A quintessential story of deep romance.

Joan Fontaine has always been an actress whom I feel was never given her proper due while she was alive. The only screen performer to win an Oscar for an Alfred Hitchcock film, the acclaimed actress became more well-known for her multiple marriages and her life-long rivalry with her sister, fellow Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland (whom many film historians will proclaim as more the movie star of the two). Yet in many ways, Fontaine’s output in films amassed a great richness through the experimental filmmakers who directed her as well as the sometimes unpopular subject matters within them. Everyone remembers the brilliant levels of fear and insecurity Hitchcock drew from Fontaine in Rebecca and Suspicion, but not as many recall the risks she took as an actress when selecting her subsequent projects. Her turn as a hopeless alcoholic in 1952’s Something to Live For was a daring one considering how taboo the disease was, while her romantic pairing with Harry Belafonte in 1957’s Island in the Sun resulted in her receiving hate mail from the KKK. Yet Fontaine always proved herself to be a fearless performer; never more so than in 1948’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, the actress’s favorite film, which saw her reach the greatest depths of her storied career.

Based on a Stefan Zweig story, Letter from an Unknown Woman opens on Stefan (Louis Jordan), a famous European pianist who arrives home on the night before he is scheduled to fight a duel. Shortly after making the decision to flee that night, he opens a letter sent by a woman known as Lisa (Fontaine), who (through flashbacks) tells the story of a decades-long love she has carried for Stefan despite the fact that he doesn’t know who she is.

Reading the description of Letter from an Unknown Woman, the film feels incredibly reminiscent of the subplot in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with the lonely female character known as Miss Lonelyhearts who stops herself from committing suicide when she hears the beautiful music being played by the frustrated composer in apartment across the courtyard. On some level, it’s hard not to wonder if that film wasn’t tipping its hat to Letter from an Unknown Woman with its comment on the beauty of art, and its soulfulness, value, and meaning for someone else without the artist knowing it. When the young Lisa first becomes aware of Stefan, it’s through the music he is working on while she is playing with her sister in the courtyard of her apartment building. Almost as soon as she hears it, Lisa finds herself intoxicated by the sound and the man who created it. There are so many times that the desire for Lisa to approach Stefan and divulge both her real name and her feelings for him are present. At the same time, however, it’s still hard not to be enraptured by the idea of one person falling in love with another without them ever seeing them. What happens is essentially a falling in love with the spirit, essence, and soul.

Working in the film’s favor is the fact that there’s nothing necessarily muddled about Letter from an Unknown Woman. At the same time, while the film is incredibly straightforward in terms of setup, its turns do manage to surprise; no more so than in the long night the two spend together walking around the city with Lisa never revealing her identity to Stefan as the little girl who used to watch him from afar. Their lone evening together is so lovely due to its unconventionality. For her, it’s a dream come true, and for him it’s a fantasy, a welcome surprise he wasn’t expecting. “Suddenly in that one moment, everything was in danger, everything I thought was safe,” Lisa recounts in the titular letter. “Somewhere out there were your eyes… and I knew I couldn’t escape them. It was like the first time I saw you. The years between were melting away.” It’s this kind of romantic fire which turns their second meeting, where Stefan has become crazed by the fact he cannot remember Lisa, into an encounter filled with heartache and agony on all sorts of levels. The difference now is that although he doesn’t know where they’ve met before, Stefan is almost as intoxicated with Lisa as she is with him. “Have you ever shuffled faces like cards, hoping to find one that lies somewhere, just over the edge of your memory?” he asks her. “The one you’ve been waiting for?”

There’s a boldness to Letter from an Unknown Woman which speaks to Zweig’s sensibilities, yet couldn’t have helped but challenge the standards of Hollywood in the 1940s. The biggest of these remains the depiction and discussion of a single mother wanting to remarry due to her various needs which go beyond the financial. On a practical level though, Letter from an Unknown Woman shows a ‘40s Hollywood feature in which the male figure of the piece essentially takes a back seat to his female counterpart (undoubtedly a tad scandalous and ahead of its time). Speaking of Stefan, although he isn’t the focus in Letter from an Unknown Woman, his character is nonetheless subtly explored. You get the sense that all the fame and success he’s enjoyed hasn’t meant anything because it never offered him anything truly real. There’s a feeling the audience gets while watching Stefan and Lisa, that the two encounters they share have been the only times when life hasn’t fully disappointed him.

Although there were plenty of times for Fontaine to play vulnerable throughout her career, very rarely did she have an opportunity to delve into the emotion with such stirring depth as she does in Letter from an Unknown Woman. The way she takes Lisa on her journey, from a winsome girl to a woman accepting the fate life has led her to, is a testament to the actress’s undervalued range. Not to be shortchanged, Jordan makes for a quietly compelling male lead. His scenes with Fontaine radiate magic and loveliness, while the way he makes Stefan his own sort of tragic figure is deeply felt.

There’s no disguising the fact that Letter from an Unknown Woman is a tragedy through and through, with some critics even pointing to the film’s devastating outcome as a symbol of the times. Yet the film’s ending has a definite poignancy, especially in regard to the kind of life decision Stefan ends up making. While some may criticize it as grandstanding, the character’s final act cannot help but be representative of how much Stefan has been changed by Lisa and her letter. The move certainly speaks to love, honor, and devotion, and in so many ways encompasses what the film is about at its core. So rarely has a film been able to showcase love in its most primal state with its many different emotions fully front and center the way this one does. While not well-remembered on a larger scale, Letter from an Unknown Woman remains one of the most undeniably human of experiences.

The Package

A pair of great documentaries in which critics dissect the various elements of Letter from an Unknown Woman, as well as the works of the film’s influential director Max Ophüls, are the disc’s main highlights.

The Lowdown

Poignant, beautiful and doomed, Letter from an Unknown Woman is the kind of classic that should be more recognized than it is.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Signature.

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