LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN: A HIDDEN CLASSIC

The Classic Movie Blog Association Hidden Classics Blogathon

One of the greatest love stories ever filmed is barely known. Its director Max Ophuls and co-producer John Houseman are masters. And its cast of Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan are an Oscar winner and an international star. The film story is based on a novella by Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular writers in the world in the 1920s-1930s,  and adapted by Howard Koch who was one of the scriptwriters of Casablanca and The Letter.

The story starts in Vienna circa 1900. It is night and men are discussing a duel in a carriage. Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand exits the carriage and enters his house. He tells his mute valet that he will be packing and leaving soon, with no intentions of dueling.  His valet gives him a letter which Brand opens. “By the time you read this letter I may be dead, ” it said, the cursive hand written on St. Catherine’s Hospital Stationary. The letter is narrated in voiceover by Joan Fontaine. “I have so much to tell you.” The movie goes into flashback as we see a  teenage Fontaine as Lisa  Berndle, and a young friend in a courtyard. Lisa lives in an apartment there with her mother. Lisa becomes entranced by the  music coming from another room upstairs, played by the famous pianist Stefan Brand. Lisa is  enchanted by him and takes dance lessons and learns about music, all so she could someday impress Brand, with whom she has fallen in love. Helping his valet move rugs inside Brand’s house one day, she even sneaks into his study to  gaze lovingly at his piano and belongings, running out as John the valet sees her. But Lisa is panicked when her mother says she has accepted an offer of marriage, saying they must move to Linz. Lisa refuses, and then accepts, and then runs away at the train station. Loitering by Stefan’s house, she sees him arrive with a woman, shattering her illusions. She goes to Linz where she turns eighteen and is courted but refuses to marry.  The course of the flashback is broken as we see Brand reading the letter in astonishment as the night goes by and the woman’s life is explained.

Joan Fontaine as Lisa works as a model in Vienna

Lisa returns to Vienna, where she finds a job as a model in a dressmaker’s shop. She models beautiful gowns for the upper class.  She still loves Stefan, and visits his apartment building, where one evening she listens to street musicians when he walks by.  He notices her direct stare, and he asks her out to dinner. At dinner she struck a chord with him when she said his music sounded like he was searching for something he hadn’t found yet. After dinner they spend the night at an amusement park, endlessly riding a make-believe train, then dance to a women’s band until the dance hall closed down. Afterwards they go to his house.

Joan Fontaine as Lisa and Louis Jourdan as Stefan ride the “Hale’s Tours” rail car in the Vienna amusement park

The next day he lovingly told her he needed to go to Milan with the orchestra and he would return. They went to the train station where she tearfully sees him off. She did not see him again for nine years — until they see each other at the Opera – he alone and Lisa with her husband. Some people talk about how Stefan’s promise as a musician had faded. Lisa could not bear to see him and got up to leave. Stefan from the seats below saw her leave and followed, wanting suddenly to take her away from her husband. At the exit he stops her to talk,  although he did not seem to recognize her. Will Lisa trust Stefan after what he has done before, leaving her alone  with a child? Even though he never knew about the boy? Could she possibly leave her settled and comfortable life in society?  The love of Lisa for Stefan is unfathomable, but in this remarkable film, it leads not to a Hollywood ending.

Louis Jourdan (Stefan) wants to take Lisa away from her husband Johan Stauffer, played by Marcel Journet

Joan Fontaine was a perfect choice for the lead, although she was older than Jourdan who played the older man. Her face can always portray the look of innocence and earnestness, so well acted in Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre. Her lover was played by the  handsome French star Louis Jourdan in his second film in the U.S.  Fontaine’s then husband William Crozier was the executive producer.  Amazingly, the content of the letter and its ending, which was central to the plot, was objected to by the censor’s office, saying it, “… romanticized the characters’ illicit relationship.” And the censor’s office had their own language to substitute in the letter, which completely transformed its meaning. Crozier had to appeal this decision in order to keep the original language.

Hollywood’s Golden Age costume designer Travis Banton designed the costumes. His contract ended at Universal with this film, and he only designed  for a few more movies before retiring.  He had designed the glamorous gowns for Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, and the other stars of Paramount.

Letter from an Unknown Woman was selected in 1992 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  The film has been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, with funding provided by The Film Foundation.

The following commentary contains spoilers. Letter from an Unknown Woman has been considered by many to be the most tragic love story ever filmed. It does not have the southing closing shot of Wuthering Heights, nor the peace-making consequences of Romeo and Juliet. Lisa has spent a lifetime fanning the embers of Stefan’s flaming and dying passion for her, hence, the letter from an unknown woman. Unknown because, when he came back into her life and she was ready to throw everything away for him (again), he didn’t even remember who she was.

Lisa remembered every detail of their time together, and even of all the time they were not together — staring at his rooms, listening to his music, or longing to be with him. The film makes clear that Stefan thinks often about his own enjoyment – living moment to moment. Dennis Grunes has written an excellent article on Letter From an Unknown Woman, about how its was not well received in 1948, and especially about the theme of memory that haunts the story’s original writer Stefan Zweig and the film’s director Max Ophuls. Both men were Jews from either Austria or Germany. The ruins of the pre-Nazi and pre-Holocaust world they came from forms the  foundation that the story, and Lisa’s memory, tries hopelessly to recreate. For Lisa, she was creating, recreating in the letter, a world of love she lived, a world Stefan could have shared with her and his son. But oblivious of this world, even of their brief loving affair, and of his second chance, Stefan reads the entire story when it is too late, written as Lisa died before she finished it — or signed it. Thus it was a letter from an unknown woman, concluding with these words:

“If only you could have recognized what was always yours. If only you could have found what was never lost, If only….”

The blog post is part off the CMBA HIDEN CLASSICS BLOGATHON   Please see the other excellent entries on Hidden Classics.

8 thoughts on “LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN: A HIDDEN CLASSIC”

  1. Beautiful review! I enjoyed this movie very much, even though it’s a tragic love story. I had not thought, however, about how the pasts of both the writer’s and the director’s may have shaped it. you gave me something new to reflect about this film.
    Cheers!
    Le

  2. I am so glad you chose this film, Christian. It is exquisite. I happened to first see it on TCM years ago, one of its rare screenings on the network. Now I own it. I believe it is a perfect film, not one note off-key nor one mis-step, no one miscast, etc. It is most deserving to be showcased for this Hidden Classics blogathon and your piece is a lovely tribute to one of Max Ophuls’ finest (which is really saying something).

    1. Thanks for your comment Patty. I missed it when it played on TCM. I ran across it recently writing my book and I was so intrigued I had to see it. It wasn’t easy to find as a streamer which I needed quickly.
      but as you say it is an impeccable film – needing to be better known.

  3. I confess, I’ve not seen this myself and it sounds intriguing, certainly a great choice for this blogathon. Fontaine is so appealing in these kinds of roles, her ability to play vulnerable and innocent can be heartbreaking. Well done!

    1. Thanks for your comment Jacqueline. It is a very well made movie in all facets from set design to cinematography in addition to acting, writing and costume and music that I’ve already mentioned.
      So it it should be on every classic movie lover’s list.

  4. I love this film so much! And you are right about it having somehow gotten lost to many classic film fans. Poor Joan Fontaine – nobody shows the pain of unrequited love like she does. Thank you for dusting off this beautiful film. Here’s hoping more people are inspired to see it.

    1. Thanks for the comment Marsha. Letter was not a hit when it came out and its dark nature has not made it a natural pick for screenings. As a Universal production, it has rarely been seen on
      Turner Classic Movies either. It is listed in “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, edited by Steven Schneider.

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