Possibly the most European film ever made by an American studio, Letter from an Unknown Woman is a simple story that achieves astonishing complexity thanks to two terrific lead performances and especially because of the direction of Max Ophüls.
Ophüls (1902-1957) was a German Jew who, like so many other Hollywood greats (Billy Wildler, Fritz Lang, to name just two) came to America as a refugee from Nazism. One of the last European directors to immigrate to America, he found it difficult to get jobs and spent most of the war years struggling to survive. He made films in America for only three years in the late 1940s, then returned to Europe to round out his career.
The vast majority of Ophüls’ films are romances – especially doomed romances – and most take place in an historic setting. They generally assume a woman’s point of view, and he has often been pigeonholed as a director of “women’s pictures,” although that is a huge oversimplification.
Ophüls is widely considered one of the cinema’s great stylists whose narrative skills and visual creativity often elevated clichéd stories into the realm of high art ... in the same way that a great opera score can turn a cheesy and psychologically unrealistic plot into timeless tragedy.
Letter from an Unknown Woman begins late one night in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The womanizing concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) is hurriedly preparing for a quick trip. He’s been challenged to a duel by a cuckolded husband and needs to be out of town by sunrise.
But his packing is interrupted by the arrival of an unsigned letter from a woman who claims to have been in love with Stefan for most of her life. Her long infatuation is chronicled in the letter, and as Stephan reads we see the story unfold in flashback.
The writer/narrator is Lisa (Joan Fontaine), who is a mere adolescent when Brand moves into her apartment building. He is handsome, talented, and worldly, and for an impressionable teen he seems the ideal man ... even if there is a steady stream of women in and out of his apartment.
Eventually Lisa and her family relocate to another city, but as soon as she comes of age she returned to Vienna, hoping against hope to run into Brand. She does and they embark on an intense and wildly romantic affair which ends with him going off on tour and Lisa discovering she is pregnant. The gallivanting Brand quickly forgets about Lisa and never knows that he has a son by her.
Lisa marries a decent fellow but cannot forget Brand. When she sees him at the opera her love for him is reignited ... with tragic consequences. (The film shares with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a heroine elevated/undone by her love for an unworthy man.)
Fontaine’s performance (she already had won an Oscar for Hitchcock’s Suspicion) is a masterpiece of internalized emotion. For starters, there’s the actress’s ability to age over the course of the film from a fresh-faced and immature-looking girl to a middle-aged woman. But what really amazes is the way in which she hooks the audience into her obsession.
It’s obvious to everyone that Brand – though admittedly charming and handsome – is an emotional infant incapable of long-term fidelity. He’s all devotion and attention…until a new toy catches his eye.
But Fontaine is so good here at she makes us understand Lisa’s devotion, even if rationally we oppose it.
Much the same can be said of Jourdan, who is so childlike that his behavior seems less a betrayal than something that springs from his basic nature. You might as well condemn a jackrabbit for mating with every doe in sight.
But the real star of the show is never seen. Ophüls takes full advantage of Hollywood’s glamor machine to create a Vienna that is musical and magical, yet at the same time a bit seamy and desperate.
Brand’s seduction of Lisa largely takes place in a cheap amusement park where the lovers sit in a fake railway carriage while vistas of distant lands – painted on huge canvases – scroll by outside their window. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for a guy who is superficially charming yet totally fake.
Ophüls is known as one of the masters of camera movement and it’s worth watching Letter... a second time just to soak up his visual storytelling – the lighting, the way individual shots are framed and the ways in which the mobile camera moves through the set. It’s like a crash course in cinematography: pan shots, tracking shots, crane shots, tilted shots.
But it’s not just a case of showing off. Ophul’s choices have been carefully made to move the story along, to provide subtext and contrast.
Ophüls was so in love with the moving camera that Brit actor James Mason, who appeared in two of his films, wrote a humorous poem on the subject:
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again.
Other films in the series “Give Us a Kiss”
August is “Romance Awareness Month.” Who knew? In any case, you’ll get a romantic charge from this series of films about love.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 3: Brief Encounter (1946) Not Rated
- August 10: Stairway to Heaven (1946) Rated PG
- August 17: The Apartment (1960) Not Rated
- August 24: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) Not Rated
- August 31: Casablanca (1942) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.