Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)
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"The course of our lives can be changed by such little things. So many passing by, each intent on his own problems. So many faces that one might easily have lost. I know now that nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured; every step is counted."
--Joan Fontaine, Letter from an Unknown Woman
Love and fate, two of the most fertile concepts in dramatic history, were rarely as perfectly realized as when one of the world's greatest directors and one of Hollywood's most under-valued stars joined forces to create his 1948 romantic opus, Letter from an Unknown Woman. Too European for success in an era of Hollywood escapism, the film failed at the box office, but has lived in the hearts of its fans to become one of the most cherished of all Ophuls films.
Fontaine had recently completed a long and, ultimately, frustrating contract with David O. Selznick. Although he had made her a star with Rebecca (1940), for most of her contract he simply lent her out for a profit, often for lackluster roles. Determined to gain some control over her career (and, in some opinions, save her marriage to producer William Dozier), she and her husband created their own production company, Rampart Pictures. For their first film, they chose an adaptation of Stefan Zweig's popular 1932 novel Letter from an Unknown Woman. Universal had filmed an American version of the story in 1933 as Only Yesterday, with Margaret Sullavan making her film debut as a woman hopelessly in love with a man who, years later, does not even remember the encounter that produced her son. Dozier had long wanted to make another adaptation of the novel, and Fontaine thought the long-suffering romance not only offered her a perfect role, but also was the kind of love story women enjoyed at the movies.
To produce Letter from an Unknown Woman, they turned to John Houseman, Orson Welles' one-time associate who had worked with Dozier at Paramount and was just finishing a producing contract at RKO. Houseman was enthusiastic about the project and suggested an old friend, Howard Koch, to write it. With producer and director committed to returning the film to Zweig's original setting, turn-of-the-century Vienna, Koch suggested director Max Ophuls as the perfect choice to capture the city's weary sophistication. When he showed his colleagues Ophuls' pre-war film Liebelei (1933), the Vienna-set film convinced them to hire him. They also let him use one of his favorite cameramen, Austrian Franz Planer, and Universal Pictures' Moscow-born art director Alexander Golitzen to add to the film's authentic flavor. They also decided to cast a European actor, Louis Jourdan, as the leading man.
Ophuls was already disillusioned with Hollywood, where he had fled during World War II. He had been fired after only three days shooting his first film there and had been able to complete only one U.S. film to that time, the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. adventure The Exile (1947). Part of the problem was his poor English, which made communication difficult. But the demanding filmmaking methods that would one day win him a position among the world's greatest directors were at odds with Hollywood production, which too often shot films in an assembly line process. At least the first problem was solved when he met Houseman, who spoke French fluently and whose family came from the Alsace, the same part of Europe where Ophuls had lived.
With Houseman supervising, Koch and Ophuls worked on the screenplay. From the first, Ophuls was demanding, insisting on authentic, creative choices throughout the film. Though he did not receive a screenwriting credit, Houseman's memoirs credit him with some of the film's most distinctive touches, including the snow-filled amusement park, the deserted dance-hall in which the stars dance as an all-female orchestra plays Strauss and the fake train ride, with an attendant pedaling furiously to roll scenery past a stationary train carriage.
During the filming of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Ophuls' painstaking craftsmanship began to disturb Houseman. In particular, the producer was concerned with a proposed three-minute take following Fontaine from her carriage on the street through the crowded lobby of an opera house and up the stairs to the diamond horseshoe, where she finally sees Jourdan in the lobby below for the first time since their brief fling. Houseman felt that the sequence, which required dozens of extras, was tying up valuable resources for too long and threatened to slow the film down. But when he expressed his concerns, the director became enraged and accused him of selling out to studio management (the film was being made on the Universal lot). After another day of rehearsal, Houseman expressed his concerns again and finally asked Ophuls to shoot some close-ups in case they felt the need to break up the shot. When Ophuls refused, Houseman threatened to shoot the close-ups himself, though he also promised not to use them without the director's approval. Finally, after days of rehearsal, Ophuls got his traveling shot, and the cast and crew broke out in applause. Then, with Houseman watching, Ophuls ordered the crew to set up for two close-ups, one of each star. By that point, the director was not speaking to his producer, but a few days later, Ophuls invited Houseman to join him for a rough cut of the last part of the film, including the much-debated tracking shot. Houseman watched as the scene unfolded, with both close-ups inserted, cutting the shot in half. As he left the screening room, Ophuls called out to him and said, "I'm glad we got those close-ups."
For all his demanding ways, Ophuls had no problems with Fontaine. She would later write in her memoirs that even though she spoke no German, there was no language barrier between them. When he gave her notes on a scene, he only had to say a few words before she got exactly what he wanted and adjusted her playing. Certainly that symbiotic relationship benefited the film. Many critics consider her work in Letter from an Unknown Woman to be her best ever. She had previously shown her ability at capturing youthful innocence in films such as Rebecca and Jane Eyre (1944). But this time she allowed the child-woman to grow up into a sophisticated, elegant wife and mother still capable of being ruled by the child within.
Ophuls created the perfect setting in which to display that performance. His Hollywood-back lot Vienna often seems to be the real thing, filled with the kinds of meticulous design details that mark all of his films. In addition, his use of the camera manages to be romantic and rapturous while also underlining the film's themes. In particular, he repeats the same shot of Jourdan's character at the foot of a staircase at three different times, once when, as a child, Fontaine watches him bring home a date, again when he brings her in from their first evening out together, and finally when she sees him standing below her at the opera.
This careful use of camera effects turns the film into a piece of music, which is underlined by Ophuls' painstaking selection of the appropriate classical pieces to reflect action and milieu. Jourdan's theme is taken from Lizst's piano etude No. 3, which his character is shown practicing early in the film when he is still a student. It plays whenever Fontaine thinks of him, over their love scenes and as he finishes reading her letter at the end. When Fontaine encounters him again at the opera, where he does not remember their previous liaison, the music is from Mozart's The Magic Flute. This offers a particularly poignant doubling of the film's plot and the opera, in which the comic lead, Papageno, does not recognize his true love when she visits him in disguise.
None of this artistry seemed to matter to post-war audiences. Letter from an Unknown Woman received only mixed reviews, with critics praising the period art direction but often noting the film's slow pacing. It was decidedly not what post-war film audiences wanted. Theories about the film's box-office failure usually blame the casting of Jourdan, whom producer Houseman felt lacked the sex appeal necessary to make Fontaine's lifelong devotion both believable and touching. Later critics, however, have pointed out that Ophuls' direction supplies all the sensuality required and that, on re-evaluation, Jourdan's performance is perhaps his finest. Another problem for audiences was the film's fatalistic plot. By the final shot Fontaine's character is dead of typhus while Jourdan, now chastened from reading her letter, is going off to certain death in a duel with her husband. Although this finale seems tragic to contemporary critics, it may have lacked the obvious sense of ennoblement audiences of the 1940s wanted from what was still basically an escapist medium.
Over the years, however, Letter from an Unknown Woman has found its audience through revival screenings, television and home video (though it is not currently available on DVD). Critics such as Andrew Sarris and fellow filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Martin Scorsese, have raised Ophuls to the ranks of the world's greatest filmmakers. Although his later European films are usual given the primary place among his works (and Sarris considers one of them, The Earrings of Madame de... (1953), the greatest film ever made), Letter from an Unknown Woman is usually hailed as his best American film and the clear favorite among many film buffs, both for Ophuls' romanticism and the finely etched performances of Fontaine and Jourdan.
Producer: John Houseman
Director: Max Ophuls
Screenplay: Howard Koch
Based on the novel by Stefan Zweig
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Principal Cast: Joan Fontaine (Lisa Berndle), Louis Jourdan (Stefan Brand), Mady Christians (Frau Berndle), Marcel Journet (Johan Stauffer), Art Smith (John), Erskine Sanford (Porter), Betty Blythe (Frau Kohner), Celia Lovsky (Flower Vendor).
By Frank Miller
Front and Center by John Houseman