Friday, September 22, 2006

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

36This week saw the first release on DVD of four films from actor/director Max Ophuls. Having never seen any of this critically acclaimed director's work, I decided to tip my toe in the water with Letter from an Unknown Woman.

The film is set in Vienna around 1900 and opens with a dashing young man, Stefan, preparing to flee his appartment. He has been threatened with a duel to the death the following morning, and is preparing to vacate his premises and disappear.

As he orders his butler to pack everything away he discovers the recently delivered 'letter from an unknown woman' of the film's title. The long letter starts with the immortal line 'By the time you read this I will probably be dead', and the film then reveals the rest of the letter's contents, recounting the life of a young woman from late adolescence to the near present, as recounted in the letter. The letter - and hence the film - detail her lifelong love and obsession with the dandyish philanderer Stefan we've seen opening the letter and who can't even remember the woman who has seemingly devoted her life to him.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a sad movie that gives a somewhat tainted view of events, as they were seen through the "unknown woman"'s eyes. However while it's primarily a film about Lisa's (for that is the "unknown woman"'s name) obsession, it also turns out to be a film documenting the last night of Stefan's life.

If this all sounds rather depressing, fear not, for this is essentially a tale of two people who have wasted their lives seeking some purpose, and only really discovering it close to death.

I'm a bit hit and miss about old black and white movies. Too often they tend to be more 'education' than 'enjoyment', but Letter from an Unknown Woman turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Joan Fontaine who plays Lisa is stunningly beautiful, as, it must be said, is her muse, played by Louis Jordan. But it's the direction that makes this something a bit special. The film may have been made in 1948, but it feels and looks more modern than many films of the 60s, 70s and even 80s that I've had to sit through recently.

Ophuls' world is the world of heightened reality (or do I mean heightened unreality?) and the techniques he uses to show that are truly cinematic. There's some wonderful technical work in this film, with lots of movement, great lighting and just sheer craftsmanship on display throughout. Too many films of the same era feel dated because they are shot with mostly static cameras, and come across as filmed versions of theatre pieces. Not this one!

I enjoyed the film a lot. The story may not be deep, or even very plausible at times, but it's a touching movie with bitter-sweet sadness throughout. Needless to say, I was so impressed that I'm now looking at the other three titles in the series that were also released this week (The Reckless Moment, Le Plaisir, Madame de...)

The film is presented in 4:3 ratio in a digitally restored print. There are flecks here and there but, given the age of the film, nothing to complain about at all. As is usual for films of this vintage, it's pretty much a 'vanilla' disc (harumph! is a chapter index leaflet too much to expect, you cheapskates!). There is a single 'Video Essay' by 'Film Historian Tag Gallagher' but it's a deadly dull, dry affair that comes across as a badly edited 25 minute featurette hacked from something much longer. The narration's sound volume and background noise vary dramatically between individual, jarring and sudden sentences, and it's all a bit of a mess, particularly at the beginning and start. There's a lot of padding (and silence) while long, edited highlights of the film we've just seen are shown and commented upon.

The critics have given this movie a whopping 100% over at Rotten Tomatoes. It's not hard to see why. This is less 'art house' than one might imagine, and if you want to see a film with real class and craftsmanship this is well worth 84 minutes of your time. Recommended!

1 comment:

hawaiianivan said...

Just saw this movie at my partner's instigation. Yep, worth seeing, ideal for a Tuesday afternoon spent sick off work.

I agree entirely about the brilliant technical skills on display. And dig those sets. They must have had some seriously skilled craftsmen knocking those things up.

As a narrative, it doesn't take any risks, so ultimately doesn't quite deliver, but definitely worth a watch. But my god, why did she love him so? I guess if I have to ask the question then I'll never know the answer.