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


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If I wasn't aware of how the scene opened, I would definitely be shocked. I love the cloud covering the sun and then moving off of it again. That moodiness and the the coldness of the way she acts definitely fits in with Film Noir.

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I agree that it does feel a little like Sunset Boulevard. This also does establish the storytelling technique of starting at the end and having the majority of the film be a flashback like in Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. The full moon was an interesting to start with and made me think of the Universal horror films. Especially for 1940, what a way to start a movie.  

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I'd seen the opening to "The Letter" before online somewhere, but not the rest of the movie. This was the film I chose as the one I'm most eager to see on Friday for the survey earlier. I've always really wanted to see where it went from there, but somehow never got around to watching it. The first time I saw the opening, I remember being very surprised when the peace of the moonlit evening on this plantation was interrupted by gunshots, following a man coming out of the house and falling down while being shot by none other than Bette Davis.

 

Seeing the opening again, I was struck by a few things. The use of lighting, the clouds moving across the moon, the shock of the moment itself, but most of all Bette Davis herself. She once said that she could convey something very complicated with a look, and here she proves this remark was not an idol one. She doesn't say a word, but just scowls at the man she just killed as the camera zooms into her faces. In another shot, we see her long shadow cast over his body as the moon comes out from behind the clouds. The other really striking thing is how frightened everyone seems to be of her. She tells one of the men on the plantation to send someone for the district officer, telling them to say that there has been an "accident", and this man is dead, to which he hurriedly agrees without question. 

 

In short, those four things--the unexpectedness of the murder, the look of loathing on Bette Davis's face, her shadow over the dead man's body, and the intimidation she seems to inspire in those around her--make the opening to "The Letter" so memorable. I look forward to finally seeing this film in its entirety. 

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William Wyler is a great Director. The opening scene in “The Letter” is played at the rubber plantation in Malaysia. The scene is very effective with the sound of the droplets in the bucket, camera movements and lighting. Added surprise comes from the sudden gun shots just when the camera is showing all workers taking nap. The whole scene combined with the lighting, camera movements and sudden gun shots is a definitive contribution to the Film Noir style.


Bette Davis is one one of the greatest stars. The entry of Bette Davis with the gun is very good. The camera moves to the sky, where there are clouds. After firing 6 shots she walks down the steps, looks at the body and the sky. When the workers arrive in the house, she makes the firm statemnt about the accident and asks for the District Officer to come.


 


Chai Vaidya


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William Wyler wastes no time sending the viewer, an observer, right into the middle of the action. We are placed in the middle of an average night on a rubber plantation at the end of a work day. Nothing appears unusual until our tracking shot is interrupted by a heart stopping gunshot. We are unaware of the circumstances but clearly see Betty Davis' character committing the act stone faced and determined until the clouds cover the light of the moon creating a sinister scene and revealing the true nature of her actions as the moonlight reveals her cast shadow on the victims body. The workers gather around curious and concerned but not seeming surprised or threatened. Her demands for assistance and help are met without question. Our job now, as the observer, is to piece the rest of the action together in order to solve her actual motives.

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I know this has been said numerous times by many others, but I love how the movie opens with a serene, tranquil feeling...dripping sounds, men laying in hammocks, etc.  Then, the jarring, unsuspecting gun shots reverberate.  The sounds almost go through you as if you were the one being shot!!!  But, is it just me, or is it interesting to note that not after the first shot heard, but the following ones did the camera shift to the others (i.e. the workers, animals).  Why did W. Wyler cut to the people after the first shot was fired? But, waited until Bette Davis fired a second, and a third, and so on?  I think that's one of the more surprising points in this opening scene, besides beginning a movie with a murder...for that time period.

 

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I'm really looking forward to watching this one again.  It's a favorite of my Mom's (who's a huge classic movie fan - it's where I got my passion from!) but the first time I saw it I was SO underwhelmed.  So I'm excited to give it another shot (so to speak.)

 

So no, I was not surprised by what happened, but I can certainly see how jarring it can be for a first-time viewer.  You can practically feel the heat and humidity, and the thick but peaceful air.  The bird (John Woo?) taking off at the first shot, then the dogs and workers responding to the second...third...fourth, and then finally Bette looming over her doomed man.  It is a pretty cool scene.

 

Why is it Noir?  How ISN'T it Noir?  Once again, there is the use of shadows and contrasts using a light source and a barrier.  Plus, someone getting shot in the beginning of the film and the mystery unraveling after is a Noir staple.  :)

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I can't say I was surprised by the opening scene, but from the questions asked I was certainly expecting something jarring to happen so I'm sure that's why. However, knowing the film is film noir and having the first few shots be so tranquil definitely put me on edge and made me feel like something bad had to be on the horizon. It is film noir, after all.

 

The mystery of the opening scene helps contribute to the film noir style, because aside from the sign telling us we're in Singapore, the audience knows nothing. There's no introduction of characters, setting, plot background, etc. Instead, the film thrusts its audience straight into action with a murder that disrupts an otherwise peaceful night.

 

The opening can be seen as an important contribution to the film noir style largely in terms of aesthetic, as well. The lighting in the opening scene reflects a lot of what film noir is about. The slow pan shows the darkness of night surrounding the workers, and the full moon going back and forth behind the clouds adds an element of extremity between light and dark (both literally and figuratively). The moon's sudden illumination of the setting parallels with the suddenness of the gunshots and murder. The lighting changing from light to dark can also symbolize the morality of the workers (good) against the morality of Bette Davis's character (bad).

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There is no who in this whodunit! To have the major star, Bette Davis, pulling the trigger, with no explanation whatsoever is jarring indeed. Even more disturbing is the unperturbed look on her face as she shoots Mr Hammond--and after.

The play of light and shadow is masterful here. The winking moonlight, the shaft of light from the house, the contrast of the bright, white dripping rubber and the dark, mysterious night--the almost palpable heat of a summer night--all combine to make this a perfect opening to a great film!

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Filming this scene in an obvious studio set limits the dramatic impact. The elegance of the tracking shot can't be denied, and the structure of the scene is quite brilliant. While director Wyler can be credited for the mis-en-scene, the writers of the screenplay own the scenario - Somerset Maugham for the story and Howard Koch for the script.

 

Too often in discussions on film and particularly film noir too little attention is paid to those who created the scenario.

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I had never seen this before. The moon going in and out (revealing her dirty work) was a nice touch, but what struck me was her presence. I mean, she emptied a gun into the guy in front of dozens of people, yet not one of them calls her on the fact that she calls it an "accident", or even laughs at the audacity of it all. Not many people could pull off that scene; it's amazing.

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This movie has to be one of my all time favorites and conceivably, in my opinion, one of Bette Davis's best performances. 

 

This opening scene catapults everyone out their reverie and into an explosive event that will potentially affect the lives of everyone who becomes involved. After shooting this man with reckless abandon, Mrs. Crosbie is quietly and without emotion, aware of the severity of what she has done and yet she can remain calm and cool headed enough to instruct her staff as to what needs to be done. Mrs. Crosbie is the quintessential cold, calculating, lying, selfish and manipulating noir female.

 

I am not much into symbolism in movies as I am into character building and story telling. This movie exposes the weaknesses and unpredictable reactions of the other characters who are inextricably intertwined in Mrs. Crosbie's devious plot to save herself.

 

For an interesting comparison, there is the 1929 version with Jean Eagles. It was pre-code so there are noticeable differences between the two.

 

I am looking forward to my next Daily Dose to which I am, admittedly, becoming addicted.

 

"Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night".

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Haven't seen this one yet so I was surprised by a couple of things:


 


  • Island music playing in the background, but then you actually pan to the musicians playing that music! Thought it was just the score - wonderful reveal in the long tracking shot.
  • Despite the staged "jungle", everything is in its place...tree sap slowly dripping methodically (as the other paid before had), workers resting, lazy weather slowing the pace. Then...BANG! Then even more surprisingly, she follows the victim out and empties the chamber with determination.
  • Usually murders are committed on the sly and the murder tries to cover their tracks. Here we have forty witnesses.

The moonlight dipping in and out of the cloud did two things - the worker's face behind the bamboo (like prison bars) recoiled when darkness hit, but the re-emergence over Bette Davis shone like a floodlight (or a cop's flashlight) taking her out of the moment and snapping her into action. Back into the house (her "zone", so the workers on now on her "turf". She gives orders she knows will be obeyed without even facing the men.


 


Obviously she has control over this plantation and these people. She's going to use them to cover this up and has no doubt her story will hold. But who was that man to her? Why was he killed? Who is she?


 


Yep, you grabbed my attention.


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The remarkable thing to me was the light. When the camera came up on Bette's face after the shooting, it was already heavily shadowed, foretelling a dark background.

 

Then the moon went behind the clouds throwing all the people on the plantation into darkness.

 

Then, the moon came out from the clouds, and we saw from Bette's POV, as if she were just seeing what she had done and realizing the extent of it.

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Yes, I was somewhat surprised by the opening of William Wyler’s The Letter because I would have expected that the presumed plantation owner and husband of Bette Davis’s character would be a principal figure in the story, not someone to be killed off in the first scene.  This may indicate that a flashback will be used to provide the back story that led to this brazen homicide.  I was also surprised at how unabashed she is about committing the murder in the presence of so many witnesses and dropping the weapon in plain sight on the stairs near the corpse, even if she does refer to the death afterward as an “accident.”

 

Contributions to the noir style I see in this opening scene are:  the low-key lighting on Bette Davis as she fires shots 3, 4, and 5 into the man on the stairs (probably a lighting arrangement to which this Hollywood icon was not accustomed), continued in the close-up at 1:54; the even lower lighting used on Davis as the moon is eclipsed by a passing cloud, symbolically setting a dark and somber tone for future action.

 

I was struck by how Wyler let the camera linger for such a long time on the rubber tree with the latex slowly dripping down to the collection bucket below.  Will this image have greater significance later in the film?  Also, the latex dripping from the tree is strikingly white, as white as the moon in the opening shot.

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The Letter is my favorite Bette Davis movie.  I've seen it many times but have never thought of it as film noir until now.  In my opinion this film is  far superior to the 1929 version which starred Jeanne Eagels (side note - Herbert Marshall was in both the 1929 and 1940 films) and had more of a stage play feel.  In the 1940 film you definitely see the beginnings of film noir with the lighting technique, the femme fatale, the taboo (Hammond married to an Asian woman).  It's great that this course already has me looking at a favorite film in a new light.

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I found it very surprising as well to see the murder played out so clearly so early in the film. It's rather ingenious, though, because it adds to the mystery rather than detracting from it. Instead of wondering who pulled the trigger, I am just desperate to find out why. The smooth camera work and serene setting are a great juxtaposition to such a jarring turn of events.

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At the beginning of the letter, suddenly,  we see a woman shoots to a man,  altering the peace and quiet of a tropical plantation,.The camera shows us the hard face of the woman, a flawless Bette Davis, obscured and illuminated alternately by a moon that comes out and is hidden in the clouds. We know that there was a crime, the lights and shadows  portending us that perhaps, the protagonists are toys in a struggle between good and evil where victims and perpetrators confused.  This is an important "noir" element.

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The exotic music and the workers relaxing lull you into a false  sense of security.  When the first shot rings out you almost don't realize what is happening.  However, when the other shots come it stirs up everyone & everything out of their reverie and into chaos.

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The opening scene of The Letter did surprise me because usually films do not open with such a dramatic scene. It is not until the half through the movie that a climax takes place. The Letter instead pushes the audience into the movie having them ponder what caused to kill a character within minutes into the movie. 

 

It is important to the film noir style because rather than being eased into a dramatic situation The Letter dives right into it. It takes a different direction in story telling and grasps the attention from the audience almost immediately. 

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I love Bette Davis--she has the greatest expression (or lack thereof) in the opening scene of The Letter. If you're going into it knowing it's film noir, then you can't be too surprised that Wyler opted to create a serene yet clearly ominous mood before the shots ring out. The perspective is very interesting--you feel like you're walking (even when the camera pans to the rooftop of the shelter) through the vegetation and then peeping in on the men as they obviously unwind after working in the fields. The shot of the moon as Davis glances upward and then drops the gun is interesting--is she looking for an answer? Worried she will be caught with the gun in the moonlight? Fixated on something else we don't yet know? (I'm thinking the latter--one must conclude the details will be told in flashback, another noir device). I know I've watched parts of this movie, because I don't think I've missed any Davis films going all the way back to Of Human Bondage, but I'm looking forward to viewing from start to finish.

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I have seen the letter a few times before but I never really noticed it as film noir. It made me look at it differently. I loved how Wyler used the moon for his lighting technique. When the moon comes out from behind the clouds, the look on Davis' face shows that she can no longer hide what she did. It just makes you want to know more about what happened.

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I am not much into symbolizm in movies as I am into character building and story telling. This movie exposes the weaknesses and unpredictable reactions of the other characters who are inextricably intertwined in Mrs. Crosbie's devious plot to save herself.

 

 

I totally agree with sheriff34's statement about symbolism.

 

A few things stood out for me visually.  The pan/montage from the hut/bunks to the front of the house between 1:05 and 1:09.  Quite cleverly done.  Then Bette's expression in the zoom in to close up from 1:30 to 1:53.  It begins with anger towards the now dying man and then when she drops the gun, a bit of horror at what she had done.  Then when the camera cuts back to her, she's contemplating what she needs to do next.  Finally, her right hand never closes and stays open in the same position from the moment she drops the gun.

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Wyler introduced a new opening style for film noir. It deviated from the voice over narrative structure of the detective stories or the sleek smoky urban settings. Instead he shocks the viewer by first presenting a rural, quiet night scene permeated by nature's serene sounds and a disappearing moon light when suddenly a graphic shooting scene takes place in plain view. I felt like that white parrot' fluttered and frightened. No question about who the murderer is. None.

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