Max Ophul’s Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948) is a majestic misfire; sumptuously photographed by Franz Planer and expertly played by its two principles, yet strangely failing to captivate with anything more than a few brief fits and sparks of melodramatic brilliance, otherwise interspersed between interminable bouts of narrative lethargy. Under strict adherence to the production code governing morality and ethics in motion pictures, and as watered down in a screenplay by Howard Koch, the original Stefan Zweig novella suffers a few minor changes that ironically have a major impact on the overall arc of the story. The film blunts Zweig’s essentially tawdry tale of illicit passion turned to regretful tragedy into a soppy melodrama with few intelligent things to say.
Koch inexplicably changes the protagonist’s profession from writer (in the novel) to famed pianist; presumably because a musician is more easily perceived as the romantic figure that could so completely stir and corrupt an impressionable young girl’s heart. The novel never bothers to name either lover, but the film affords them both proper monikers: Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) and Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) accordingly. Our story begins in the present with an aged Stefan challenged to a duel at dawn over the virtue of a lady. Stefan accepts this challenge, then rushes home to pack and flee Vienna in the middle of the night. He is thwarted in his hasty departure by the arrival of a letter by messenger that ominously begins “by the time you read this I will be dead…”
We regress to the Vienna of Stefan’s youth in the quaint Bohemian district; a modest boarding house. Lisa, a waifish teen spends most of her days carelessly bored, becoming transfixed with amour for Stefan, then a rakish concert pianist occupying the upstairs apartment. Stefan is a charismatic, though exceptionally heartless creature who indulges his vices without a thought for the various women he wines, dines and assigns to his little black book of conquests. Feminists will have a field day with Fontaine’s rather wall-flowered portrait of puppy love, so lulled into complacency by the elegant refrains of music wafting from Stefan’s window sills; so blind in its worship of his male beauty that she is willing to completely overlook and/or under-appreciate the glaring severity of his personality flaws that will ultimately lead them both into lives of abject misery.
Lisa is hardly Stefan’s type. In fact, he barely notices her. But she feels as though her entire world is coming to an end when her mother (Mady Christians) develops an attachment to Herr Kastner (Howard Freeman), a wealthy merchant who intends to marry Frau Brendle and move the family to Linz. On the day of their departure Lisa quietly disappears from the train depot, skulking back to Stefan’s apartment. Unfortunately, he is not at home. Determined to make Stefan love her, she waits all day and most of the evening for his return, only to witness his arrival very late with another woman on his arm whom he intends to take upstairs to his apartment. Distraught, Lisa resigns herself to a new life in Linz. Her mother and Herr Kastner diligently endeavor to transform her into a young lady, and attempt to craft a romance for her with Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger (John Good), an officer of good breeding whom Lisa briefly dates.
However, when Kaltnegger proposes marriage, Lisa lies that she is engaged to a man from Vienna and that it is only a matter of time before they are married. Heartbroken, Kaltnegger accepts Lisa at face value and departs. But Lisa’s parents are not quite as forgiving. So Lisa decides to defy them both by moving back to Vienna where she gets a job as a model in a fashionable dress shop. However, unlike the other models – who treat their dalliances with the male clientele as just another perk of their profession – Lisa remains true in her unrequited love for Stefan, keeping a vigil outside his apartment, even during the cold winter nights, in the hopes that he will eventually take notice of her.
Almost miraculously, this daydream comes to pass. Although Stefan does not remember Lisa he is hypnotically drawn to her. She confides her love for him and sheepishly confesses to having followed his career all these many years. Her devotion from afar fascinates Stefan. The two share a drink inside an old-fashioned restaurant, then a cozy walk through the frosty snow covered park, a hot caramel apple from one of the street vendors, and a slow waltz inside one of the charming cafes until the wee hours of dawn. This pas deux culminates with Stefan taking Lisa back to his apartment where they make love, thus fulfilling Lisa’s singular lifelong ambition to belong to Stefan completely.
Regrettably, this will be the lovers’ first, last and only moment of tranquility. Stefan informs Lisa that he is bound for Milan to give a concert. Although he vows to return to her and renew their romance, he never fulfills this vacuous promise. We later learn that Lisa has become pregnant from their brief encounter, giving birth inside a convent hospital where she refuses to divulge the name of the child’s father, despite persistent badgering from the nuns.
The plot leaps ahead ten years, presumably because the banality of Lisa’s life without Stefan is not worth preserving for posterity. Now married to Johann Stauffer (Marcel Journet), a much older, wealthy gentleman who dearly loves her and has embraced Stefan Jr. (Leo B. Pessin) as his own, Lisa is afforded the sort of lavish lifestyle she could have never imagined for herself. The couple is envied by Vienna’s polite society, attending parties and the opera. Quite by accident, Lisa spies Stefan from her box at the opera. The years have not been so kind to him. Considered something of a ‘has been’ Stefan and Lisa’s eyes lock during the performance. He does not remember her, but is again drawn to her side, and she, having instantly rekindled all the memories from her wellspring of wounded love and pride over him, retreats, feigning a headache.
Vexed but ever the patient husband, Johann attempts to understand his wife, reiterating his love for her. She acknowledges him tenderly, but then sneaks off the next night to Stefan’s apartment with an obsessiveness to relive their one night of passion together. Stefan is intrigued by her arrival and talks incessantly about the old days and his decision to retire from music. But as he disappears into the kitchen to prepare them libations for yet another grand seduction, Lisa suddenly begins to realize that not only does Stefan not remember her, but he has also mistaken her for perhaps one of the many women of easy virtue he once employed to gratify his own lusts and desires from years past. Finally realizing what a complete fool she has been Lisa departs Stefan’s apartment before he even notices that she has gone.
Returning home in a tizzy, Lisa packs her and Stefan Jr.’s bags in haste, determined to take them both on a little holiday before reconsidering their futures. Tragedy strikes when the two are inadvertently assigned a private train car where the previous occupant was infected with typhus. Stefan Jr. contracts the illness and quietly succumbs to it in hospital. A short while later, Lisa too becomes ill, writing Stefan her lengthy confession that now concludes with the revelation he had a son whom he can never know.
We return to the present: Stefan reading Lisa’s letter in his apartment. Having spent all night with the lamentation of his own life’s folly clearly outlined in her correspondence to him, Stefan is reformed into the sort of upstanding man that Lisa had always hoped he could be. As the dawn breaks Stefan dresses in his best and goes off to face Johann, whom we learn is the one who has challenged him to the duel for Lisa’s honor. Realizing that he lacks the skills of an expert marksman and will probably die, Stefan goes to his fate reborn from his past sins.
This redemptive conclusion does not exist in Zweig’s novella. Nor is Lisa ever married in the book, but rather continues to live off of a continuous line of elegant male courtiers, in essence becoming a courtesan. Max Ophul’s direction is undeniably competent – even elegant – but his champagne cocktail approach to the material completely belies the film’s subject matter: namely, a perverse obsession leading to delicious decadences and grand infidelities. Instead, we are given a sort of courtly polish and surface sheen that makes the love between Stefan and Lisa rather unintelligent at best and hopelessly foolhardy at its worst. Lisa’s blind devotion to this rapscallion who cannot even recall her name, much less the facts of whether or not he ever consummated their ‘relationship’ as it stands, is befuddling to the point of abject absurdity.
Louis Jourdan’s attempt to portray Stefan’s cluelessness as more amnesia than deliberate obfuscation of memory lacks the conviction to make his ruse anything more than empty-headed and utterly vane serialized monogamy. He really is a cold-hearted bastard, in fact; a man total void of a sense of decency where the opposite sex is concerned, begging the inquiry as to why any woman – but especially one as altruistic as Lisa - should find him even remotely attractive – despite his obvious physical appeal. Joan Fontaine is just a tad long in the tooth to be entirely convincing early on as the unkempt juvenile with a heart-sore longing to find happiness in Stefan’s arms. As the film’s narrative matures so too does Fontaine’s allure for the audience, but her self-sacrificing martyrdom throughout is rather appalling in all its bizarre lack of self-respect and even greater absence of self-preservation.
I didn’t really care for Letter from An Unknown Woman in the way I had hoped to at the start of the film. The ‘woman’ of the title is no lady. But that doesn’t really matter as much as she spends most of her time debasing herself at the feet of a man who would more willingly use his boots to kick, rather than his lips to kiss her tenderly and as often as she should prefer. Jourdan and Fontaine have an antiseptic sort of screen chemistry that really doesn’t help the story along. This is a tale of a raw unbridled craving to be loved. One should feel the decisive rage of hormones between Stefan and Lisa, a mutual electricity sparking back and forth until the inevitable occurs.
Instead, the affair is heavily one-sided and largely imagined with Lisa practically begging to be taken advantage of as she blindly surrenders her own lifetime of contentment for the briefest of extra-marital interludes. That might have also worked well if the overriding arc had resulted in some sense of grand hubris denied or unfathomable love extinguished before its time. Sadly, the final impression left at the end of the story is that of a genuine sense of ennui: that not only were these two people destined to remain apart for all eternity, but that they were severely mismatched and should never have come even in close proximity to one another in the first place.
Olive Films Blu-ray is a marked improvement over the various previously issued DVD incarnations from years past. The 1080p B&W image tightens up for obvious reasons, with an overall improvement in fine detail throughout. With the exception of a few minor instances of age related dirt and scratches, the overall presentation is free from damage and very clean and smooth. Film grain appears naturally. The one visual shortcoming herein is contrast, a tad bumped up, the result being that mid-range tonality looks slightly washed out – particularly in faces or other ‘white’ objects and/or scenery. Otherwise, this transfer is quite acceptable, though hardly stellar. The audio is mono and adequately rendered. Olive’s disc is a bare bones affair with limited chapter stops and a trailer as the only extra. Judge accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)