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USA 1948
Directed by
Max Ophuls
86 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Letter From An Unknown Woman

Letter From An Unknown Woman is a critically well-regarded example of the 'woman's film' or tear-jerking melodrama, a genre in which Ophuls was somewhat of a specialist. Joan Fontaine (in probably her best but certainly her last outstanding role) plays Lisa, a young girl in turn-of-the-century Vienna with a crush on a philandering concert pianist, Stefan Brand, played by Louis Jourdan in his standard debonaire mode.  She falls pregnant after a one-night stand, doesn't see him for 9 years and in the interim marries a paternalistically understanding but strict military man. The principals meet again and tragedy, redemption and the audience's tears ensue.

The film was adapted by Howard Koch from Stefan Zweig's novella and compared to the work of noted melodramatist Douglas Sirk, for instance, is a restrained, low-key affair despite having all the ingredients of the weepie. Although the genre is considered as appealing to a female audience, the portrayal of Jourdan’s character is in fact central to the film for although we see him through Lisa’s eyes (the story is told in flash-back accompanied by her voice-over) he is the focus of attention and as the devastating ending demonstrates, ultimately, it is his awakening to his own folly that is the film’s core message.

Whilst from a realist’s point-of-view the central premise that Brand would have completely forgotten Lisa after such a relatively short period of time requires considerable suspension of disbelief, particularly as, once again for the female audience, he is made into such a dashing dream-boat rather than an out-and-out cad. Also raising realists’ eyebrows will be the fact that despite not playing anymore Brand seems even better off financially than when he was hot stuff on the concert circuit whilst the fate of Fontaine’s character and son strikes one as remarkably convenient.  Still, for its target audience it is rewarding enough viewing.




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