From Max Ophüls, the legendary director of such film classics as The Earrings of Madame de… and Lola Montès, comes a timeless tale of love and obsession. In Vienna during the early 20th century, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan, Gigi), a concert pianist whose amorous ways have eclipsed his musical talent, is preparing to flee the city on the eve of a duel to be fought over a recent dalliance when he receives a Letter from an Unknown Woman. Moved by its contents, he'll come to realize that the author is not a stranger, but Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine, Rebecca), a woman he's known since her youth and discarded as he has so many others before her. But this time, Stefan's cavalier behavior will have tragic repercussions.
Featuring the master filmmaker's trademark gliding camera, baroque imagery and lush atmospherics (courtesy of cinematographer Franz Planer, The Big Country; art director Alexander Golitzen, Phantom of the Opera; set decorators Russell A. Gaussman, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry and Ruby R. Levitt, Chinatown), Max Ophüls' Letter from an Unknown Woman, based on Stefan Zweig's novella of the same name, is written for the screen by Howard Koch (Casablanca) and produced by John Houseman (They Live by Night).
So-called “women’s pictures” raked in plenty of box office dough during the 1930s and 1940s, and surely bolstered the tissue industry as well. These emotional melodramas often portray their heroines as resilient victims who willingly weather poverty, hard knocks, bad decisions, unwanted pregnancies, and social disgrace all in the name of unrequited love. Sometimes the endings are happy, sometimes sad, but they almost always induce a raging torrent of cathartic tears. (It’s practically impossible to sit through Stella Dallas, Dark Victory, or Now, Voyager without reaching for the Kleenex box at least once.) Though often unfairly derided for their shameless manipulations, these movies remain popular because they tap into core emotions both women and men (if they’re man enough to admit it) can relate to.
Letter from an Unknown Woman wasn’t particularly successful at the time of its release, but has grown in stature over the years and stands as one of the period's better romantic dramas. Its initial lack of appeal may have stemmed from its understated presentation, ethereal nature, and European flavor - elements that make the movie more accessible today. Director Max Ophüls (billed here as Opuls) concentrates at least as much on atmosphere as he does on the narrative, crafting a beautifully appointed, lyrical picture that brims with both artistry and emotion, yet lacks the syrupy tone, tired clichés, and hysterical histrionics that often derail this type of film.
In turn-of-the-century Vienna, weary sophisticate Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) returns to his modest flat late one evening to inform his loyal valet he's been challenged to a duel...and plans to avoid the confrontation by skipping town before dawn. The dishonorable cad then smugly settles down with some cognac and begins reading a letter that arrived that very day from a woman he doesn't quite remember. It begins, "By the time you read this, I may be dead." The author of the letter, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), then recounts through flashback the first time she saw the dashing Stefan when she was a grubby teenager and he was a rising young pianist rapidly gaining renown.
With disarming honesty, Lisa describes her instant attraction to Stefan, which quickly evolves into full-blown obsession. A quiet, shy girl, she hides in doorways and alcoves to watch Stefan enter and leave his flat, and spends hours beneath his window listening to him practice. She never makes her presence known and he never notices her, but the glamorous women who enter his apartment after lavish evenings on the town make a huge impression on her, and Lisa longs to be one of them. Years later, she finally gets her wish. She catches Stefan’s eye by chance on the street, he wines and dines her, flatters her to a fare-thee-well, and after the inevitable night of passion, assures her their fateful union will last. When he leaves unexpectedly on a concert tour, he promises to return to her in two weeks. When he doesn’t, Lisa’s life unravels.
The titular letter drives the narrative and we see all the characters and events through Lisa’s filtered lens. Stefan comes across as a self-absorbed hedonist who cares more about women, booze, and parties than honing his talent and maximizing his considerable artistic potential. Yet his shallow allure blinds the insecure Lisa, who puts him on a pedestal and willingly makes many sacrifices in the hope of turning his head. Though the film initially inches along as Lisa languorously moons over Stefan, the pace quickens after the seeds of obsession are sown, and the story builds to an operatic climax. Ophüls casts a hypnotic spell, using his fluid camera and long takes to draw us into the action like Stefan draws women into his web, and the elegant tone heightens the tale’s emotional pull.
Fontaine specialized in demure roles, and her work in Rebecca, Suspicion (for which she won a Best Actress Oscar), and Jane Eyre cemented her reputation as a tremulous leading lady with an underlying and deceptively strong resolve. She’s at her absolute best in Letter from an Unknown Woman, exhibiting a confidence that’s absent in those earlier films. Over the course of the three-act drama, she ages almost 20 years, but is most impressive as the impressionable teen, projecting an innocence and wide-eyed wonder that’s alternately captivating, pathetic, and disturbing. Fontaine is also gorgeously photographed and never overplays, even during her most heartwrenching scenes.
Jourdan, fresh from a fine supporting turn in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case the previous year, tackles his first starring role with aplomb. Stefan is a charming but not very likable fellow, a smooth operator who’s adept at seduction and believes love is little more than a parlor game, yet he almost fools us the way he fools Lisa. Jourdan, who would play a similar but more light-hearted character in the musical Gigi a decade later, handles the part’s duplicitous demands well, and his own transformation at the end of the film lends Letter from an Unknown Woman a haunting resonance.
Yet however wonderful Fontaine and Jourdan may be, Ophüls is the maestro who delicately conducts this romantic symphony, and he fashions a film that’s lovely to look at, inventively constructed, and perfectly pitched. The script’s subtle complexities infuse the movie with more depth than similar love stories of the era, adding fascinating psychological elements that beg to be re-examined during subsequent viewings. As women come forward today to address the wrongs they suffered years earlier at the hands of insensitive, manipulative men, Letter from an Unknown Woman gains renewed relevance, and its substance poetically complements its breathtaking beauty.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Letter from an Unknown Woman arrives on Blu-ray as part of Olive Films' Signature Series. It is packaged in a standard case inside a sturdy, handsomely designed slipcase. An eight-page booklet featuring an essay by esteemed film critic Molly Haskell and a few black-and-white scene stills is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Letter from an Unknown Woman receives a brand new, first-class 4K restoration that brings renewed luster to the cinematography of Franz Planer (billed here as Frank) and Ophüls' fluid, artistic direction. Excellent clarity and contrast distinguish the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, enhancing depth and highlighting background details like faded wallpaper and decorative items. A lovely grain structure preserves the film-like feel but never calls attention to itself, and superior gray scale variance lends the image essential texture. Black levels are rich and inky, the whites of Fontaine's delicate gowns, a lavish fur coat, and snowy streetscapes are bright and well defined, and terrific shadow delineation keeps crush at bay most of the time. Close-ups are sparingly employed, but always showcase the glamour of both Fontaine and Jourdan. Small droplets of water on Jourdan's face are visible, as is the super-fine weave on Fontaine's veil. (The picture is so clear, you can even spot a fly buzzing around Jourdan’s head - during the supposed dead of winter! - in one shot.) Reflections on windows and polished wood are stunningly sharp, and any specks, marks, or scratches have been meticulously erased from the print. This is another superior rendering in the Olive Signature series that will surely thrill fans of this impeccably mounted production.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated that beautifully complements the film's delicate action without ever overwhelming it. Subtleties like rain, horse hooves clicking against cobblestones, and the irksome squeak of a swing come through cleanly, while more potent accents like clanging church bells are crisp and distinct. A wide dynamic scale embraces all of the track's highs and lows without any distortion, including the swells and nuances of Daniele Amfitheatrof's romantic score. Superior fidelity and tonal depth allow the music to fill the room with ease, and all the dialogue - even when spoken in hushed tones - is easy to comprehend. Best of all, no age-related hiss, pops, or crackles disrupt the movie's numerous quiet stretches or break its hypnotic spell.
All the extras are exclusive to this Blu-ray release (see below).
Lyrical, romantic, and heartbreaking, Letter from an Unknown Woman is the kind of elegant weepie they don’t make anymore. Yet the artistry of director Max Ophüls elevates this tragic tale of a demure woman’s secret and all-consuming obsession with a self-absorbed lothario to admirable heights. Another stellar entry in Olive’s Signature Series, this handsomely packaged release features a stunning 4K restoration, excellent audio, and an impressive array of supplements. So grab some Kleenex and enjoy this beautiful, understated classic that only gets better with age. Highly Recommended.