Saturday, January 28, 2012

35. LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948)

This Max Ophüls film, based on a 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig, recently aired on TCM as part of an evening-long Ophüls retrospective; I hadn't seen it since Criterion issued the film on laserdisc back in the 1990s. Even then, it impressed me as one of the most perfectly realized romantic tragedies I'd seen; seeing it again, with another 15 or so years of viewing experience under my belt -- not to mention some actual filmmaking experience -- I find myself still more impressed by it as an outstanding technical achievement.

In one of the great triumphs of narrated cinema, Joan Fontaine complements her own central performance in voice-over, woven into the soundtrack as a kind of solo instrument, as a former piano star (Louis Jourdan) receives a letter that sidetracks him from his own planned escape from a duel challenge that awaits him at 6:00am. He reads the unsigned document -- which begins "Dear Stefan, By the time you read this, I may be dead..." all night long, but the tale it tells condemns him to accept death, should it come, as his just reward; it documents his narcissistic obliviousness to the woman his own empty life consciously awaited, and how his negligence ruined her life.

It no longer carries a Universal-International logo, but LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN was filmed on the Universal lot, and so cleverly that some of its most famous landmarks -- the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA's Paris Opera House, and the HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME cathedral, for example -- are all but unrecognizable in context, and the Old World streets usually called into service to stand in for London, Berlin or "Visaria" are beautifully shuffled into a plausible dream of Vienna. There are also scenes shot on the open air streets of these standing sets which Ophüls managed to shoot with live sound-- with people talking, as soldiers and horse-drawn carriages passed by -- without a single boom shadow in view. Add to this the sublimely sensual cinematography of Franz/Frank Planer (THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T and the film noir classic CRISS CROSS), with its wonderland of shadow and detail, and you have a setting so ornate that it makes any performance stand out like a jewel. There are negligible areas wherein the film doesn't quite reach its mark, such as Jourdan's middle-aged makeup, but it's a masterpiece nonetheless, the finest of Ophüls' American films, and one of the cinema's most poignant illustrations of the impact any one of us might unknowingly have on the life of another person.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.

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