LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN
(director/writer: Max Ophuls; screenwriters: Howard Koch/based on the novel by Stefan Zweig; cinematographer: Franz Planer; editor: Ted J. Kent; music: Daniele Amfitheatrof; cast: Joan Fontaine (Lisa Berndle), Louis Jourdan (Stefan Brand), Mady Christians (Frau Berndle), Marcel Journet (Johan Stauffer), Art Smith (John), Erskine Sanford (Porter), Betty Blythe (Frau Kohner), Celia Lovsky (Flower Vendor), John Good (Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger), Sonja Bryden (Frau Spitzer), Leo B. Pessin (Stefan Jr.), Watson Downs (Conductor); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Houseman; Universal; 1948)
“moving weepie woman’s picture.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer Howard Koch bases his florid screenplay on Stefan Zweig’s popular 1932 novel. The Jewish German-born director Max Ophuls (“Le Plasir”/”Madame de …”/”Liebelei”), who fled the Nazis for America to become a Hollywood director during the war years, directs his most interesting American film before heading to Paris after the war. It’s an overblown soap opera melodrama that’s stylishly set in Vienna during the early period of the 20th century. It tells a doomed love tale about a pretty Viennese girl who dreamily falls madly in love with a sophisticated but insincere concert pianist, and learns the hard way her womanizing dream man is unattainable. It plays out as a moving weepie woman’s picture, whereby the title accurately describes the plot line.
It opens with a 27-year-old dying from typhoid Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) sending famous concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) a last letter, that begins by saying “By the time you read this letter I may be dead” and then tells him how she longed for him ever since she was a teenager and how he never even knew her despite their one-night stand that resulted in her giving birth to their son. Stefan reads the moving letter at night as he prepares leaving his residence to avoid a duel the next day. In flashback, we follow how Stefan moved into the Vienna building where Lisa’s father was the janitor when she was 14 and fell in love with him on first sight. When Lisa’s widowed mother (Mady Christians) remarries after her father’s death the family moves to Linz, where her stepfather introduces the now 18-year-old to the marriage eligible Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger (John Good) and she rejects his marriage proposal because she loves only Stefan even though she never met him. Lisa returns alone to Vienna and works in her aunt’s (Sonja Bryden) fancy dress shop, hoping to meet Stefan again in the bustling city. She finally meets lover boy in the wintry street in front of his building while she’s listening to the street singers. That night they dine at a first-class restaurant, amuse themselves on a fake train ride at an amusement park and then dance away the night at the park. She sleeps over his place. The next day Stefan visits her workplace to break a dinner date that night, telling her he must go to Milan to perform but will see her in two weeks. But he never calls her again. The resolute Lisa has his child and never tells him he’s a father. When the kid is nine, Lisa marries a kindly wealthy man (Marcel Journet) and settles into a faux happy family life. When she accidentally meets Stefan at an opera, she can’t resist his advances even though he doesn’t recognize her but just lusts after her. She is still hopelessly in love with Stefan, even though the musician’s career is plummeting downward because he’s more serious about his debaucheries than the music. To be with him, Lisa sends her son back from his vacation to his boarding school. But she will soon learn her son dies when he contacts typhoid on the train. Meanwhile Lisa goes to Stefan’s apartment on a date, but leaves in a huff when she realizes he has no idea who she is despite the hints she gives him. It ends, coming out of the flashback, with Stefan at last recalling Lisa after finishing the letter and is touched when reading that Lisa says she still madly loves him. Stefan now decides after all to fight a duel with Lisa’s husband that he knows he has no chance of winning.
It’s a Hollywood-like fable about doomed love that’s implausible and a bit corny, but it perhaps becomes believable for being so relentless in pushing for romance to shine through such a pursuit of futility. It greatly benefits from two strikingly brilliant performances by the leads. It also takes great skill for Ophuls to put over such an artistic production from such seemingly cliched mush, as the capable stylish director dresses it up with warmth, atmosphere and with old-world European film-making techniques that truly captures in detail the mood of the turn-of-the-century Vienna. It’s one of the rare films that is probably better because of its flaws (as it steadfastly allows its vulnerable and weak willed heroine to be unable to overcome from being possessed by such a raging blind love) and because the conviction Ophuls has for both his characters is so sincere that it makes them seem like real people who are out-of-control and cursed by fate, rather than unsympathetic characters not deserving our pity. It got a mixed reception upon release, but in modern times many noted critics now consider it one of the 100 best films ever made.
REVIEWED ON 2/10/2012 GRADE: A-