Friday, August 17, 2018

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

USA, 87 minutes
Director: Max Ophüls
Writers: Howard Koch, Stefan Zweig, Max Ophüls
Photography: Franz Planer
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Editor: Ted J. Kent
Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians, Art Smith, Marcel Journet, Howard Freeman

This is one of those movies I seem to have a hard time making up my mind about. Sometimes I wonder how I end up seeing these movies I'm ambivalent about so often. Director and cowriter Max Ophüls was a primary interest of movie critic Andrew Sarris, which is where I first heard and became curious about Ophüls's work. Another highly regarded picture by him, at least as measured by the critical lists collated for the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, is Madame de... (this includes Sarris, who considered it the greatest movie ever made). At the moment, to give you some idea, Madame de... is at #120 on that list and Letter From an Unknown Woman at #122 (Ophüls's next-highest is Lola Montes at #323, another movie I'm ambivalent about but never mind). I've always had regard for Madame de..., along with some others by Ophüls I like quite a bit such as The Reckless Moment and Caught (also known as Wild Calendar). But Letter From an Unknown Woman has often posed challenges for me even in staying awake.

It's not Joan Fontaine and never was, but I'll get to that in a minute. In an attempt to make all this even less interesting if that's possible, I want to speculate that my ambivalence might be related to media format. That is, the copy of Letter From an Unknown Woman I've had for many years now is a VHS cassette, which is serviceable enough in 2018 but increasingly impractical, most notably because there is no longer a way to operate the machine with a remote. And I'm spoiled now—without a remote it's almost too hard to watch a picture carefully. So I fretted about it and finally decided to pay the $2 to watch it on Amazon Prime, and what do you know, the whole darn thing came to life again in a big new way. I can't explain this very well, but I know I liked Letter From an Unknown Woman the first time I saw it, in a theater setting.

It is most recognizable as a "woman's film," in a class with Now, Voyager and Mildred Pierce and much of Douglas Sirk's work in the '50s (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, etc.). Pauline Kael called Letter From an Unknown Woman "probably the toniest 'woman's picture' ever made." As such, the Halliwell's film guide, for one, makes quick work of the plot summary: "A woman wastes her life in unrequited love for a rakish pianist." Well, yes, and I appreciate the word choice "rakish," but there is a whole vast shimmering world behind that "wastes her life." Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) falls in love with Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) late in 19th-century Vienna, when she is an adolescent and he is a neighbor—a gifted concert pianist whose practice sessions enchant Lisa from the other side of the wall. Everything depends on Lisa and her story and how sympathetic you are to it. She says things like, "I wanted to be one woman you had known who asked you for nothing." My sympathy for Lisa is probably the main variable that has changed for me with this movie, depending I suppose on mood.

Brand is also a rake—Halliwell's got that right. He says things like, the night before a duel at dawn, "I don't mind so much being killed. But you know how hard it is for me to get up in the morning." For that matter Lisa is something of a ninny. But of such things is love made. A point finally arrives when Lisa briefly emerges from the background of Brand's swimmingly fabulous life, he sees her and knows her, and for a brief interlude they have a transport of love and a lollapalooza of a big date, complete with elaborate and charming artifice. Yowzah—it's a vision of romantic perfection, with just enough sexual charge at the very end to make it unsurprising when she turns up pregnant. Which is just Lisa's luck—one night and she's in for it. Brand, meanwhile, is called away on a two-week tour from which he never returns. She bears the child, she raises the boy—it is enough for her. Brand never knows. I believe as Lisa believes that he really intended to return, but, well, these things can be so difficult.

We're only getting to the start of all the places things go in this compact, swift, dense picture—it's a great tale of love found and lost and found and lost. I would now like to stick up for Joan Fontaine, ever the mousy nobody (yet beautiful like Meryl Streep). Her burnished Hollywood persona is precision-engineered into this story and role with great care. My sense of the general knock on Fontaine—the reason she is not a woman's film player with the stature of Joan Crawford, Betty Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck—is a certain vacuous timidity that seemed to be the point of many of her characters, and her greatest ones at that, including Lisa Berndle here along with Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, Lina in Suspicion, and even, I would argue, Susan in From This Day Forward, a much more positive version. She is a fragile character, though resilient, like the white roses she is associated with here. Watching her take the blows of life can be something like seeing what happens to cats and dogs. Yet she never loses her hope for a happy resolution, as long as she draws breath.

Or, anyway, until about the last 15 or 20 minutes of this small-scale tragedy, when it blossoms into an uncanny horror of bland disengagement on Brand's part—small-scale, but that is exactly the strength of Letter From an Unknown Woman, infinitely detailed, with patience and love, in the service of a romantic vision that loves nothing so much as death. Invite this vampire across your threshold.

1 comment:

  1. A convincing defense and recommendation snatched from the jaws of ennui and routine. I see what you did there.