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Letter From an Unknown Woman (Blu-ray Review)

29 Oct, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan.

I’m continually struck by how many of the films played up in Andrew Sarris’s landmark 1968 The American Cinema — particularly the ones I never heard anyone talking about much during my formative moviegoing decades — still deliver the goods and resonate whenever I put them on for a fresh spin. Though with this one, we’re spinning a Viennese waltz.

An independent production put into theaters by Universal-International and produced by Joan Fontaine’s then-husband William Dozier (much later of TV’s “Batman”) with John Houseman, Letter is pure class from an alternate galaxy (that is, compared to today’s mall culture) all the way. Any doubter on this count should note an uncommonly succinct script by Casablanca’s Howard Koch (note how crisply Louis Jourdan’s character is established in a few opening brush strokes), direction by the elegantly camera-happy Max Ophuls (then on a brief Hollywood “roll” in all ways save commercially) and cinematography by the great Franz Planer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Big Country and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to name three). Fighting the Production Code and its insidious rep Joseph Breen with typical-of-the-day kickback, this august assemblage managed to fashion a tragic romance that still seems intelligent and grown-up all the way — despite a Breen suggestion that (this comes from the AFI Catalog for the 1940s) an unloved older husband but decent sort give his wife a moralistic slap because she has adultery-with-a-cause on her mind.

On the one hand, I’ve always had a problem with Fontaine that gets back to critic/historian Danny Peary’s chuckler that he can’t relate to actresses he can’t imagine in jeans. Then again, she was exceptionally gifted at playing unworldly love-strucks (see Rebecca and The Constant Nymph). As in Nymph, Fontaine comes off as too old for her role in the early scenes yet goes into accelerated gear as the narrative progresses. And outside of Gigi, I don’t think Jourdan ever quite made the screen impression that he does in this case playing a wastrel-ish concert pianist in old-school Vienna whose early promise is destroyed by womanizing and the sauce. Fontaine’s infatuation and subsequent deeper feelings continue, but fate intervenes before we can gauge the full degree of how precipitously her limits have been reached. Hence, the fate-inspired “letter” — which when read in a voiceover manages to excuse one of those screen narrations that can sometimes come off as a screenwriting crutch.

This masterpiece-of-kind got a long-ago VHS release from Republic and even a no-frills Criterion laserdisc, but neither was a patch on this Olive rendering, which reminds me why the film was included in an Exxon-funded touring film series I once helped program devoted to the golden age of black-and-white. Some of the other titles were Sunrise, Shanghai Express, The Night of the Hunter and Touch of Evil, which ought to give you a sense of the league we’re in here. But it isn’t just the photography that sets up a finale that in one sense shatters if you have a taste for romantic cinema, yet also seems almost inevitable from the set-up. Letter would make a good half of an Ophuls double bill with Criterion’s The Earrings of Madame de … — and also with the director’s immediate follow-up Caught, which if the rights are held by the party I have in mind, would seem to be an Olive candidate for release. But even at 88 minutes, it offers enough on its own.

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