Letter from an Unknown Woman Review

On 6 May 2002, I posted a review to this site to mark the centenary of Max Ophuls’s birth. That review was of Fox Lorber’s Region 0 release of Lola Montès: an indifferent DVD at best, non-anamorphic, in a shortened version, slightly cropped (from the early-Scope ratio of 2.55:1 to 2.35:1) and with its sound reduced from four-track stereo to mono. Admittedly, apart from the non-anamorphic bit, that wasn’t Fox Lorber’s fault and due to what was available at the time. (A restored version of Lola Montès was put together in Germany and played at that year’s London Film Festival, but disappointingly it has yet to be released on DVD, at least in an English-speaking country.) But that was, at the time, the only Ophuls film on DVD – a poor show for one of the cinema’s great directors. Four years on, the situation is not much better, which makes Second Sight’s release of four titles as “The Max Ophuls Collection” welcome indeed. I will be reviewing them in chronological order.

For many years since his early death in 1957, Max Ophuls was dismissed as a lightweight director of “women’s pictures”, but his reputation has grown considerably to the point where, like Douglas Sirk (another European in Hollywood, who specialised in “women’s pictures”), he is regarded as a great director. No-one disputes the elegance of his directing style, which uses a constantly mobile camera and such motifs as frames within frames and deep focus, to bring the old Academy Ratio frame (1.37:1), in which all but one of his films were shot in black and white, alive – an avowed influence on directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Todd Haynes, amongst others. Amongst the French New Wave, Ophuls was championed as an auteur by Truffaut and Godard, which did much to establish his reputation. Ophuls worked in America post Orson Welles, but as he was using such techniques in his European films, it’s fair to say that he and Welles were separately influenced. Josef Von Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich would seem to be an influence, but Ophuls is less cynical and perverse…though that’s not to say unaware of the fine line between love and obsession, between the perception of love and its reality. Many of his films have all the trappings of romance: a turn-of-the-century Viennese setting is central to Letter to an Unknown Woman, for example, and there are letters, assignations and heartbreak. Ophuls doesn’t avoid the heartbreak: the bitterness can be tasted under the surface sweetness. Love is sweeter for the knowledge that it is transitory, something that Ophuls’s moving camera only emphasises. You have to wonder what he would have done with a Steadicam.

Many of Ophuls’s films centre on women, and this use of women as subjects in the stories (rather than objects) is a major reason for feminist interest in Ophuls. For that reason, his two American films with contemporary settings - Caught and The Reckless Moment (both 1949) – are especially fascinating to watch nowadays. Ophuls doesn’t judge his women, who have affairs and even bear children out of wedlock without losing our sympathy, quite remarkable for the 1940s and 1950s.

Max Oppenheimer was born in Germany in 1902 to a wealthy Jewish family, and became an actor at the age of seventeen instead of going into the family garment business, changing his name to Ophuls to avoid embarrassment. He became a stage director four years later, moving to Vienna to direct at the prestigious Burgetheater. (He met his wife, Hilde Wall, there, and their son Marcel – who became a great documentary director, most notably for The Sorrow and the Pity – was born in 1927.) Ophuls began to work in the cinema in 1930. He made sixteen films in Europe in the next eleven years, at first in Germany. He left the country to avoid the rise of Nazism, and continued to make films in France, the Netherlands and Italy. Most of the films of this period are very hard to see outside archives. Apart from 1934’s La signora di tutti, which had a brief reissue in the early 1980s, the only one to have been publicly shown in the UK in the last quarter-century is Liebelei (1933), which had a showing on BBC2’s Saturday night “Film Club” in 1988 and was subsequently released on VHS (now deleted).

Max Ophuls (or Max Opuls, as he was billed on his American films) moved to the USA in 1941, but was unable to make another film until 1946. Howard Hughes hired him to make Vendetta for his latest actress discovery, Faith Domergue. However, Ophuls was sacked after a few days. Several directors worked on it, Preston Sturges among them, and the film was finally released in 1950 without Ophuls’s name on it. Ophuls then made The Exile in 1947, a costume drama starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr as the exiled Charles II of England. This is the rarest of Ophuls’s four American films, and I have not seen it.

Ophuls’s reputation rests almost entirely on his final seven films, three made in Hollywood and the final four in France. Letter from an Unknown Woman, made in 1948, is the first of them, and it’s a masterpiece. This is one of the screen’s great love stories, but it’s an unrequited love that it deals with.

In Vienna “about 1900”, concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) receives a letter which begins “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead”. This comes from Lisa Berndl (Joan Fontaine), and the bulk of the film’s running time is taken up by a flashback narrated by her. Attracted to him from a young age, she later had an affair with him and became one of many conquests of his that he has since completely forgotten. Now he is to learn the truth about his past.

The film is set in a Vienna (and later a Linz) that is all brilliant studio artifice, but the film deals the viewer a powerful blow, and I defy you to remain unmoved by the end. Ophuls’s and DP Franz (billed as Frank) Planer’s camera movements and intricate black and white camerawork are elegance personified, but Ophuls can keep his camera still when he wants to (generally, when away from Lisa). He also knows the power of a close-up: take, Lisa’s first sight of Stefan. He’s friendly enough, but distant too: Jourdan in this film has a glacial handsomeness that has rarely been better used. Joan Fontaine gets two tremendous close-ups, happiness and sorrow fighting for supremacy in her expression, which deliberately mirror each other: both are farewells to loved ones on trains, with the promise that he will be back in “two weeks”. At times Ophuls seems to be having fun with his own stylisation: what looks like the worst matte painting on earth, viewed from the window of a coach, turns out to be exactly that: a moving panorama, a stage illusion. Ophuls fans will notice his use of frames within frames – an example of which is in the screengrab below. There’s also a ringmaster, or master of ceremonies, figure in Stefan’s butler, a motif that Ophuls would develop much more – think of Anton Walbrook in La Ronde (1951) or Peter Ustinov in Lola Montès. Note also the way the film is constructed in three long episodes, a structure that Ophuls would use again.

This is very much Lisa’s story, and it’s a measure of Ophuls’s stylisation that we accept it totally, when looked at from another angle her behaviour becomes highly dubious – egotistical and deluded at best, that of a stalker at worst. Fontaine gives a remarkable performance, ageing from early teens to thirties and is utterly convincing. There’s a self-belief matched with a vulnerability that Hitchcock had seen earlier in the decade in Rebecca and Suspicion which Ophuls makes full use of. This was, by the way, Fontaine’s favourite of her own films.

Letter from an Unknown Woman was a box-office flop in its day, though its reputation, along with Ophuls’s, has soared since then. No film is perfect, though some come close, and this is one of them.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is released as part of Second Sight’s Max Ophuls Collection. The disc is encoded for Region 2 only.

The film was, like all Ophuls’s films except Lola Montès, shot in black and white and academy ratio. The DVD transfer is accordingly 4:3, with no anamorphic enhancement necessary. It’s a generally good transfer, though some scenes are a little too dark. Otherwise it shows all the shades of grey in Planer’s photography, and there’s a pleasingly filmlike grain.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and is well reproduced here, with dialogue, sound effects and Daniele Amfitheatrof’s music score finely balanced. It’s regrettable though that Second Sight have not seen fit to provide any subtitles for the hard of hearing.

Many of Second Sight’s DVDs have no extras at all, so it’s good that they have put some effort into those for their Ophuls collection. There’s just one on this disc, a video essay by Tag Gallagher, which runs 23:35. This is a discussion of Letter from an Unknown Woman, its themes and its style, often tying them in with examples from Ophuls’s earlier work, usually represented – tantalisingly – by stills rather than extracts. Gallagher is an eloquent speaker, and it’s a sure bet that you will find out things you didn’t know about this film, however familiar you may be with it – I certainly did. It certainly is a good substitute for a commentary. Fontaine and Jourdan are both still alive as I write this (though both in their late eighties), so it’s a pity that we don’t hear anything from them, even if only an archive interview if a new one could not be arranged.

Fox Lorber’s DVD of Lola Montès was barely adequate when it was released, and is less so now. Congratulations are due to Second Sight for releasing four films by a great director sorely under-represented on DVD: and their edition of Letter from an Unknown Woman gets their Collection off to a good start.

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