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Letter from an Unknown Woman

by Glenn Erickson Dec 12, 2017

This devastating romantic melodrama is Max Ophüls’ best American picture — perhaps because it seems so European? It’s probably Joan Fontaine’s finest hour as well, and Louis Jourdan comes across as a great actor in a part perfect for his screen personality. The theme could be called, ‘No regrets,’ but also, ‘Everything is to be regretted.’

Letter from an Unknown Woman
Olive Signature

1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 87 min. / Street Date December 5, 2017 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians, Marcel Journet, Art Smith, Carol Yorke, Howard Freeman, John Good, Leo B. Pessin, Erskine Sanford, Otto Waldis, Sonja Bryden.
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Film Editor: Ted J. Kent
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Written by Howard Koch from a story by Stefan Zweig
Produced by John Houseman
Directed by
Max Ophüls


A young woman’s romantic nature goes beyond all limits, probing the nature of True Love. Is really, really being in love an obsession akin to a death wish? Olive Films’ Signature series brings back this gem with some additional extras.

A genuine classic’s classic that transcends the pigeonhole category of the ‘women’s film,’ Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman is the expatriate German filmmakers’ American masterpiece. His noir effort Caught gave us the debut of Barbara Bel Geddes but fell victim to last-minute reshoots. Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment is a superior domestic noir with Joan Bennett. But Unknown Woman goes another route with what might at first seem a star vehicle for the innocent-in-distress Joan Fontaine. Having played love-struck teenagers with great success, Fontaine reveals a romantic instinct as an obsessive engine of self-destruction. Letter from an Unknown Woman is at once a merciless heart tugger — and a cruel reminder of the folly of unrestrained romantic delusions.

Ophüls is on familiar ground staging a period picture of a bygone age in Old Vienna. The once-promising concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) returns home late at night. He’s expected to prepare for a duel scheduled for dawn, probably a challenge by the husband of a lover. As Stefan is a lifelong womanizer and narcissist bar none, he asks his mute valet John (Art Smith) to pack his bags: he has no intention of keeping the appointment. But first he reads a letter from a woman who at first doesn’t identify herself.


Much of the story plays out in the past. Scarcely a teenager, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) falls in love with the pianist Stefan, who lives in her apartment building. Rhapsodizing over an imagined life with her prince, Lisa is crestfallen when her mother remarries and takes her away to a provincial garrison town. A few years later a young officer proposes marriage, but Lisa breaks it off — and severs her family ties — with the lie that she’s already secretly engaged. Working as a model in Vienna, she contrives to reunite with Stefan, who does not remember her. They have a one-night romance, after which Stefan disappears. Lisa bears a son in hiding, Stefan Jr. (Leo B. Pessin). Seven or eight years later, Lisa has married the wealthy Johann Stauffer (Marcel Journet), who lovingly cares for her son and showers her with comforts. But Lisa avoids answering the question of whether or not she loves him. Encountering Stefan again at the opera, she . . .

The story continues, but revealing more would not be appropriate. Most of Unknown Woman is a visualization of Lisa’s long letter, delivered to a man who doesn’t even remember her, yet was the love of her life and the focus of her every major life decision. An American movie filmed in Hollywood, Woman is so European in appearance that we forget that its actors are speaking English. Are those the ‘Frankenstein town’ sets that Lisa’s family strolls through on the way to church? Max Ophüls would soon return to France and a brief series of masterpieces about complex women in destructive romances — La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame De…, Le Plaisir, and finally Lola Montés. This independent production released by Universal, really belongs with that series.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is memorable because it takes the ‘romantic coming of age’ fantasy to its logical extreme. Joan Fontaine has played the sweet young woman or girl before: a sheltered companion who marries a Byronic mystery man; an orphan who marries another Byronic mystery man; an orphan who inspires a budding composer; a sheltered country girl who feels insecure married to an irresponsible dreamer. In each case the young woman is sensible, vulnerable and courageous, and in most cases her virtue is rewarded with a prince charming.

This time around the premise is more realistic. Lisa keeps her romantic dreams to herself, always. Unlike other little girls, she doesn’t let go of her childhood obsession, but instead abandons predetermined conventions — marriage, children, respectability — to pursue her dreams. She waits to be ‘re-discovered’ by Stefan Brand, as if expecting her life to become a real fairy tale. It doesn’t matter that Stefan obviously has dozens of woman, and doesn’t even remember her. As far as Lisa is concerned he’s still hers. She throws her life away for two nights of love, separated by years. By most measures she’s unbalanced, mad, self-destructively insane. Unknown Woman is not a surrealist film, but Lisa bridges the gap between reality and amour fou, denying reality to indulge her obsessive pursuit.


So what we’ve got here is a standard woman’s fantasy with a sting in the tail. Virtuous princess types that stick to their romantic dreams win out in fiction and almost nowhere else. Unknown Woman brings into question the notions of ‘following one’s heart’ and ‘living for love.’ Lisa is a dreamer but the world is real and the price it exacts for breaking its rules is terrible. As the film progresses and Lisa waits and suffers, her focus on Stefan Brand becomes less and less attractive. When he flits into her life for a few hours, she readily makes herself available. Stefan takes her completely for granted — and is not for a minute distracted from his other pursuits. Even as he makes his ‘everlasting love’ promises at the railway station, we hear a female voice behind him on the train, urging him to hurry and join her. Lisa sacrifices everything to indulge her fantasy for a man who can’t even remember their one-night affair.

Ophüls’ film has a different rhythm than a Hollywood product of 1948, to be sure. Only in retrospect do we realize that Lisa has condensed a life’s loving relationship with Stefan into one night. They meet, and she decides to remain anonymous. He takes her to eat and to a fun fair closed for the winter. Is that the giant Ferris Wheel in the background the one from The Third Man?

One’s first reaction watching Unknown Woman is to despise Stefan Brand, the consummate narcissist apparently so sated by his love life that he neglects his career as a concert pianist. But he’s hardly responsible for Lisa’s obsession. Were she free of her cloud of romantic pixie dust, Lisa would have sorted him out very soon, and rejected him or remained friends with him. As it is she condemns herself. Stefan Jr. pays a high price for mother’s romantic notions, but I mostly feel sorry for her husband Johann, whose adoration is rewarded with polite indifference. When Johann asks if she perhaps loves him, Lisa responds (para.) “With all the things you give me I’d be a fool not to.” That’s not much of a yes. If this were the story of Johann, this scene might be followed by a sequence expressing his profound disappointment. As it is, the moment when Johann sees Lisa show up at Stefan’s door, a bouquet of flowers in her hand, could be right out of James Joyce’s “The Dead”. It was always Stefan, never Johann.


Yet Ophüls all but canonizes Lisa’s quest for romantic nirvana. The worst happens, and like everything else that occurs she faces it alone. It’s fascinating that her ‘letter’ (the movie we see) does not criticize or judge Lisa. We’re forced to figure out her puzzle on our own. Without the letter, nobody in the story would have a clue as to what she was all about.

The great director’s shooting style breaks many scenes down into choreographed mastershots that sometimes follow characters for over a minute without a cut. They’re so well conceived that we aren’t aware of the artifice; everything seems entirely natural. But many of these shots require great technical coordination; Ophüls was lucky to have much the same crew that had just finished his movie The Exile. Studies of Ophüls always discuss one scene. Stefan takes Lisa on an antiquated version of a theme park ride, in an indoor arcade. The couple takes a ‘world tour’ in a private coach clearly meant for necking. Painted backgrounds of various European capitols roll by on large canvas backdrops, pulled by a man working the foot pedals of an elaborate mechanism. Ever the suave seducer, Stefan is building up to taking Lisa back home, to finish their date in the early morning hours. It’s all she could ever dream of, packed into one night, and one sideshow illusion. He’s charming, she beams, and the whole situation is soaked in glamorous tragedy.

For his American movies Max Ophüls’ name was shortened to “Opuls”, which always looked like an egregious typo. Maybe the publicity people feared that it would read to Americans as “Awfuls.” Louis Jourdan’s pitch-perfect performance redeems his American debut in the ill fated The Paradine Case of the previous year. After seeing Unknown Woman he comes off as a hand-kissing cad in all of his roles, even the light musical Gigi. Unheralded in the cast is Art Smith, a treasured actor that came straight from the socially conscious theater scene. Smith’s film career of impressive supporting roles was stopped cold when his old friend and associate Elia Kazan named him while performing as a friendly witness to the HUAC committee. Smith continued on stage, and was in the original cast of the musical West Side Story.


Olive Signature’s Blu-ray of Letter from an Unknown Woman is touted as mastered from new 4K restoration. It indeed looks pristine, and the unsteadiness in the title sequence on the previous disc now seems tamed down. Daniele Amphiteatrof’s delicate music score captures a precise ‘Viennese’ flavor.

The Signature extras this time around are quite substantial. Lutz Bacher’s commentary is accent-wise a bit difficult to follow, but very rewarding. He must have had access to a day-by-day account of the filming, for he goes through all the production problems encountered on a scene-by-scene basis. He also explains how the film’s budget was cut not soon before filming, forcing Ophüls to streamline some sequences.

Four hefty featurettes are present. The director’s son, distinguished documentarian Marcel Ophüls gives us a full run-down on his family’s ten-year forced exile. He covers his father’s difficulties in Germany, his attempt to relocate to France and their final escape to America — Max had broadcast anti-Fascist radio propaganda from Paris, and was on Goebbels’ death list. In America things were rough at first, but through the help of expatriate aid they got by. In time director Ophüls fell in with cultured American admirers, like this movie’s producer John Houseman.

Dana Polan offers an equally detailed and informative talk-piece, describing the political and economic situation at the studios, and the combination of personalities at Universal-International that made Unknown Woman an in-house yet largely independent production effort. He also scores points by interpreting Ophüls’ visual scheme as critical of the Lisa Berndle character. She luxuriates in sensations of romantic isolation from Stefan, apart from any desire for a conventional relationship with him.

Another piece discussing the film’s cinematography stumbles right up front, with two younger cameraman placed front and center to explain how much they like movies and fell in love with them by frequenting video stores. Perhaps it appeals to younger fans. Tag Gallagher’s illustrated essay shows acres of film clips while making solid points about Ophüls;’ visual method.

The great critic Molly Haskell contributes the feature essay, readable on the disc and also in a seven-page enclosed pamphlet. She’s really into Ophüls’ take on romanticism and his understanding of human psychology. Is this a new essay? It’s not credited as a reprint. It’s not easy fashioning great extras for a world-class movie, and this is perhaps the Olive Signature line’s best overall package so far.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Letter from an Unknown Woman
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Lutz Bacher; A Deal Made in a Turkish Bath – interview Marcel Ophüls; An Independent Woman: Changing sensibilities in a post-war Hollywood – interview with Professor Dana Polan; Ophülsesque: The Look of Letter from an Unknown Woman – with cinematographers Ben Kasulke and Sean Price Williams; Letter from An Unknown Woman: Passion’s Triumph – visual essay by Tag Gallagher; Essay by critic Molly Haskell.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: December 11, 2017

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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