Letter from an Unknown Woman
Screenplay: Howard Koch and Max Ophüls
Release: Olive Signature
Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Olive Signature, is a gorgeously transferred movie that drips with the silver nitrate that has stained my memory of classic cinema. The movie is okay too, but the transfer, that is where you will find the value. Yes, this is a problem.
From Max Ophüls, the legendary director of such film classics as The Earrings of Madame de… and Lola Montès, comes a timeless tale of love and obsession. In Vienna during the early 20th century, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan, Gigi), a concert pianist whose amorous ways have eclipsed his musical talent, is preparing to flee the city on the eve of a duel to be fought over a recent dalliance when he receives a Letter from an Unknown Woman. Moved by its contents, he’ll come to realize that the author is not a stranger, but Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine, Rebecca), a woman he’s known since her youth and discarded as he has so many others before her. But this time, Stefan’s cavalier behavior will have tragic repercussions.
Featuring the master filmmaker’s trademark gliding camera, baroque imagery and lush atmospherics (courtesy of cinematographer Franz Planer, The Big Country; art director Alexander Golitzen, Phantom of the Opera; set decorators Russell A. Gausman, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry and Ruby R. Levitt, Chinatown), Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, based on Stefan Zweig’s novella of the same name, is written for the screen by Howard Koch (Casablanca) and produced by John Houseman (They Live by Night).
While watching the movie my mind kept going back to Brief Encounter and that was not fair. However, fair or not, this is something which must be considered. I don’t intend to suggest that this is it not a very well made film, but when the physical artifact is more enticing than the artwork itself then movie watching becomes a stroll through a museum rather than a sleepless night of wonder.
This may require additional consideration, though, I enjoyed the visual film more than the story, what can we take from this? I am not necessarily saying that it was a poorly written story or script, just not memorable. I am having flashbacks of Visconti’s Ludwig of another film that was so much more interesting when I just look at the design and cinematography with zero interest in what the characters are saying. Sure, this is a problem in a medium in which all aspects of the film should be on the same level. This is a talkie drama but I would be just as happy watching the film on mute, or in the background, just something to look at, not to be heard.
Or, I am wrong and this is a stone cold masterpiece. Did Max Ophüls make a movie in which I, the viewer, look at the whole film in the same way that Stefan Brand saw his relationship with Lisa? Non-memorable and something to look at? Could be, you should decide for yourself. The film is available now from Olive Films and if nothing else, you will find a perfect piece of evidence of the power of a beautifully shot film beautifully restored.
- Mastered from new 4K restoration
- Audio commentary by Max Ophüls expert Lutz Bacher
- “A Deal Made in a Turkish Bath” – interview with Oscar-winning documentarian Marcel Ophüls
- “An Independent Woman: Changing sensibilities in a post-war Hollywood” – interview with Professor Dana Polan
- “Ophülsesque: The Look of Letter from an Unknown Woman” – with cinematographers Ben Kasulke and Sean Price Williams
- “Letter from An Unknown Woman: Passion’s Triumph” – visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher
- Essay by critic Molly Haskell
Director: 7 – Cinematography: 8 – Edit: 5 – Parity: 3 – Main performance: 8 – Else performance: 3 – Score: 8 – Sound: 6 – Story: 4 – Script: 5 – Effects: 5 – Design: 9 – Costumes: 8 – Keeps interest: 6 – Lasting: 5