Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

US / 84 minutes / bw / Rampart, Universal–International Dir: Max Opuls (i.e., Max Ophüls) Pr: John Houseman Scr: Howard Koch Story: Brief einer Unbekannten (1922; vt Letter from an Unknown Woman) by Stefan Zweig Cine: Frank Planer Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians, Marcel Journet, Art Smith, Carol Yorke, Howard Freeman, John Good, Leo B. Pessin, Otto Waldis, Sonja Bryden.

This lushly produced romantic tragedy isn’t by any stretch a film noir and there was never any question of its having an entry in the Encyclopedia, yet it has a few of those noirish attributes that can give movies interest to adherents of the genre. Director Ophüls (CAUGHT [1949], The RECKLESS MOMENT [1949]) and costar Jourdan (The PARADINE CASE [1947], JULIE [1956]) made minor contributions to noir, while Fontaine’s contributions were more substantial: SUSPICION (1941), IVY (1947), KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948), BORN TO BE BAD (1950), BIGAMIST, THE (1953), BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956), SERENADE (1956) and of course REBECCA (1940). Also noirish are the flashback-oriented narrative and the sense of inevitably imminent disaster: from the moment that she sees the pianist Stefan Brand (Jourdan) moving in as the new upstairs neighbor, Vienna adolescent Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) is stepping into something almost indistinguishable from the noir quicksand. “This way lies doom,” all the signs say, and yet that’s the route she chooses to take.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - (early)

The young Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) gets underfoot as the movers bring in the new tenant’s furninshings.

Around 1900 in Vienna, Stefan Brand is a prodigious pianist whom the critics are in the lazy habit of comparing to the young Mozart. His neighbors are the Berndles, daughter Lisa and her widowed mother (Christians). In no time at all, Lisa Berndle develops a powerful crush on the handsome, musically prodigious newcomer; Stefan’s butler John (Smith), a dumb-mute, observes with wry smiles and a genuine fondness for the girl. But then Lisa’s mother decides to remarry, taking as her husband the well-to-do fusspot Charles Kastner (Freeman); this involves moving from Vienna to Linz, a move Lisa tearfully resists. As Charles is attempting to get the family aboard the train to their new home, Lisa runs back to Stefan’s apartment, where she waits for hours to declare her love . . . only to witness him arrive with yet another in the long parade of giggling floozies he brings home.

Lisa goes to Linz, where she becomes a beautiful eighteen-year-old. At the instigation of her mother and stepfather, she steps out for several months with the eligible Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger (Good). When he proposes marriage, she lies that she’s already engaged—to a Viennese musician. Her horrified parents essentially throw her over and soon she’s back in Vienna, now working as a dress model at the establishment of Madame Spitzer (Bryden)—the one model there, in fact, who can’t be coaxed into a little paid extracurricular activity. Instead, she stalks Stefan . . . who one night finally notices her. They have a wild affair, declaring eternal love, but then the orchestra for which Stefan plays must go to Milano to play at La Scala. He promises Lisa he’ll be back for her, but, well, you know how it is . . .

Letter from an Unknown Woman - watching Stefan play the cracked old upright (middle)

Lisa (Joan Fontaine) watches adoringly as Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) coaxes beauty out of a cracked old upright piano.

Somehow Lisa manages to raise Stefan Jr. (Pessin). When he’s nine, she marries Johann Stauffer (Journet), who loves Lisa entirely and regards the lad as if he were one of his own. One night at the opera, though, Lisa sees the father of her child. Trying to avoid a direct encounter, she feigns a headache and calls for a carriage to take her home. Stefan, however, has spotted her through his opera glasses, and pursues. At first Lisa assumes he has come to claim his long-lost love, but no: “I’ve seen you somewhere, I know. I followed you upstairs, watched you in your box, but I couldn’t place you. And . . . and I had to speak with you.” She’s beginning to recognize that he’s a cad, but she can’t exorcise him . . .

Stefan Jr. has come home briefly to Vienna from school. As Lisa sees him off on the train back to school they briefly board a compartment that, unknown to them, was supposed to be quarantined, someone having just died there of typhus. Sure enough, Stefan Jr. dies of the disease, and soon afterwards his mother, having tended his bedside, does likewise. By then, though, she has tracked down Stefan Sr.: even though he clearly didn’t recognize her at the opera, surely he’ll finally know who she is and want to learn about their child. Of course, although the butler John knows who she is, all Stefan wants to do is pour champagne into this pretty woman and bed her. He even uses the same chatup lines he did a decade ago when he deflowered her.

Letter from an Unknown Woman - I don't know where I went (after she flees Stefan's apt.)

Lisa flees blindly from Stefan’s apartment.

So much for the linear narrative. In fact, we’re told this whole story in a series of flashbacks from a frame story. Stefan has arrived home with friends late one night; we discover from the dialogue of those friends that he has been challenged to a duel by the husband of one of the wives he has seduced. (We guess pretty early that his challenger must be Lisa’s husband Johann, but this foreknowledge does nothing to puncture the suspense.) As he enters his apartment—having announced that by dawn, when Johann’s seconds arrive, he’ll be long gone—John passes him a fat envelope. It is, of course, the dying letter from Lisa:

“If this letter reaches you, believe this: that I love you now as I have always loved you. My life can be measured by the moments I’ve had with you and our child . . .”

As he reads the long confessional, Stefan begins to recall the woman who loved him so much. By the time he reaches the note appended to the letter—

“This letter was written by a patient here. We believe it was meant for you as she spoke your name just before she died. May God be merciful to you both.—Maria Theresa, Sister in Charge”

—it’s morning. Resigned to his fate, he goes out to face the wrath of Johann Stauffer.

Yes, there’s a guy called Jourdan in there somewhere, but really this is a movie all about Fontaine’s character. Unlike the modern practice, where the character of Lisa would likely be portrayed at different ages by different actresses, Fontaine handles all the parts herself. Oddly, bearing in mind that she was at the time about the age of the oldest Lisa we see, she’s probably most convincing as the young adolescent: she manages the gaucheness quite well, albeit with occasional moments of overacting. As the eighteen-year-old Lisa in Linz she seems less sure, as if her suitor Leopold were wooing a woman far older than himself; depicting a character just months older in Vienna, Fontaine is fine. A decade later, despite a hairstyle that should have been drowned at birth, she seems younger.

In 1992 this was added to the National Film Preservation Board’s list. It’s odd that Fontaine’s performance wasn’t singled out at the time for some accolade or another, but that’s showbiz.

Zweig’s novella has been filmed several times since:

           Etsi Esvyse i Zoi Mou (1952 Greece; vt That’s How My Life Ended) dir Christos Spentzos
           Letter from an Unknown Woman (1952 TVM US; Studio One in Hollywood) dir Franklin J. Schaffner
            Ressalah min Emraa Maghoula (1963 Egypt; vt Letter from an Unknown Woman) dir Salah Abouseif
            Moleuneun Yeoinui Pyeonji (1969 South Korea; vt Letter from an Unknown Woman) dir Kim Eung-cheon
           Lettre d’une Inconnue (2001 TVM France) dir Jacques Deray
           Yi Ge Mo Sheng nu Ren de Lai Xin (2004 China; vt Letter from an Unknown Woman) dir Xu Jinglei
           The Week Before (forthcoming in 2014? US) dir Matt Zemlin

The earlier movie Only Yesterday (1933) dir John M. Stahl has an extremely similar plot, but Zweig’s novella goes uncredited. Later TV and radio productions based on Only Yesterday credited a novel by Frederick Lewis Allen with that name; however, Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (1931) was a nonfiction work whose subject was exactly as in the subtitle.

UPDATE: There’s a good essay by Mike Norton about this movie on the Wonders in the Dark website.

On Amazon.com: Letter From an Unknown Woman

6 thoughts on “Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

  1. Magnificent, comprehensive review here John! Really one of your all-time greats! And what a subject! Needless to say but I’ll say it anyway this quintessential romantic film is lush, elegant, atmospheric and heartbreaking, and contains the trademark pans of its iconic creator. It contains the fate symbols we have seen in the director’s other works, and it leaves a lasting impression. The perfect score by Amfitheatrof is unforgettable and there are some compelling visual parallels to both VERTIGO and SUNRISE. The film features what may well be Joan Fontaine’s greatest performance, and it oozes with poetry. It’s not nearly enough to say that it is Ophuls’ finest American film. rather it vies for the greatest romantic film ever made with Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Again, you have really offered up a definitive essay on this monumental work.

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