight.

 

 

Not anger, no. I agree it was more fear of the light exposing what she had done. When the moon comes out from behind the clouds again, it snaps her out of the sort of fugue state she's in.

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Setting the tone in a few seconds!

A moonlit evening under an ever changing sky, you watch the workers of the plantation rest

after their daily labors while listening to their native music - you know you are being set up

and BANG - the set up begins.

What follows is action without explanation - a film noir staple.

The viewer has no foreshadowing of what is to come - just the changes of the moonlight

as a precursor as to what follows.

Is there any doubt that the viewer has been "roped in"?

Is there any doubt as to why film noir was/is so popular.

And I think we are seeing a new writing and directorial approach to film

A lesson that later writer/directors will utilize.

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Quite an opening scene in 'The letter'. Starting with the stark white and black contrast of the tree trunk and rubber liquid dripping. The scene moves on to show laborers ready to go to bed, enjoying oriental music to relax, which is in a few seconds juxtaposed with shrilling gun shots. The transitional movement of the moon behind the clouds as soon as Mr. Hammod  is murdered is quite dramatic along with the focus on Bette Davis' dilated eyes. Her expressionless face show no indication of any fear at all. The laborers don't seem to question her actions and follow her instructions.

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I would assume that one of this film's major contributions to the development of film noir would be its use of the flashback, as there appears to be a humdinger of a back story to this opening scene. Indeed, the reactions of the other characters to the murder would seem to suggest that the protagonist is somewhat respectable. It will be interesting to watch the rest of the movie and learn what drove her to this crime, as she is somewhat of an enigma in this opening scene. While the nature of the murder suggests a crime of passion--she follows as he staggers out the door, shooting him repeatedly--her reaction could hardly be more detached. Indeed, she seems to be dazed until the moon emerges from the cloud, at which point her action seems to register, if only on an intellectual level.

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As a contributor to the noir style, The Letter presents the immediate murder, shocking and in your face. It also immediately initiates the mystery of why the crime was committed; we already know who committed the murder, but nothing of her motives, which will be the puzzle of this story, as it would so often be in later works. The contrast between the peaceful, quiet night preceding the murder, and the violence of the act itself  mirror the story's concerns with apparent serenity and tensions and high feelings bubbling beneath the surface. All is not as it seems. 

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Wow- what an opening that draws you in & immediately brings to mind those questions we all have about Miss Davis' character & the victim- what was their relationship & what brought them to this point? Stay tuned! Can't wait to see the movie! And the various "lights the moon left"- a character of sorts?

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I was shocked the first time I saw this opening.  The gun shots surprised me and I was more surprised seeing Betty Davis stride purposefully out of the house emptying that revolver.  She never blinked.

 

I didn't know her motivation, but given her dedication to the task assumed cheating was involved.  As she fired she was in shadow externalizing her inner darkness. The moon broke through briefly and she momentarily saw and felt what she'd done.  It was only a moment.  She turned back into shadow and took charge of the situation.

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