Film Appreciation: Letter To An Unknown Woman

Film Appreciation: Letter To An Unknown Woman


Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) is worth seeing because it shows a group of talented individuals-Max Ophuls, Howard Koch, Franz Planer and Alexander Golitzen among them-at the top of their form. Honesty compels me to add that the story, adapted from the Stefan Zweig novel of the same name, requires considerable suspension of disbelief. This is a sound film with a silent film scenario.

The opening scenes function as a framing device. Stefan (Louis Jourdan) is a former concert pianist living in early twentieth century Vienna, a prodigy who burned out before realizing his potential. He has been challenged to a duel, an affair of honor that he plans to skip. Stefan instructs his servant, John, to pack for an “indefinite stay” and jokes that his main regret is missing the looks on everyone’s faces when he fails to show.

John, who is mute, responds by touching Stefan’s arm and handing him a thick envelope on a silver tray. Stefan rips it open to find a multi-page letter beginning, “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”

As Stefan continues reading the film moves into flashback with voiceover from Lisa (Joan Fontaine), the letter’s author. Lisa describes a series of encounters between her and Stefan, starting in her teenage years. She falls deeply in love with him at first sight, while he only notices her momentarily. Lisa must reintroduce herself to Stefan each time they meet, but it has no effect on her feelings for him.

Stefan learns that one of their meetings produced a son, also named Stefan. He looks at pictures of Stefan with keen interest. Lisa explains she never told him because “I wanted to be one woman you had known who asked you for nothing.” She goes on to explain that she married a man named Johann, who knows about her past but wants to protect her and her son.

Their last meeting is sparked by a chance encounter at the opera. Lisa and Johann take their seats in a box, and she catches sight of Stefan. Although Lisa has not seen Stefan in years, that brief glance is enough to revive her feelings for him. It is not long before Lisa is in Stefan’s apartment- and Johann is spying on her in the street below.

As ever, Stefan takes this as an opportunity to seduce her. He sends John out to purchase food for a late-night supper. Lisa tries to interject a more serious note into their conversation, to no avail. She comments on this in the letter, saying, “I’d come to tell you about us, to offer you my whole life, but you didn’t even remember me.” Realizing she has misread Stefan, Lisa walks out.

Shortly after, young Stefan contracts typhus and dies. Lisa also contracts the disease (the condition she alludes to at the beginning of her letter). Lisa’s letter is incomplete. A nun writes at the end that Lisa died saying Stefan’s name. The sisters forwarded the letter, thinking it was something Stefan should have.

Now Stefan changes his mind about leaving town and boards the carriage that will take him to the duel. His opponent? Lisa’s husband Johann, said to be an excellent shot.

Ophuls and Planer worked together on 1933’s Leibelei, which has a similar setting and time frame. Working with art director Golitzen, they produced a stunning recreation of Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. Many of the touches associated with Ophuls are here: having parts of the set in the foreground and shooting the actors behind it, lingering shots of staircases, and close attention to period details.

Daniele Amitheatrof does outstanding work on the film’s score. It includes compositions from Liszt, Johann Strauss, and Johann Strauss Senior. The music is especially important in the early scenes, since that is what sustains Lisa’s feelings for Stefan. She rarely sees him, but frequently hears him playing.

Howard Koch worked on a number of projects before this, ranging from Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds broadcast to Casablanca. He came to this project through producer John Houseman. Ophuls is said to have made numerous contributions to the script, including the fake train and all-girl band that are part of the night when young Stefan is conceived.

Joan Fontaine gives a strong performance here, in a role that is not terribly dissimilar to the ones she played in films like Rebecca and Suspicion. Although thirty years old at the time of filming, Fontaine makes a very credible teenager. The bigger problems come later, when Lisa appears far too well adjusted to entertain her infatuation for Stefan.

Theme: Dedicated To Stefan Zweig

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