10 Classics for 2013 list, and tonight was LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948), starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan.
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN was directed by Max Ophuls, whose next two films, CAUGHT (1949) and THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949), I've enjoyed tremendously.
I felt less enthusiasm for LETTER FOR AN UNKNOWN WOMAN than for the other two movies; LETTER has a wonderful lead performance by Joan Fontaine -- indeed, it's a "must see" for Fontaine fans such as myself -- but I found the storyline unappealing.
THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943). In both movies Fontaine plays a gamine who feels unrequited love for an older musician.
But whereas THE CONSTANT NYMPH maintains an air of delicate enchantment for the entire length of the film, in part because the musician (Charles Boyer) is oblivious to the depth of the girl's feelings, there's an unpleasant overtone to LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Lisa (Fontaine) becomes the mistress of Stefan (Louis Jourdan), who promptly abandons her. Let's just say it doesn't end well for anyone.
The Self-Styled Siren, Farran Nehme, has written an excellent appreciation of both the film and Fontaine's performance. She concludes that Fontaine "helps turn Ophuls' film into a tale of obsessive love not as masochism, but a heretical, even noble pursuit." My issue with the film is that I couldn't see it that way, only seeing the folly of Lisa's fantasy love, but the Siren offers a thoughtful alternate take. I find Fontaine such a gifted actress that I really wish I could like the movie itself as much as the Siren does.
It's interesting that the other two Ophuls films I've seen to date also feature women who don't make wise choices. I especially like THE RECKLESS MOMENT, which has such rich lead performances by Joan Bennett and James Mason, taking place against the backdrop of a very ordinary Balboa Island home. That film also has the strongest female character of the three films; Bennett may initially make a foolhardy choice, but she's a resilient woman determined to protect her family. I could watch THE RECKLESS MOMENT over and over, and it's worth pointing out that that movie is a terrific "outside the box" Christmas film as it all takes place while Bennett is trying to organize her family's Christmas celebration.
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN runs 87 minutes. It was shot in black and white by Franz (Frank) Planer. The movie may have been made in soundstages but it's visually exquisite, complete with a snowy amusement park. There's a fascinating sequence in which Fontaine and Jourdan "ride" in a train with make-believe scenery going past the window -- a very early version of a Disney "dark" ride, with the scenery moving instead of the vehicle.
The supporting cast includes Mady Christians, Art Smith, Marcel Journet, John Good, and Leo Pessin.
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN is available on DVD or Blu-ray from Olive Films. It can be rented from ClassicFlix.
This movie is also shown on Turner Classic Movies, where it will next air on January 2, 2014.
A trailer can be viewed at IMDb.