Letter from an Unknown Woman is one of the greatest films of the ’40s, and therefore of all time. It’s recognized as such now, having been drafted into the National Film Registry quite early (1992) and receiving no end of rapturous accolades, but its reception in 1948 was somewhere between mixed and dismissed. The new Olive Signature Edition revises its previous no-frills Blu-ray with an astoundingly clear 4K restoration and a host of extras to place it in critical context. While extras are nice to have, this is one classic that doesn’t need them to justify the investment, as the movie is quite special enough.
The film re-creates, or perhaps simply creates, a never-never Vienna somewhere in the late 19th or early 20th century, long before the destruction wrought by two world wars. Director Max Ophuls (billed as Max Opuls) and cinematographer Franz Planer (billed as Frank Planer), both Austrian Jews who landed in Hollywood thanks to Hitler, fabricated this film out of memory and fantasy, as abetted by ingenious art director Alexander Golitzen and the lulling, aching score of Daniele Amfitheatrof.
Their source is the 1922 short story of the same name by Stefan Zweig. The fascinating Zweig, who is returning to his own thanks to a series of recent reprints and biographies and the 2016 biopic Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (enjoy PopMatters’ interview with director Maria Schrader here) wrote heart-rendingly elegant cries from the soul about people who live with romantic regret. He too fled Hitler, landing in Rio de Janeiro where he and his wife killed themselves in 1942.
So the film is first a landmark of ravishing atmosphere made by craftsmen in command of the Hollywood studio machine, and to what use is all this artistry lavished? The story reveals a simple and complex tale of love achieved and denied, a tragedy that refuses to feel sorry for itself, a triumph of weltschmerz whose sure handling keeps it light on the schmaltz. Its layers of interpretation and emotional meaning, combined with its impeccable style, yield an endlessly re-watchable film that changes, as film critic Molly Haskell observes, with time and with you.
Here’s the story: Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan, never better) comes home dissipated from a late night, the carriage discharging him at his boarding house while two friends arrange to pick him up in a few hours for a duel. Apparently, he crossed the wrong husband. The friends, who don’t seem very worried about him, speculate on whether he’ll keep the appointment, and they know him well. When he enters his rooms, he tells his butler John (Art Smith) to pack a suitcase and call a cab for the rear entrance, for “honor is something only gentlemen can afford.”
Strangely, John is mute but not deaf. He glides around as silently and perfectly as the ever-mobile camera, always where he is needed, an all-knowing angel or figure of fate wearing his symbolic weight unobtrusively. John indicates a letter that has materialized out of the ether on the hall table, and Stefan spends the night reading it as it unveils the movie’s long flashback.
Stefan is a charming object of beauty whose promising career as a pianist is diverted by “too many talents”, by an inability to go beneath the pretty surface of things. Such is the perception of teenage Lisa Brendle (Joan Fontaine), who fell under his spell as soon as she came home from school and wondered at the beautiful harp in the moving van.
The letter tells of how she spent years devoted to him, unnoticed. When she opens a door for him, the composition and lighting make her look as though she’s in a prison cell. Finally, one night she’s rewarded with the lothario’s glance and spends a magical period with him. The time frame makes it unclear if it’s a single jam-packed night with many stops or, as in the story, several nights, but the point is that it’s the highlight of Lisa’s life and leaves her with a souvenir in the form of a son whose existence she’s never revealed to Stefan before this letter.
More details build to a powerful ending that’s unlikely to leave many viewers unmoved, even as we’re frustrated by the characters’ behavior. Is Lisa the ultimate co-dependent masochist or the ultimate libertine who lives by her own rules? Does she see clearly or does she live in a world of delusion — or are these things, miraculously, the same? And how far removed is that from the way we all live our lives? The fact that these questions run through our minds never finally to be answered to our satisfaction, is part of this movie’s bewitchment.
Lisa’s one of those flummoxing, flabbergasting goddesses who emerged from Hollywood and America’s contradictory morass of double-standards and were played by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich. She’s also in a line with other heroines of Ophuls’ output, often trapped in romantic obsessions. These are inescapably, gloriously “women’s movies” about the choices women have or don’t have, and how they navigate the world through sheer cussedness. The frequently doomed heroines seem at once a parade of anthropological specimens for our bemusement and the only people that matter.
Lisa, unlike those other Golden Age movie heroines, is the opposite of a glamour puss or an iron maiden. Perhaps only Fontaine, who won an Oscar for her nameless, nervous heroine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), could have pulled off this species of quietly radiant doormat who observes everyone with a knowing eye and is equally comfortable as a working-class frump or bedecked in jewels and furs. At one point, Lisa huddles before a niche with a mother and child lit by a votive candle, a composition that underlines Stefan’s exclamation that she’s an angel while foreshadowing her fate as a martyr to her own madonna.
This film was made at a time when the Hays Office insisted on punishing “sin” (like sex outside marriage), but Zweig’s characters always punish themselves and this story felt so transgressive that the Office initially rejected it outright. Fontaine’s husband William Dozier, who loved this story, had been determined for years to make it as a vehicle for his wife, and he founded his own company to produce it semi-independently through Universal. This became a way of navigating the Production Code with a series of negotiations discussed in one of the extras.
The audio commentary by Lutz Bacher concentrates exclusively on a detailed history of how the film was shot, with Ophuls forced to modify many of his ideas for the elaborate tracking shots that are his trademark. The result is a compromise between his vision and the demands of more traditional Hollywood editing and budgets, as overseen by Dozier and producer John Houseman — yes, the same Houseman who worked with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and later starred in The Paper Chase. The screenwriter was Howard Koch, another Mercury Theatre alumnus who’d won an Oscar for Casablanca (1942) and was only a few years away from being blacklisted.
Compromise it may be, yet this remains a festival of lavish shots as the camera probes, sweeps, lifts and snakes its way up steps and down halls and across courtyards, not quite calling attention to itself while contributing to the dreamlike sense of fate and claustrophobic melancholy in the dance of near-misses that is these characters’ lives.
While Bacher’s commentary contains interesting facts for techies and style-mavens, his clumsy, uninflected delivery doesn’t appeal to the ear. More engaging is Tag Gallagher’s visual essay, Dana Pollan’s piece on how to read Lisa as a postwar heroine, and an appreciation by young cinematographers Benjamin Kasulke and Sean Price Williams. They speculate on whether the film we see, illustrating the narrated letter, is Lisa’s view of reality or whether it’s Stefan’s projection of how she sees him. This ambiguity is part of the film’s vexing tease: whose world is it anyway? The only certainty is that nobody’s left unscathed.
Best of all is an interview with Ophuls’ son Marcel Ophuls, the documentary filmmaker of Shoah (1985). He tells personal stories, such as how Robert Siodmak put the Ophuls family in his Hollywood bungalow and helped the father get work. Most intriguing is the statement that his father had become a French citizen and made propaganda broadcasts against Hitler, resulting in promises from the German government that he’d be shot when they invaded France. Marcel observes that some people think his father floated above the world of politics because of the romantic and period nature of his movies — “that he was the nonpolitical Jew. That’s bullshit.”