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

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I love the way that the opening scene of The Letter sets the stage for the entire movie.  The tranquilly of the opening moments, showing the rubber plantation as everyone appears to be settling in for the night, are broken by a piercing gunshot.  Moments later we see as the murder spills out of the house onto the porch, disturbing the peace that had previously existed on the plantation.  Even more intriguing is the response of the murderer; she seems unfazed and in control, just moments after committing the crime in front of everyone.

 

This film contains many element of what came to be known as the visual style of film noir.  The main element it contains is the heightened contrast of black and white and the use of shadows.  In particular, I am thinking of the murder itself and the immediate aftermath.  The first shot of the murderess shows her in shadow with the contrast of the white beams of the porch behind her.  The closer the camera gets to her face, the more it is obscured by shadows.  The shadows basically provide a mask, covering the emotion that she feels.  Eventually, as clouds cover the moon, everything is plunged into darkness in the moments immediately following the murder.  Suddenly, the moon reappears, and its bright light illuminated the murderess and her victim, causing her to gaze in surprise at the moon, one of the few moments she does not appear to be in control.  In this moment, she is off-center in the frame and her face is lit in a harsh, unflattering way, more characteristic of noir lighting than the diffused lighting typically used for a leading lady.  The lighting also causes her shadow to fall over her victim, reminiscent of the way that the child murders shadow looms over his soon-to-be-victim in M.  She soon turns back to her victim and returns to the shadows.  Until she reenters the house, she remains a dark looming presence on the edge of the frame, never seem clearly.  Once inside, she has composed herself sufficiently that she no longer needs the artificial mask of shadow, and instead keeps her back to others as she calmly delivers instructions about how the “accident” is to be reported.  The only hint of the passions that caused her to commit this murder is the breeze that is ruffling her sleeve as the rest of her remains immobile.

 

There are a few other elements that hint at the noir style.  First, the use of the grid-like wooden wall, through which we first see the house, is effective in suggesting the possibility of a jail cell, as many film noir do through the use of venetian blinds or other such shadows.  There is also the isolation of Leslie in each frame, setting her apart from the others, which becomes quite common in noirs.

 

Of course, this also serves another purpose: it sets the Caucasian colonist against the natives, which is another important theme in the film.  As the movie continues we see how large a role the divide between the colonists and the natives drives the events of the story.  Even in the opening scenes, we see the contrast between the life of the natives and the life in the main house.

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This is one of my favorite movies too. I never remember concentrating on the opening until Bette Davis shots. I was reminded of Joseph VonSternberg here in terms of lighting. Also, the natives reminded me of films made by documentary filmmakers in England in the 30s. The film had a very European flavor to it. I also was struck by the political implications in the opening shot. Colonialism and racism were very striking to me. Wyler escaped Germany and it showed in his cinematography which centered around the apparent reference to the natives being culturally inferior to the colonial murderess.

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The last time I saw "The Letter," I was surprised by how much is shown before we get to the first gunshot. I mistakenly remembered the  movie opening with gunshots. I just researched the original play and learned that it began with the gunshots, and then the curtain rose to show a body on the stage.

 

This version seems like the director is using misdirection, much as a magician would. The viewer is led to believe that something will happen in the area where the workers are. And then we hear the gunshot and the bird flies away.

 

Watching the scene this time, I watched Bette Davis's face closely. She has a very grim expression as she stands staring at the body. Then the camera cuts away to the workers and the sky. When the moon emerges from the clouds, she looks behind her and upward as if she is afraid someone is watching her. This is also misdirection, because the only ones who have seen her actions are the audience. We don't know how much the workers were able to see.

 

When Leslie tells the head man to report an "accident," we know she is lying. 

 

We are on our own. We can't trust the director. We can't trust the main character. Anything might happen now.

 

Suspense!

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Moonlight and rubber tree being sapped of its fluid through a hole in its flesh (vampire motif?), just as Mr Hammond will be later in the scene. The 'poverty' of the plantation where workers are crowded in hammocks, with barely a cover over them is not unlike the tenements of the city.  But all is calm with workers (music, games, sleeping) and animals (dog, bird), until the first shot rings out - disruption to the routine disturbing everyone and everything.  The gun is empty into its victim, indicative of emotional and spontaneous action.  

The femme fatale with a cold stare both of disbelief and deliberation.  Darkness falls to emphasize death has come, and of criminal means.  The moonlight re-emerges, startling the woman, the accusing spotlight singling her out and casting her shadow upon her victim.

She cooly returns inside, calmly and directly commanding instructions to the worker, strong in her control.   The cool, confident, controlled femme fatale, certain of her actions and procedure.

 

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The beginning of the scene sets you up to feel peaceful, as all the workers are lying in their beds or quietly playing cards. Suddenly the peace is shattered by the gunshot and there is sudden movement as the man staggers out the door of the house, while the woman shoots him repeatedly until he collapses. After that there is another change: the workers gather around to see what's happened, and as violently as the woman shoots the man, she suddenly becomes calm and almost bewildered at what's happening. The rapidly shifting light of the moon shines down upon his dead body, and reflects in her eyes. Did she shoot him on purpose? What was the reason and why is she suddenly so calm and collected now?

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I love the opening of THE LETTER, because you are allowed the feel of the setting, before the unexpected surprise of gunshots. Then there is the murder, which takes place right away. Bette Davis always knew how to make an electrifying entrance, and right from the start, you know that this woman is not to be messed with. It is a brauva way to open a film.

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It is usually rare that the femme fatale is the first person we see in a film noir, and already in action!

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Dramatic opening of a movie if I say so myself! I had no preconceived notions of what this was about to entail nor did I look up who was in it. It was a pleasant surprise to see Bette Davis!  

 

The opening music, the dripping of the sap from the tree, the murmuring of the workers as some play games, others sleep... then sudden silence after the first gunshot. Not a peep from anyone or anything.  Then more gunshots and the sudden commotion and noise is overwhelming to the senses, at the same time as the camera slowly zooms in on a calm and cool Davis.  Once the moon disappears then reappears does she seem to realize the situation, then you see her move away as her shadow drapes over the corpse.  Once inside, it is plain to see that her character has taken control of the consequences of her own actions.

 

I have added this to my "must see" list!! Looking forward to Dose #4!

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The moon and the clouds is what struck me about this scene, especially how the clouds covered the moon & darkended the plantation works and then moved from the moon to expose the crime scene. It showed that Bette had nothing to hide.

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Wyler sets up a classic noir contrast from the very first frame--the white moon in the dark, cloudy sky--and follows it up with a series of further blacks vs. whites: the plantation sign in the dark shrubbery, the rubber tree sap against the shadowy trunk, the whitewashed big house behind the silhouetted worker's bunks...

 

...and the murder breaks the quiet night, bursting out of the black and white world into greys, literally and figuratively--why was there a shooting?  What's happening?  We don't know, and it seems like the watching moon even blinks in surprise.

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It is a quiet and moonlit night on a tropical plantation somewhere in south Asia. Sap drips from the rubber tree, causing a minuscule splash. Native workers relax in hammocks under the sky, while one of those still awake plays tune on a horn. 


 


The peaceful stillness is broken by the sudden clap of gunfire, to repeat itself stumbles out of the house, and down the front porch. A white woman, well-poised, empties the leaden contents of the revolver into the dying victim. 


 


Despite the surprise of the plantation workers, the woman, played by Bette Davis, calmly issues orders to a native servant to fetch her husband, away on another one of their plantations. 


 


Something isn’t quite right in this tropical paradise, in the opening scenes or William Wyler’s film, ‘The Letter’.


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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

7 shots...she just ran out of bullets. Looool

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Though the establishing scene did not feel as surprising or shocking (since I am an avid film noir viewer), what was surprising was having a female character be the film noir's protagonist, a genre dominated by male characters and voiceovers, their (mis) deeds and POVs. I love that none other than the incomparable Bette Davis was our introduction into this story of murder, deception, intrigue and exoticism. The sweeping shot and gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting were magnificent. The tropical locale reminded me of a particular scene from Out of the Past. The close-up shots of the moon strike me the most. In particular, the moon's symbolic role in this sequence. First of all, it's a full moon which signals the potentiality of instability and impending trouble. Specifically, the shot right after Leslie kills Hammond and then the moon is obscured by luscious clouds and she is bathed in darkness, an obvious implication and motif of her mental state and dark persona. She is malevolent and sinister. The darkness briefly hides her identity but also reflects that she is consumed by a dark, cold homicidal force. She is our femme fatale after all. Then the clouds dissipate and the moon shines upon her, essentially revealing her as the murderer but also exposing or literally, "bringing to light/highlighting" her malicious, vengeful deed. The light from the moon represents the light of Truth, a light of which she will never escape from. The moon and its phases foreshadow her ultimate Fate. 

 

The film's opening in both visual and thematic terms gestures a shift in Hollywood storytelling but also upholds the key motifs in film noir: the inevitability/inescapability of Fate, humans' duality or rather ambiguity (neither wholly evil or entirely good), low key lighting etc. 

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The tranquility being shattered by gun shots was jarring. I agree with others that the moonlight and the shadowing was both beautiful and ominous. As the shot rang out I noticed a white bird flew away. Was that foreshadowing of peace and tranquility leaving not just a scene but the lives of the characters? (kymz5 on Twitter)

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Certainly contrasts in the opening scene of “The Letter” give it a noir feel. The languid drip of the rubber, the slow movement of the camera, and the men peacefully sleeping, lasts for over a minute before the peace is disrupted by gunfire. But it’s not a single shot. We see Betty Davis coolly empty the revolver. Remarkably, the men are surprised by who she shot, but they aren’t surprised that she shot someone. Those men clearly know and fear her. What makes this scene work above all else is Betty Davis. Humphrey Bogart once said of Betty Davis, “Even when I was carrying a gun, she scared the be-jesus out of me.” Here she is, young and beautiful, and she is still able to summon an astounding inner-strength that very few other actresses had. I think it’s the contrast of Davis’ beauty and her menace that gives this clip that shocking noir effect.

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It seems that the opening of The Letter can be considered an important contribution to the film noir style in that the climax of the film, in this case the murder of Mr. Hammond, occurs within the first few minutes of the film. It then becomes the job of the screenwriter and director to take the viewer back in time.  To show what lead up to this murder, what the character's motivations were, and finally after understanding these motivations, what the logical conclusion to the story would be.

 

To me, this is analagous to the opening of D.O.A., in which Edmond O'Brien shows up at the police station to report his own murder, and then the rest of the movie delves into what lead up to this scene.

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Not surprised at all by the opening of the film due to being a Bette Davis fan.  The slow pan of the camera over the plantation grounds and workers quarters set up the scene for something ominous to happen right away.  The sound of the gun interrupted the tranquility of the workers down time and set the tone for mystery and intrigue.  The clouds rolling over the moon and taking away the light was symbolic to the death of Mr. Hammond as he died the light went out.  I can't wait to see this film.

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If ever an actress or a face was made for noir, Bette Davis was it. I believe I watched this film a while back, but it's time to watch it again!

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Can't believe I have never seen this film....can't wait until Friday!

 

gun shot shatters the night

white (innocent) bird in flight

man stumbles down the stairs

bette fires with a blank stare 

worker shadowed behind bars

moonlight out and leaves the stars

moon shines again in accusing blaze

workers arrive in a daze

bette is calm with a plan in mind

an so the plot begins to wind 

 

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I seem to see a trend in these films, I see that we have what appears to be two worlds sharing the same space...you have the sleeping workers, the slow drips, the calm night, but the gunshots come from the house where apparently something sinister was occuring that the rest were unaware of. When Bette comes out, she is not histerical or overly outwardly emotional, but intent on killing. It apperas more than just defence as she continues to empty the gun on the man as he lays on the ground. The symbol of death/darkness comes into play as the clouds cover the moonlight briefly and then light again. Within the first few minutes we have a death and many questions we need answers...and a feeling that the answers are not going to be neat and tidy or pleasant. Looking forward to seeing this one.

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My thoughts on the moon:

 

I thought about the moon as Davis's mental state with particular reference to the term "lunacy" or "lunatic"; root word luna (moon). At the height of her lunacy when she empties the chamber, it's an exposed bright moon. Once the deed is complete, the moon is covered which may signify her return to sanity and realization of her actions. However, since the moon reappears, we note her reaction and those eyes! It's as though she's teetering between sanity and insanity.

 

Then I considered another subtext on femininity; the phases of the moon and women's reproductive system. Because our cycle is 28 days, it often parallels the phases of the moon (also 28 days). Perhaps this could hint at a moment of hysteria due to the menstrual phase when women are at their most ornery. (I know; it's a stretch.)

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The film begins almost listlessly.  We know already that we're not in an urban setting but rather in a remote rubber plantation in Singapore at the very end of what was probably a long day of hard, physical labor.  We are getting drawn into the atmosphere.  Dreamy music is playing, a number of workers are shown on hammocks getting ready for sleep, others quietly playing games.  The camera moves so slowly that we too are being lulled into drowsiness.  Suddenly a gunshot disturbs the tranquility and the mood becomes very different - angry, violent, perhaps we're witnessing a fit of rage. Tranquility dissolves as the workers run to the manor house to see what has happened.  

 

Was I surprised at what I just saw?  Of course, and very unsettled after seeing a human being murdered deliberately and at close range.  But there's something wrong here.  The person who we know committed the murder doesn't seem malicious, menacing, evil in any way.  She's pretty calm, in fact, as if nothing wrong has happened, in command of her herself.   Suddenly the focus moves from the deadly, malicious murder to something else.  What made this woman perform this act and is it possible in any way that it was justified?  This is yet another great beginning that we'll all remember.

 

I will offer this as a contribution made to film noir:  a deadly act isn't always the culmination of the suspense that led up to it, but just an introduction to the suspense which will follow.  Can't wait to see the movie.

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Calm, poised, and inscrutable, Bette Davis fires shot after shot into the body of a man who staggers to get away from her. As we try to read what's going on behind those famous eyes, a cloud passes over the moon, flooding the scene with shadows. The cloud passes and for a moment, Davis herself seems surprised by the sudden return of light and visibility. But the mask of calm, poised, inscrutability snaps back into place  almost immediately. What was it that might have been there to read in that moment of cloud-shrouded darkness? We almost caught a glimpse of something, of some motive or emotional response. But as soon as the light returned, so did the mask.

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I wasn't as much shocked as intrigued by this opening scene. As far as important contributions to the genre, there are many. This is an excellent intro because it means the audience already knows the end result of the conflict. The writers and director are tasked with telling the story and keeping the audience's attention even when they know the outcome. This could be the end of a long drawn out event that we've yet to see or this could be the middle of the story where the writers must explain why this happened as well as show the audience what happens after. Several other things seem to be important contributions as well. This scene introduces so many elements that could be explored in the film and seem different than the two other intros we've seen, namely: race, class differences, and most strikingly, gender. The significance of the moon and changing shadows was also typical of the manipulation of light in the film noir genre/style-one of the only commonalities in all three of the films this week.

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