Sunday, 8 June 2008

Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophuls, USA)

Max Ophuls' brief sojourn into Hollywood film making provided three undeniably terrific films. As well as 'Letter From An Unknown Woman', 'Caught', in which a woman marries a millionaire who reveals himself to be sadistic and controlling and 'The Reckless Moment', in which a mother tries to protect her daughter but becomes vulnerable to two blackmailers. Both films examined and scrutinised American values, but from an outsider's perspective for Ophuls was German, much like his contemporaries such as Sirk and Wilder who used melodrama and noir respectively for the same purposes. Both films were preceded by 'Letter From An Unknown Woman', whose source novel had been filmed before, but this remains the definitive and best known cinematic version. A superior melodrama, it's up there with the likes of 'Mildred Pierce' if we're looking at the better "women's pictures" of the time.

Set in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century, it's the tale of a love affair that has existed over decades and ultimately ruined the lives of both participants; Stefan (Louis Jourdan), a gifted concert pianist and Lisa (Joan Fontaine), who loved him from afar and eventually has two ill-fated romantic dalliances with him. Ophuls begins with a glorious opening scene, one of the finest I recall, as Stefan receives a letter that stops him in his tracks - "By the time you read this, I may be dead". Until now Stefan has been a carefree playboy who thought nothing of moving from woman to woman. Now he has to face up to the responsibility of his actions. How Stefan got to this point is now revealed to us through flashbacks. He moved into Lisa's apartment block when she was a teenager and she developed an unrequited crush on him that unfortunately for them both never ceased, even after she left Vienna for Linz.

Over the next two decades or so, they meet now and again as she pursues Stefan and her dream of them having a life together. He never recognises her, she does of course. His intentions every time seem honourable enough - it's not as if he treats her as a one night stand, but we realise that Stefan is incapable of settling down with any one woman. His and Lisa's motivations are always completely different, and whilst their fates are inextricably linked forever, they can never have what either of them want. He says to her during their first affair; "promise me you won't vanish", to which she responds "I won't be the one who vanishes". It's as if she knows what his behaviour is like and how he treats women and that his promises are hollow, but this doesn't dissuade her at all. Her attraction and feelings overwhelm any common sense.

Lisa fell pregnant after their first fling, and she had since managed to achieve respectability by marrying a man with wealth and status, yet she jeapordises this by conducting another affair with him. The consequences of this were not only her husband's rejection but also her son's death as he contracted typhus when she was with Stefan and he did not reach the doctors in time. This might not directly be a moral judgement on her behaviour and rejection of respectability, but it's interesting how one's sympathies don't directly lie with Lisa and make us totally condemn the irresponsible Stefan. In many ways, they are equally weak-willed and motivated by hopeless dreams. However, their mutual attraction proves ultimately fatal and the final irony is the fact that Stefan's mute servant was aware all along that the girl who Stefan conducted two brief affairs with were in fact the same woman.

Ophuls would further develop his interest in romances determined by fate in 'La Ronde' and 'Madame de...'. His two following Hollywood films both featured scenarios in which love could be poisonous and that self-sacrifice and self-destruction were potential consequences of this. 'Letter From An Unknown Woman' probably remains the most enduring and impressive of the three films Hollywood films mentioned, certainly one of the defining melodramas of the age, with two excellent central performances and assured direction from Ophuls. 4.5/5

1 comment:

Puppetmister said...

Hi, Kevin. Great blog.

I've often taught Letter from an Unknown Woman on film studies courses, using Murray Smith's work on identification and emotion, and George M. Wilson's chapter on the film in his Narration in Light. I'm always surprised (and sometimes pleased) by how varied the responses are from students. A lot of them have no sympathy for Lisa, deeming her an obsessive, stalking fantasist. The narration melodramatises the connection with Stefan and gives it a privileged status, but we really know he couldn't care less about her, even when he appears to see the error of his ways at the end. Personally, I find Lisa's position of blind devotion really tragic, even if her family suffers in the process. My students often had trouble adopting sympathetic relationships with characters who they would not want to hang out with in real life.