Saturday, December 07, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

I'm moving into the home stretch watching the titles from my 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 initial outline of the film is not that dissimilar from a Fontaine film of half a decade earlier, 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.

Fontaine's layered performance is gorgeous, particularly her depiction of Lisa as a young girl; my issue was not at all with Fontaine, but with her character. I was pained by the fairy castles Lisa constructed for herself, which are ultimately smashed; her unwise obsession begins as a charming childish fantasy, spinning dreams as she listens to Stefan play the piano, but later it becomes simply annoying, particularly when she indulges in selfish behavior which hurts others. I couldn't understand Lisa's continuing fixation on Stefan, given his abandonment, and her withholding of love from the kind man she married.

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

This movie is also shown on Turner Classic Movies.

A trailer can be viewed at IMDb.


Blogger barrylane said...

Audiences at the time of release responded as you have done. They stayed away.

9:44 AM  
Blogger LĂȘ said...

Since I havne't seen The Constant Nymph, I had no problems enjoying Joan's performance and character. I liked this film very much and I didn't see time passing.
If you want to read my review, it's here:

9:13 AM  

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