Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature)
- Street Date:
- December 5th, 2017
- Reviewed by:
- David Krauss
- Review Date: 1
- December 11th, 2017
- Movie Release Year:
- Olive Films
- 87 Minutes
- Release Country
- United States
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
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.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
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 Audio: Rating the Sound
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.
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
All the extras are exclusive to this Blu-ray release (see below).
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
True to form, a number of absorbing supplements grace this Olive Signature release, providing context and perspective on this classic film.
Audio Commentary - Max Ophüls expert Lutz Bacher sits down for a detailed scene-specific commentary that focuses heavily on Ophüls' "long-take, camera movement style" and the film's day-to-day production history. Bacher notes Ophüls favored atmospheric shots over narrative ones, much to the frustration of his producers, John Houseman and Wiliam Dozier (Fontaine's husband at the time), whose recollections Bacher frequently shares. He also talks about the budget issues that plagued the film, censorship worries, abandoned concepts, and how problems on the set affected production. Bacher describes in detail many camera set-ups and their inherent challenges, and outlines the differences between a shot's intended presentation as denoted in the script and its final execution. Though a bit of plot analysis and background information on the cast and crew would have enhanced his discussion, Bacher does a fine job painting a portrait of the film's day-to-day production and Ophüls' struggle to make the motion picture he originally conceived.
Featurette: “A Deal Made in a Turkish Bath” (HD, 13 minutes) - Oscar-winning documentarian Marcel Ophüls, son of the director, shares his memories of his family’s emigration to the United States after his father’s name showed up on a Nazi death list. He also recalls his dad’s struggles after he arrived in Hollywood, and how a meeting with a studio executive in a Turkish bath landed him the job directing Letter from an Unknown Woman. It’s a treat to hear these reminiscences from the 90-year-old Marcel, who says he learned grace, elegance, and a sense of structure from his very talented father.
Featurette: “An Independent Woman: Changing Sensibilities in a Post-War Hollywood” (HD, 17 minutes) - In this informative piece, professor Dana Polan discusses the evolution of independent films, how they blossomed during the post-World War II period, and how Letter from an Unknown Woman fits into the equation. He also talks about the influence of wartime social issues on the film, censorship problems, the personal contributions of Ophüls to the script, and how the movie didn’t live up to its “prestige” expectations.
Featurette: “Ophülsesque: The Look of Letter from an Unknown Woman” (HD, 17 minutes) - Cinematographers Ben Kosulke and Sean Price Williams celebrate Ophüls‘ artistry and rue the fact that some of the techniques he employed during the 1940s cannot be replicated today, because the equipment has evolved beyond them. The two also analyze the characters and story, examine the “moving frame” and long takes that define the film, and discuss the movie’s soft lighting and dearth of close-ups.
Video Essay: “Letter from an Unknown Woman: Passion’s Triumph” (HD, 24 minutes) - In this fascinating visual essay, film scholar Tag Gallagher dissects the film from various angles, calling it “a melodrama inside the head of a woman possessed by passion.” Gallagher argues Lisa creates her own movie through her letter and we only see her as she sees herself. He provides an in-depth analysis of Lisa (painting her not as a victim or saint, but as a “willful manipulator”), addresses the sadism and masochism that pervade the story, and compares Letter from an Unknown Woman to Ophüls’ other movies. This absorbing essay really gets under the film’s skin, makes many fine points, and enhances appreciation for this romantic classic.
Essay by Molly Haskell (HD) - The essay by the venerable film critic that appears in the booklet that accompanies the disc also can be read on screen - a nice touch.
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.
- BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
- BRAND NEW 4K RESTORATION of the film
- 1080p/AVC MPEG-4
- DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
- English SDH
- Audio Commentary by Max Ophüls expert Lutz Bacher
- "A Deal Made in a Turkish Bath" - interview with Oscar-winning documentarian Marcel Ophüls
- "An Independent Woman: Changing Sensibilities in a Post-War Hollywood" - interview with professor Dana Polan
- "Ophülsesque: The Look of 'Letter from an Unknown Woman'" - with cinematographers Ben Kosulke and Sean Price Williams
- "'Letter from An Unknown Woman': Passion's Triumph" - visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher
- Essay by critic Molly Haskell
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