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Letter From An Unknown Woman

Next up, a suggestion from one of my CHUD correspondents. Somehow, “palefire” and I got into a discussion a while back and he brought up a director named Max Ophuls. I had never heard the name, but palefire insisted that any decent film geek should be at least somewhat familiar with Ophuls’ work. He listed a few samples of Ophuls’ more famous pictures, all of which are widely regarded as masterpieces and some were even nominated for Oscars. But the one that caught my eye was the one picked for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

That’s right, Letter From An Unknown Woman occupies a space alongside The Terminator, Animal House, Jaws, and over 600 other films that have come to define American cinema. According to the Library of Congress — and I’m quoting straight from the Registry’s website — these films are “works of enduring importance to American culture. They reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.”

I found it hard to believe that Letter From An Unknown Woman could possibly be that important when I hadn’t heard of it before. How could a film be such a crucial part of American culture, and yet be virtually unknown in the mainstream? Maybe it’s just overrated? Maybe it’s just me? I had to find out.

First of all, it bears mentioning that a lot of behind-the-scenes talent went into this film. The movie was a passion project of Joan Fontaine, who later won the distinction of being the only actor to win an Academy Award in a Hitchcock film. In fact, she and sister Olivia de Havilland (another legendary actress, perhaps best known for Gone With The Wind) are the only set of siblings so far to have won Lead Acting Oscars. Anyway, the film was released by Rampart Productions, which was co-founded by Fontaine’s husband at the time. William Dozier would later go on to help create the infamous ’60s Batman TV show.

Another producer was John Houseman, an actor/producer with such an overwhelming career that he should need no introduction. Suffice to say that he took part in this project somewhere in between helping to write Citizen Kane and founding the prestigious Drama Division at Juilliard School. Also, the screenplay was written by Howard Koch. Which means that this movie shares a screenwriter with fucking Casablanca. That should speak for itself.

Now let’s get back to the director. Is this Max Ophuls guy really that good? Man oh man, you better believe it. From start to finish, this movie practically smacks you across the face with how gorgeous the camerawork is. Every frame is a work of art in itself, but it’s Ophuls’ skill with camera movements that made him so revered among film historians. The camera moves so gracefully that it’s a storyteller in itself. There’s an art to it that simply can’t be described in words, and it stands in stark contrast to the cuts and still shots that comprise most films today.

Then we have the cast. Between her sterling performance and some remarkable cinematic trickery, Joan Fontaine does a remarkable job of playing Lisa from her teenage years into adulthood. Of course, Fontaine was so beautiful that I’m sure she already looked at least ten years younger than she really was, but playing a 16-year-old so well at thirty is still damn impressive.

The film’s other big star is Louis Jourdan, another Hitchcock alumnus, who does a similarly good job of aging himself up and down. More importantly, Jourdan does a remarkable job conveying an irresistible kind of mystique. It’s made clear from the opening moments that he’s a total rogue without any honor, but there’s still a kind of magnetism to him that makes him hard to despise.

I could keep going on about the cast and how there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, but I’ve put off talking about the story long enough. See, while every other aspect of this film still holds up beautifully, the story doesn’t.

To the film’s credit, the story takes place in Vienna during the close of the 19th century, so I suppose some aspects of the story were dated even by the standards of the 1940s. It opens with the main character being challenged to a duel, for God’s sake. But the female lead is something else entirely.

See, Stefan (Louis Jourdan) is a retired musician who plans to skip town instead of taking part in this duel someone challenged him to for unknown reasons. But when he gets home, he finds a letter for him that opens “By the time you read this, I may already be dead.” Quite a hook, no?

The letter was left for Stefan by Lisa (Joan Fontaine), who fell madly in love with him when she was just a teenaged girl living nearby. The letter details their parallel lives, as Lisa describes all her precious moments with a man she loved for eternity even though he barely knew she existed. Even after she gave birth to his son. Yes, I’m totally serious.

Stefan does meet Lisa at various points, but he never really learns anything about her. He never even learns her name. What’s more, Stefan is such a ladies’ man who travels around the world so frequently (touring with the orchestra, you see) that he forgets all about her after every encounter. Even better, so many years pass between meetings that they’ve both grown into different people by the time they hook back up. So it’s like the first time every time they meet and fall in love.

It’s an interesting premise, but one that might pose a lot of problems for modern audiences. First off, the story is told from Lisa’s point of view. This means that we spend the whole picture following a young girl who spends her entire life pining for an older man after he looked at her sideways for five seconds. Even after she knows about his rampant promiscuity — she sees him bring another woman home with her own two eyes, for God’s sake! — she just can’t go on without him. Speaking of which, Lisa shows a lot of stalker-ish tendencies that might raise a few eyebrows.

Moreover, Stefan points out multiple times that he doesn’t know anything about Lisa during their time together, and she still gives him nothing. There’s even one point when she could come right out and say that he’s the father of her child, but she doesn’t. Granted, that doesn’t relieve him of all culpability, but it seems wrong to pour all the guilt on him (like this film does) when she does so little to make things any easier.

Basically put, the story is a melodrama. The emotions (not to mention the score) are heightened and the tension is exaggerated past the point of anything that might be considered reasonable. Luckily, Fontaine and Jourdan are both more than talented enough to sell their characters, and it certainly helps that they’re reading Howard Koch dialogue. It’s not exactly Casablanca, sure, but what is? Oh, and the visuals are drop-dead fantastic, let’s not forget that.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this film actually got a remake in 2004. The remake was notably set and shot in China, which doesn’t exactly have the best track record for treating people as actual human beings. As a case in point, the remake was set from the ’70s to the ’90s, when childbirth out of wedlock was still allowed. Additionally, the American film quite notably toned down the sexual content of its source novella, to get past the censors of the 1940s. What the Chinese censors did to the 2004 remake, I can’t begin to imagine.)

When you get right down to it, Letter From An Unknown Woman is a film about how two strangers can affect each other in improbably far-reaching ways, and how even those closest to us can still be emotionally distant. Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan both do a stellar job of selling the themes, even if their characters are too melodramatic to hold up by modern standards. Though the plot can be contrived in places, the presentation is phenomenal and the camerawork alone is worth a recommendation. Definitely give it a look.

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