LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN—overlooked when it came out in 1948, only nudging placement #117 at the box-office, the second of director Max Ophuls four Hollywood films is now rightly considered a classic.
Unrequited love in early 20th-century Vienna. Bedazzled teenager ‘Lisa Berndle’ is swept off her feet by suave older pianist ‘Stefan Brand’. Upon separation, she carries a torch for him into her adult life while he chalks her up as merely another conquest fancy. Roses bloom, but they only last in memory. Saying any more about the plot bruises the exquisite spell cast by Ophuls seamless visualization of a 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig, skillfully adapted by Howard Koch. 86 minutes of reverie & revelation.
Though shot entirely on sound stages in Hollywood, the capture of a courtly, tradition-steeped old Europe is flawlessly rendered in the careful art direction, precise casting choices, and evocative scoring. Next to the wistful feel for period, place, attitude and detail is the sustained mood. That near-swooning, yet naturally occurring intimate and dramatic immediacy is created through the director’s sinuous, gliding camera movements, stylistic flourishes that manage to be intricate and expressive yet at the same time organic and invisible.
The deeply felt but restrained performances are beautifully modulated. Joan Fontaine, 31, fully convinces as the shy girl maturing into a worldly sophisticated woman, yet one still trapped by her conviction that fate guides destiny. Like other wronged Fontaine heroines (Rebecca, Suspicion, Jane Eyre), honesty is her strength and weakness, her sincere heart the real adversary. Newly arrived 27-year-old French heartthrob Louis Jourdan plays 41, and strikes every note with assurance. A cad earns distinction in his category of heels (subset of bastards) from having charm enough to sell his wares with conviction, even to himself (otherwise he’d just be a simple jerk), and Jourdan persuades.
Wonderful scene has the lovers enjoying a rolling-canvas cyclorama ride, a charming precursor to movies, which has painted scenic tableaux representing different countries run by their carriage while merry music plays in the background, the scenery moving past from human pedal-power off stage.
Franz Planer was the cinematographer, Danielle Amfitheatrof finessed the soundtrack. With Marcel Journot, Mady Christians, Art Smith, Howard Freeman and Erskine Sanford.
“Oh, if only you could’ve recognized what was always yours, could’ve found what was never lost. If only..”