If Max Ophuls hadn’t cooled his heels in Hollywood to flee the Nazis, his name might have conjured only the most unintelligible of foreign cinema—vague and inaccessible to the average American filmgoer. But in 1948 Ophuls was given an opportunity to display his legendary technique in a movie no one would have trouble understanding, the indulgently romantic Letter from an Unknown Woman.
From the first moment that Joan Fontaine’s eponymous unknown woman begins to speak—“By the time you receive this letter, I may be dead”—we’re hooked on this hypnotic tale of fatal attraction, adapted from a novel by Stefan Zweig. Ophuls lovingly recreates turn-of-the-century Vienna on a studio backlot: the opera, the rathskellars, the toffee vendors, snow-covered Prater Park complete with wax works and a magical rolling-canvas cyclorama ride. It’s an ideally moody locale for a story bathed in the wintry light of memory. Ophuls’ artistry is such that the transparent theatricality of the sets only enhances the film’s old-world aura, while toying with the idea of life as illusion.
Letter from an Unknown Woman begins on the eve of a duel, introducing the dashing, philandering and now aging pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jordan) as he assures his mute servant (the Group Theater’s Art Smith) that he is in no danger—“Honor is a luxury only gentlemen can afford.” In the subsequent flashback, which occupies virtually the entire film, Brand is faced with the bitter irony of his life. In a written deathbed confession, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) recounts her lifelong unrequited love for him—first as a shy teenage neighbor who swoons as he practices his solos, then as a young woman whom he seduces and abandons. Years later, comfortably married for the security it provides to his child, she risks everything by offering herself to him one last time.
By the end of this movie-length denouement, Brand has realized that the tragically, at times pathetically, devoted Lisa embodied the unobtainable muse-like love he has always sought. But as in the best tearjerkers, it’s too late. Most of the time, Ophuls manages to rescue the film from abject melodrama, offsetting Lisa’s desperate lack of humor with a parade of comic characters—the cyclorama cyclist and his wife, the all-female string quartet, Lisa’s fluttery mother, the conspiratorial maitre d’—who reveal Ophuls’ sophisticated, cynical vision.
What might sound like a libretto for an opera is surprisingly effective through the combination of Howard Koch’s witty and literate script, Daniele Amfitheatrof’s lush score with its haunting theme, and Ophuls’ European sensibility (realized through his reunion with cinematographer Franz Planer, who had shot Ophuls’ first great German success, Liebelei). Joan Fontaine, consummating her celebrated knack for playing the awkward girl-on-the-verge-of-womanhood (as seen in Rebecca and Jane Eyre), gives one of the most sustained performances of her career. As for Louis Jordan, Letter from an Unknown Woman was his second American film, and although producer John Houseman felt he lacked “sex,” he does bring a blend of intellect and narcissism to the role and captures all of Stefan’s facile charm.
Houseman claims that he and Ophuls often came close to blows over the director’s time-consuming obsession with elaborate camera movements. (James Mason, who starred in two other Ophuls films, was inspired to write: “A shot that does not call for tracks/Is agony for poor dear Max, Who, separated from his dolly, Is wrapped in deepest melancholy./Once, when they took away his crane,/I thought he’d never smile again.”) Nonetheless, Houseman and Ophuls were both thrilled with the results. But the critics and audiences of 1948 rejected the film, and the studio abandoned it as callously as Stefan did Lisa—even misspelling the director’s name as “Opuls” in the credits. Dumped on the market by Universal, the film vanished from sight.
Ophuls made two more Hollywood films before returning to Europe, where in 1950 he finally received long-delayed international recognition with La ronde, like Liebelei based on a play by Schnitzler and set in 1900 Vienna. He had a successful run of movies, but like the protagonist of one of his own films, fate threw him a curve. The overly ambitious Lola Montès destroyed his credibility and his health. He died in 1957, and until this Criterion Collection edition, the shimmering Letter from an Unknown Woman has been available only in chopped-up, wee-hour TV slots.