A pianist about to flee from a duel receives a letter from a woman he cannot remember. As she tells the story of her lifelong love for him, he is forced to reinterpret his own past.
Directed by: Max Ophüls
Author: John Chard
Beautiful Tragedy. Letter from an Unknown Woman is directed by Max Ophuls, who also co-adapts the screenplay with Howard Koch from the novella written by Stefan Zweig. It stars Joan Fontaine, Louis Jordan, Mady Christians, Art Smith and Howard Freeman. Music is by Daniele Amfitheatrof and cinematography by Franz Planer. Masterpiece, the very definition of classic cinema is right here, a film that is both beautiful and tragic, a piece of cinema that’s crafted with such great skill by all involved it’s hard to believe some critics turned their noses up at it back on its original release. Story is set in Vienna at the turn of the century and finds Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) as a teenager who has a crush on one of the neighbours in her apartment complex. That neighbour is concert pianist Stefan Brand (Jourdan), but Lisa will not get to know Stefan until some years later, and then only briefly, yet true love never dies does it? The scene is set right from the off, the superb set designs of period Vienna come lurching out of the screen. Jordan stands straight backed and handsome, and then Fontaine a picture of angelic beauty. Ophuls brings his euro eye for details and flair to the party, his camera work fluid, yet compact, personal but still a distant and caustic observer to the corruptible folly of romantic obsession. And Planer mists up the photogenics as Amfitheatrof drifts delicate and dramatic sounds across the unfolding drama. Narratively most of the picture is played out in the past, showing how Stefan Brand come to be reading a heart aching letter from a woman who loved and adored him. Not that he would know, such was his life of womanising and narcissistic leanings. Oh he could romance the best of them, charm a snake out of the basket, but quite frankly he’s a cad, and a coward to boot. Maybe this letter from the unknown woman will shake him out of his self centred world? Give him a chance at redemption? Or maybe not… The characterisation of Lisa Berndle (Fontaine simply magnificent) is stunning in its coldness. This is a woman who for the briefest of moments in her life, derails her shot at potential happiness, and the stability afforded her son, in the belief that Stefan Brand is the destined love of her life, that love will find a way. Her foolish obsession borders on insanity, she’s so driven by a self-destructive persona she can’t see this is no fairytale. There is much beauty on show, but the devilish hand of fate and some tragic realisations wait for the principal players here, Ophuls brilliantly blowing a blackened cloud over the culmination of tale. Grand and opulent, heartbreaking and sad, Letter from an Unknown Woman is pure cinema, its narrative strength lies in the realisation that the vagaries of love has to be a two way thing. Brilliant film making. 10/10
At the turn of the 20th century, "Brand" (Louis Jourdan) is sitting in Vienna contemplating not only a duel the next morning - which he has no intention of attending - but also a letter he has recently received from "Lisa" (Joan Fontaine) explaining her infatuation with him when she was his young neighbour and he an aspiring pianist. He has little memory of her, but soon realises that they had a brief affair and he abandoned her. The remainder of their story is told by way of flashbacks, as they both relive the highs and lows of their time together, and is rather effectively narrated by Fontaine as we go. Both are are on good form here. Jourdan offers us a well considered exposé on a true cad, with Fontaine superb as the adulating woman that he barely remembers when they meet years later, and who illicits quite a degree of sympathy from the audience for her (admittedly rather foolish) loyalty to this rake of a man. The musical scores is great, too - Daniele Amfitheatrof's original score peppered with excerpts from Mozart, Strauss et al all raise this film out of sentimentality and into a really effective and compelling story of unrequited love.
1 hr 27 mins