This is the reason I dedicated this list to Leslie Halliwell, his books have been much more than just an inspiration to me, so it is such a shame that Halliwell’s Film Guide is now missing from the book shops of the country, but that is another story. I discovered this film due to it getting the maximum **** star grading in Halliwell’s Film Guide, on a Thursday afternoon in May 1991, that night was my six form leaving do, but before I went there, I fell in love with this story of a forgotten romance in Vienna long ago when a woman wastes her life chasing a man who never knew her.
When released it was classed as a “Woman’s picture” and gave it’s director his best chance to recreate his beloved Vienna in Hollywood. He was born in Germany in 1902 and moved to France when the Nazis came to power and with the fall of France he moved to Switzerland and then to Hollywood, where he made four films “The Exile”, a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler made in 1948 along with “Letter From An Unknown Woman” and “Caught”, with James Mason all 1948 and “The Reckless Moment”, also with Mason in 1949, the later two were dismissed at the time, but have now been reassessed as minor classics. However the best was “Letter From An Unknown Woman”.
It was adapted from a short novel by Stefan Zweig by Howard Koch who had co-written “Casablanca”, but the film belongs to the two stars, Louis Jourdan, who had made his American debut the previous year in Hitchcock’s “The Paradine Case” and Joan Fontaine, who had made her name in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” and “Suspicion” (for which she won a best actress oscar) and it was her production company, Rampart, that had made it, this is her finest hour and a half. I watched this film so much in the early 90s and twenty years on, indeed 62 years on from when the film was made, what is most astonishing is that both it’s stars are still alive! (Jourdan is 91 and Fontaine 93).
The content of most of Ophuls films are rather flimsy, but it is the style in which they are created that makes them so memorable and makes him one of the finest directors of his generation. After “The Reckless Moment”, he returned to France and made his most famous film, “La Ronde”, he stayed there for the next five years, making his final film in 1956, the rarely seen “Lola Montes”, which has just made it on to DVD. He finally returned to his native Germany in late 56 and died in Hamburg in 57 before his work could be finally be re-appraised. For Derek Malcolm it was 1953’s “Madame De…”, for me, it is and always will be “Letter From An Unknown Woman”. I hate rom-coms, but I love romance in the cinema, especially when it is golden Hollywood tragic and it doesn’t come any more tragic or golden than this. For further reading check out Virginia Wright Wexman and Karen Hollinger’s book on the film (Rutgers Film In Print 1986, reprinted 1991).
US Release June 1948
DF Viewing 16/05/1991 BBC-2