Sunday, June 2, 2013

202. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Running Time: 86 minutes
Directed By: Max Ophuls
Written By: Howard Koch, Stefan Zweig, from the novel Brief einer Unbekannten by Stefan Zweig
Main Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians, Art Smith, Howard Freeman
Click here to view the trailer


After "Letter from an Unknown Woman" there are only three films left for me to watch that come from the decade of the 1940s. To be honest, the 40s really haven't been too kind to me, nor I to them. As I write this, only ten movies from THE BOOK, from the 40s, have been granted an appearance on my TOP 20 lists and I don't have high hopes for this one either.

The film is told almost entirely in flashback. The film opens with Stefan Brand (Jourdan), a concert pianist, arriving home at night and finding a piece of mail. The mail (that is the letter from the title) is from Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) and we slip into our flashback. We head back to when Lisa was a teenager, in Vienna, living in a closely set group of apartment houses and remembering back to one day when a moving van showed up outside the residence. It was Stefan and he was moving into one of the vacant apartments. Lisa recalls being infatuated with him, despite not even seeing him for the longest time. She'd hear his music from the courtyard and happily daydream about the man behind the melodic tones. One day, as he's exiting the building, she holds the door open for him and is put into a dream world when he smiles back at her and thanks her. Time goes on and Lisa recalls her mother remarrying and having to move away from the building and resisting the idea passionately. The new family moves to Linz and Lisa eventually settles in and swallows the pill she's been served. Fast forward years later and Lisa is back in Vienna, working at a dress shop. Through a series of events, she and Stefan meet and he's infatuated with her. He courts her for the evening, as the two have dinner, visit an amusement park (in the winter) and ride on a novelty train. They (in not so many words) pledge their love to one another, but the following day, Stefan announces that he must go away for a concert. While he's away, Lisa learns of her pregnancy (by Stefan) and wanting to be the one woman who never asks him for anything, she doesn't bother telling him about it. Years later Lisa is married to a wealthy man and raising her son, but does she ever see Stefan again?

Honestly, I think I have to blame myself for not liking this one, as I just wasn't in the mood for this sort of thing last night. I was never going to love "Letter from an Unknown Woman", but I think under different circumstances, I would've liked it a bit better. In fact, I was totally taken by surprise by this movie, because going into it I had absolutely no clue what it was even about, so maybe that worked against it too. Judging by the title, the film sounded like a murder mystery and the word "unknown" alone got my mind to thinking that this film must be filled with intrigue. As it turns out, it was just a melodramatic love story about a girl who gets a crush on a semi-celebrity and kind of goes a little crazy. I mean, Lisa turns the stalker dial all the way up to '11' and somehow we're still supposed to be rooting for her, hoping to God she gets the guy. Look, if Lisa had existed in the real world, we'd be wrapping her firmly in a straightjacket and ushering her directly into her personalized padded cell. But this is Hollywood in the golden ages folks, where stalkers were considered romantics and Humphrey Bogart was ALWAYS...ALWAYS a bad ass.

Am I reading far too much into this or is it possible that Lisa made up the entire letter? I mean, what are the odds that this world traveled pianist is going to give this girl the time of day, let alone fall in love with her? If you think about it, we never get a confirmation from Stefan that this letter and the contents are genuine. Sure, he looks a little rattled at the end, but hearing from a stalker can rattle a guy...I'd think. I'd really like to think that Lisa was indeed mad and that everything contained within the letter is utter make believe on her part. Even the whole part about him not remembering her, when they hook up again, years later is just too hard to believe and sounds like something a man hating female might be disillusioned over. I'm probably totally off track and I guess what I'm trying to say is that romance like this just doesn't exist outside of the world of an overly melodramatic movie. Call me a skeptic, but it's true. The performances were fine and had I seen him in something a little more my style, I would've absolutely loved Louis Jourdan. He oozed that classic Hollywood star look and backed it all up onscreen. Fontaine was kind of *meh*, playing it a little too cool and quiet and I'll take "Rebecca" any day over this. All in all, it was an utterly average night at the movies and maybe someday, when I'm feeling extra sentimental and overly romantic, I'll give this one another go around.

RATING: 5/10  Another incredibly mediocre film and now I really need things to pick up to send this season off the same way it started...with a BANG!


June 2, 2013  8:02pm


  1. Good morning Andrew...
    I really quite enjoyed this one.
    For some reason, the bit where they are on the fairground 'rail journey' sticks in the mind.
    I think your thought that the whole thing is in her imagination is quite possibly valid.. I had the same thought, and I think others have as well. (It's a long time since I looked it up on IMDb).
    And yes, in several films the idea that relentlessly chasing the object of your desire is seen as romantic, and shows that your love really is true.. when in the real world there would be police restraining orders and people changing phone numbers and fitting extra locks.

    1. Good to know that my theory of the whole thing being in her imagination holds some water. This was all just too sappy and melodramatic for me.


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