Director: Max Ophüls
David Thomson calls Letter from an Unknown Woman "a perfect film." I wouldn't go that far myself, but it is a very good one, not quite of the same caliber as La Ronde, Lola Montès, or the sublime Madame de, but in quality still close to those masterpieces. The film follows the lifelong infatuation of a woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), with a concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan). She first encounters him as a teenager when he moves into the apartment building in 19th-century Vienna where she lives with her widowed mother. She is separated from Stefan, on whom she has developed a girlish crush, when her mother remarries and the family moves to Linz. As a young woman, Lisa cannot free herself from her romantic obsession with Stefan and refusing offers of marriage, moves back to Vienna to become a salon model. She sets about stalking Stefan and after he finally notices her following him one night, he seduces her and has a brief affair with her before abandoning her and leaving Vienna.
Pregnant by Stefan, Lisa has her baby and decides to keep him. Several years later she marries a wealthy older man and lives a comfortable but passionless life with him until one night she encounters Stefan at the opera. Seeing him again revives her feelings for him, and she arranges a rendezvous at the very apartment house where as a girl she first met him (a detail that gives the movie a wonderful circularity, in a way a foretaste of La Ronde). When she arrives, she realizes that he doesn't even remember her from any of their past encounters, that the passion she has nursed all those years has been completely on her part.
As this brief synopsis makes clear, Letter from an Unknown Woman has much in common with the later work of Ophüls. It deals with sexual liaisons, marital infidelity, and the emotional damage that can result from fervent romantic passion. It is as fatalistic—its tragic outcome as inescapable—as Madame de and even ends the same way, in a duel that Stefan, like Vittorio de Sica's Baron in that film, is fated to lose but refuses to evade. It uses the device of a letter from Lisa to Stefan (the letter of the title) to provide the framework for the film's episodic narrative structure in the same way as Peter Ustinov's ringmaster's spiel in Lola Montès or Anton Walbrook's direct-to-camera narration as the storyteller in La Ronde or even the diamond earrings as they pass from one person to the next in Madame de.
Letter from an Unknown Woman has none of the detached irony and wit of those later films, though, going instead for the straight-ahead romantic approach of the Hollywood "women's picture." Even though it contains many elements of the conventional Hollywood soap opera—unrequited love, self-destructive romantic passion, illegitimate child, separated lovers, tragic ends for practically everyone involved—the movie seems far above the sentimental tearjerkers that were a staple of the studio years. For one thing, the emotions seem wholly genuine, not the synthetic passion of the standard tearjerker. The reason for this is the way Ophüls treats the story. The subject and the plot may be super-romantic, but the way he tells the story is realistic—restrained where most movies of this type are exaggerated, matter-of-fact where they bludgeon the audience with contrived and highly manipulative sentimentality.
The real impact of the movie comes not from ersatz sentiment, but from the authenticity of the emotional situation it depicts. Lisa has completely invested herself in an almost religious devotion to her intense feelings for Stefan. At the end of the movie, just when she believes that her most cherished desire is about to be realized, she suddenly sees that her entire emotional life has been based on a vain and pathetic self-delusion. The person she has made the center of her world literally doesn't even know she exists; her feelings for him not only have never been returned, but haven't even been recognized. The result of this epiphany is nothing less than emotional devastation. Anyone who has experienced anything resembling Lisa's situation will understand the power of her response and will also recognize that the authenticity of Ophüls's vision comes not from genre conventions, but from acute observation and personal memory.
The greatest practical obstacle Ophüls must overcome to get the viewer to accept the movie's premise is to make plausible Fontaine's portrayal of Lisa at three distinct periods of her life: as a teenager, a young woman in her mid-twenties, and a mature woman in her mid-thirties. Admittedly, making Fontaine, who was in her early thirties when the film was made, believable as Lisa requires a huge stretch of credibility, but he and Fontaine just manage to bring this off. Together, they convey these three different ages of the character through subtle adjustments in her appearance, through changes in her hair and costume that reflect her advancing age and social station: the lank, shoulder-length hair and the shapeless clothing that emphasizes her slender, undeveloped figure as a teenager; the middle-class shopgirl attire and pinned-up hair of her twenties; and finally the elegant, low-cut formal gowns, brilliant jewelry, and stylish coiffure as a chic socialite in her thirties. Ophüls also has Fontaine subtly modulate the timbre of her voice and the increasing self-assurance conveyed by her physical bearing as she matures. We see the continuity of the person over the years, but these subtle outer changes make it just believable that a compulsive Lothario like Stefan, who looks upon women more as objects than as individuals, might not. The lovely Fontaine was hardly a great actress, but with the help of Ophüls she gives one of her most accomplished performances, one that ranks right up there with those she gave for Hitchcock in Rebecca and Suspicion, in a part similar to those two but more demanding.
Viewers who prize directorial prowess will find much to admire. There are, of course, the customary extended takes and elegant, gliding camera moves of Ophüls. Then there is the vivid way that, confined to the studio and working on what was clearly a limited budget, he captures the look and atmosphere—and at the same time suggests the pervasive class divisions—of late 19th-century Austria. (The cinematography, by Franz Planer, is especially gorgeous in the pristine print recently premiered on TCM.) The cobbled streets, bourgeois beer gardens and exclusive restaurants, opera houses, modest apartments with their shared courtyards and opulent townhouses, and the clothing the people wear, from everyday street clothes to elaborate military uniforms and the formal evening wear of the rich—all these details relay the movie's setting as graphically as in the later films. We are always aware that the events in the movie occur in a distinct place and time, a place and time quite different from our own and forever locked in the past. The film is as much an elegy for a vanished way of life as it is a tragic love story, and it is this melancholy mood of the transience and the often illusory nature of both love and life that, as in much of Ophüls's work, lingers after the movie has ended.