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The price of obsession revealed in “Letter from an Unknown Woman”

Updated: Jul 19, 2019


Joan Fontaine plays Lisa Berndle "the unknown woman," from adolescence to womanhood. Natural film grain dominates the new 4K master.

Frame shots courtesy of Olive Signature


Blu-ray, DVD; 1948; Not Rated

Best extra: "Passion's Triumph" featurette

THE ODDS are, if you intend to watch "Letter From an Unknown Woman," you are either a film aficionado or someone from the, ahem, older generation. Max Ophüls' 1948 romantic melodrama will probably seem like anti-feminist, contrived and weepy at first viewing, especially to a younger audience.

Based upon a novel by Stefan Zveig who, like Ophüls, was Jewish and a self-exile from Hitler's Reich, the film stars Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. Fontaine and Jourdan looked magnificent on the silver screen, and Ophüls, renowned for his camera artistry, does them both proud.

Aged 30 when she made the film, Fontaine convincingly plays Lisa, "the unknown woman," from adolescence to womanhood. As a girl in early 20th century Vienna, she becomes smitten with a handsome musician who moves into her apartment building. His name is Stefan, and we meet him as the film opens one night years later, when he's about to run away from certain death in a duel scheduled the next morning. Then he stops to read a letter his butler hands him. From its narrated content, Lisa describes her virtual lifelong obsession with the elusive playboy.

French actor Louis Jourdan plays the handsome musician Stefan Brand.

The letter describes Lisa's virtual lifelong obsession with the elusive playboy.

Over the course of the film, Stefan finds himself attracted to Lisa at various junctures of their lives, but he never remembers exactly who she is. She, on the other hand, turns down one marriage proposal, spends years virtually stalking him and, finally, with shades of "Anna Karenina," abandons both a doting wealthy husband and her adoring son (by Stefan) only to be casually treated as one more of his conquests. Her punishment for flouting society's rules, as was mandated by a rigid Hollywood censorship code, is literally and figuratively fatal. Stefan, it seems sure, will also pay dearly for his sins.

The Olive Films Blu-ray, derived from Paramount Pictures' recent 4K restoration in 1.33:1 aspect ratio looks absolutely splendid. Gradations of grays between the rich blacks and sparkling whites are especially lovely, providing each frame with great depth and variety. The entire film is pristine, with no hint of burns, marks or scratches, so often seen from that vintage. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is also crystal clear, with dialogue quite understandable, and the music perfectly balanced. Subtitles are provided.

Extras are generous and include a technically fascinating commentary by Ophüls expert Lutz Bacher, which would have rated as the best extra if not for Bacher's rushed, mechanical reading of a written text; an interview with Ophüls' son Marcel, an award-winning documentarian, about his father's life and career; an interview with NYU cinema professor Dana Polan about independent films in the 1940s and 50s; a dual interview with young filmmakers Ben Kasulke and Sean Price Williams about Ophüls' visual style and its impact on them; and an illustrated booklet containing a terrific essay by legendary critic Molly Haskell.

The visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher, "Letter From an Unknown Woman: Passion's Triumph," is especially enlightening. He discusses Ophüls' view of "cinema as spectacle … a circus within a circus," and calls "Letter" a movie within a movie. Gallagher analyzes particular scenes, showing clips (several times, in some cases) to emphasize Ophüls' technique of allowing his audience to "only see Lisa as she sees herself" for most of the film. When we see Stefan, Gallagher notes, he is often in shadow or from the back.

Gallagher shows how Lisa "sees herself as a romantic saint" who "constructs her own moral codes," as she marries a rich, but very kind, husband whose abandonment she rationalizes by depicting herself as a "powerless victim." Finally, Gallagher explains that it's only when Lisa is dead that Stefan can "see" her; and it is then that his face is fully lighted. Says Gallagher, Stefan and Lisa "share a disease: not love, but total despair." Ophüls, he concludes, was "championing the obsessed female."

— Peggy Earle



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