Monday, December 11, 2017

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Stefan is a tortured artist. A once celebrated composer, he has abandoned his craft for a transient life of excess. He leaves a trail of broken hearts behind him. A wealthy man has challenged him to a duel, one Stefan doesn't plan to go through with. When he arrives at his home, his butler John presents him with a letter. It's from someone he doesn't quite remember, a dying woman named Lisa. Lisa has been in love with Stefan ever since she first laid eyes on him at the tender age of 16. Over the years she follows his career and longs to be with him. They have a short and passionate affair that leaves her bearing his child. Every time she comes into his life, Stefan doesn't remember Lisa. She's relegated to the status of unknown woman. Lisa's letter tells Stefan the story of her love for him, the one he's neglected to appreciate over the years.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is Lisa's story. We follow her from her teenage years all the way until the delivery of her letter to Stefan. The film stars Joan Fontaine as Lisa Brendle, the impressionable and shy young woman whose fierce devotion to the object of her affection makes her more of a tragic figure than her early demise. Fontaine plays Lisa at different stages at her life. At the age of 30, which Fontaine was at the time of filming, it's difficult to pull off playing a 16 year old. However, Fontaine's natural talent for playing shy yet passionate characters makes an impression. Had they cast another actress to play teenage Lisa, the viewer wouldn't have felt such a strong connection to the character as they do when they follow Fontaine as Lisa throughout the film.Louis Jourdan plays Stefan, the impossibly handsome composer who refuses to be pinned down by life. The only constant in his life is John (Art Smith) his mute butler. It drives me mad to see how Stefan can forget Lisa so quickly. Doesn't he realize just how special she is? The art of this film is how it makes one feel so strongly about a fictional character.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Directed by one of the greatest directors of all time, Max Ophuls, Letter from an Unknown Woman is a stunning movie. It's rich in emotional drama without becoming overly sentimental. The audience enters the world of Lisa and Stefan giving us the room to understand and sympathize with Lisa as we follow her journey. Stefan is elusive and feels just out of reach, much as he does in Lisa's life. The film boasts trademarks of Ophuls work including European sensibilities, a complex and interesting female protagonist, a duel, and luxurious sets and costumes that are pleasing to the eye.

The story is based on a novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The plot had to be toned down quite a bit for American movie audiences. Produced by Joan Fontaine and her husband WIlliam Dozier's company Rampart Productions, the film got its start at RKO. However they couldn't get the plot past the Hays Office. Max Ophuls convinced Universal Pictures head William Goetz to let him make the movie when Ophuls cornered Goetz in a Turkish bath. At Universal, screenwriter Howard Koch adapted the story. Because of the increasing number of independent production companies and players, members of the Hays Office knew it would eventually get made so they negotiated with Universal on several plot points to get it approved. Most notably the couple, and their son, had to be punished for having relations out of wedlock. I suspect that having the story based in Austria helped their cause. American audiences could relegate the behavior of the protagonists as something those naughty Europeans do. The otherness of the characters was less threatening than if they were Americans going against their own moral code.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the perspective of the story. Most see it as Lisa's point-of-view. It's infuriating for viewers to see how Stefan neglects Lisa and can't fully remember her when he encounters her again. She loves him with such fervor so why can't he wake up and appreciate this? The only person Stefan seems to remember is his mute butler John. Possibly because he is the only person who does not ask Stefan for anything. Unlike Stefan's many romantic flings or admirers of his music who demand new art from him. Another school of thought places the perspective on Stefan. He reads Lisa's letter and imagines her story through the filter of his own ego. In this way she is a more submissive, loving, and self-sacrificing character than what she might have been in real life.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is the second Max Ophuls movie I've watched but won't be my last. Ever since my viewing of The Earrings of Madame De... (1953) I've been very interested in Ophuls as a director. Letter was made during the ten years in which Ophuls lived and worked in the United States before moving back to France. In the early 1930s, Ophuls predicted the rise of German Nazis and as a Jew wisely fled Germany for France. He held out in France for as long as possible. However, a serious threat by the Nazis forced him to leave France and after a short stint in Switzerland, he made his way to Hollywood. The film industry already had plenty of European emigres. Ophuls found it difficult to break into the business. He worked as an independent director with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s production company, Universal Studios, Paramount Studios and MGM making one film with each. After the war, Ophuls moved back to France and continued his film career there.

Olive Films has released a limited edition Blu-Ray of Letter from an Unknown Woman as part of their Oliver Signature line. Only 3,5000 copies have been made and once they're gone, they're gone. Olive Films already had a Blu-Ray edition of this film but the Signature edition is a collector's item fans of the film will want to have. The film has undergone a 4k restoration and looks absolute brilliant. The Blu-Ray is tucked into a beautifully designed and slender slipcase. The bonus features include commentary by Litz Bacher, a Max Ophuls expert who speaks specifically on the production of the film. Also included are interviews and essays. I particularly enjoyed the video interview with Max Ophuls' son Marcel Ophuls who speaks at length about their time in the United States.

The Olive Signature Edition of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is a must have for classic film collectors and Max Ophuls enthusiasts alike. Thank you to Olive Films for sending me a copy for review!

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