Rainy nights, overcoats and star-crossed romance, Letter From an Unknown Woman is a heartbreakingly riveting movie about one man’s fall from grace.
What caused it, you may ask?
A woman, of course!
Louis Jourdan plays musical genius Stefan Brand. Once considered to be the next Mozart, his life has turned to ruin due to his boozy playboy lifestyle. One rainy night in Vienna while sitting in his study, Stefan gets news that he’s always been dreading to hear; his friends have warned him that he’ll be summoned for a duel at dawn.
Startled but not surprised, Stefan scoffs off this appointment and asks his mute butler, played by Art Smith, to prepare his carriage. As he’s getting ready to flee, he notices a letter meant for him sitting on his bedside.
Intrigued by the letter’s rather morbid first sentence, Stefan’s quick getaway turns into an hour-long retrospective. This is the point in the film where director Max Ophüls changes perspective and introduces us to the letter’s writer named Lisa, played by Joan Fontaine.
The note begins with Lisa describing herself as a lovesick teenager. She writes about her first memories of seeing Stefan move into her building and how excited she was whenever she’d listen his music floating through the stagnant night air into her window.
Lisa doesn’t dare speak to him, but she does, however, manage to fall in love with him. Just as she was about to confess her undying admiration for him, her mother remarries and moves the family to Linz, 100 miles away from Vienna.
Taking up with another young man to get her mind off of Stefan, she eventually grows weary of him and calls off their relationship. Telling her mother she has a lover in Vienna, she reluctantly lets her daughter return to the city to make a living as a model in a dress store.
After her shift has ended for the night, Lisa waits for Stefan outside his apartment – essentially stalking him until he notices her. Luckily, he does and offers to take Lisa out to dinner.
White rose in one hand and a checkbook in the other, Stefan finds Lisa utterly charming and is flattered by her undying devotion. They finish their meal, then head to a local amusement park where they dance till dawn.
In the next scene, we see the pair in Stefan’s apartment in an intimate embrace. It’s implied that they made love, but, in true classic Hollywood fashion, the screen fades to black before anything could be seen.
The next day, Stefan visits Lisa while she’s at work and explains to her that he’s going to be out of town for the next 2 weeks. He promises that he’ll keep in touch with her, but, doesn’t keep his word.
A few months go by and Lisa believes that she’s heard the last of Stefan. It isn’t until she gives birth to their son, Stefan Jr. that she decides to move on from their relationship and marry an older, wealthier man.
After this scene, we return to the present day where Stefan is lovingly looking at the photos of his son enclosed in the envelope that had the letter. Desiring to know more about him, Stefan resumes reading the message, hoping to get a glimpse of his son’s life.
The note continues when Stefan Jr. is about 9 years old and Lisa has married socialite Johann Stauffer, played by Marcel Journet. A night out to the opera turns sour for the pair when Lisa spots Stefan sitting in the opposite balcony out of the corner of her eye. Careful to avoid eye contact, she tells her husband that she has a headache and wants to return home immediately.
Stunned to see Stefan is such a state of disarray, Lisa stumbles out of theatre hoping (praying, even) that she doesn’t run into her old flame.
Just as she’s about to step into her carriage, Stefan steps in front of her and asks if he could see her again. She ignores him and heads into the coach where – surprisingly – her husband’s waiting for her. He asks her what she’s going to do, Lisa tells him that she feels powerless around Stefan and declares that he needs her.
Fast forward to a couple days later, Lisa is sending Stefan Jr. off to school via The Vienna Express. They are quickly asked to move trains, however, when it is learned that the cabin they’ve been put in has been quarantined due to a previous passenger having a typhoid fever.
Lisa gets off the train platform and buys a bouquet of white roses to give to Stefan when she visits his apartment.
A couple of moments later, she arrives at his place and swiftly realizes that Stefan has no idea who she is. Dazed and heartbroken, Lisa spends the rest of her night wandering the streets of Vienna, and ultimately goes to see her son.
In the final scene of the picture, we overhear Lisa’s voice explaining to Stefan that his son died from typhus that night and by the time he receives this letter, she will be dead herself. Flushed with sadness, Stefan remembers who Lisa was and starts to feel remorse.
Realizing he has nothing to live for, he finishes getting dressed and changes his mind about going to a duel. But, before he steps out of the door, he plucks a single flower from a bouquet of white roses for good luck.
I quite enjoyed this film, to be completely honest. I, foolishly, went it believing that it would be another costume drama that would bore me to death.
I’m really glad that wasn’t the case.
Louis Jourdan gave Paul Henreid a run for his money. I was positively enchanted by him in this film. His portrayal of a down on his luck washed-up musician with an inclination for weak women spoke to my soul. He was simultaneously a jerk and a heartthrob; I thought he balanced the dichotomy very well.
Joan Fontaine was as delicate as a newly born rabbit in a cotton field in this film. She had to portray Lisa at 3 very different stages in her life and intricately played all of the extremely well.
As for the directing, Max Ophüls did a phenomenal job. He expertly captured the ambiance and feeling of early 20th century Vienna that gave the courtship and romance between Stefan and Lisa a feeling authentic intimacy.
Letter From an Unknown Woman is a real gem of a film. I didn’t expect it to be as good as I thought it was going to be. It went from being a picture that I would’ve watched once then left it alone, to a movie that I’m seriously thinking about purchasing on DVD. If you have the opportunity to watch this, I recommend that you do. It’ll be a nice addition to your classic movie repertoire and a very pleasant shock.
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