Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Target #238: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophüls)

TSPDT placing: #74
Directed by: Max Ophüls
Written by: Stefan Zweig (story), Howard Koch (screenplay), Max Ophüls (uncredited)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) signals a tragedy from its earliest moments. The film's carefully-constructed narrative structure, with the entire story unfolding through flashbacks narrated by a dying woman's final letter, prematurely reveals a romance doomed from the outset. Whatever meetings take place, whatever promises are made, whatever hope is afforded us, we are always fully exposed to the knowledge that misfortune is only just around the corner. As such, a blanket of melancholy has descended upon every scene in the film, and all emotions seem stifled and distant; not through any fault of the filmmakers, but rather through the audiences' individual empathy for the heroine's ill-fated affection, towards a charming womaniser who can't even recall her name. This was undoubtedly the tone for which director Max Ophüls was striving; if you're looking for an uplifting romance to conclude a bright and happy day, this isn't it. However, there's a certain sedateness that the film struggles to overcome, the hollow feeling of a story not going anywhere, a train having already arrived at its destination.

Not surprisingly, given the director's nationality, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) has the feel of a European film. It's a bit difficult to put my finger on exactly why this is, but the Viennese setting probably contributed. Additionally, American romances – both of that time, and today – usually seem so anxious to please, doling out hope with every new meeting, and typically ending with the heroine carried off into the sunset in her eternal lover's arms. It's for its acknowledgement of the hopelessness of love that Ophüls' film, and others such as Lean's British-made Brief Encounter (1945), are regarded above most romantic pictures; after all, is there any love more poignant and memorable than unrequited love? Joan Fontaine, a favourite actress of mine, is as delicate as a flower, a quality that Hitchcock notably exploited twice in both Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Her love for the dashing French pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) is so incredibly passive that you already know that she's going to lose him.

Throughout the film, Lisa Berndle watches her lover from afar; she listens to his music through the physical barrier of a door; she quickly comes to know him, but only later comes to meet him. Fontaine's character is simply too weak to succeed in love, and only in her dying moments does she realise that her strength of will was required to bridge the gap between herself and the womanising, forgetful Stefan, who probably loved Lisa but never realised it. Though Ophüls' narrative framing device suggests the intervention of fate – that faceless, indifferent force to which most failed cinematic romances are attributed – into the couple's doomed romance, the blame instead falls to the two lovers. Their personal failings not only denied them love, but ultimately granted them death. That we are alerted to these inevitable eventualities in advance (both through the framing device, and a coldly-brutal sequence that indifferently alerts us, but not Lisa, to a typhis outbreak) makes it all the more difficult to bear.

Currently my #7 film of 1948:
1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
2) Ladri di biciclette {The Bicycle Thief} (Vittorio De Sicae)
3) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Oliver Twist (David Lean)
5) Macbeth (Orson Welles)
6) Key Largo (John Huston)
7) Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
8) Secret Beyond the Door… (Fritz Lang)
9) Musik i mörker {Music in Darkness} (Ingmar Bergman)
10) Fort Apache (John Ford)

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