I was in the mood for a melodrama last night, so I decided to watch Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and let it tear me apart. It is so painfully beautiful and beautifully painful, it makes my whole body hurt, not just my heart.
Vienna, 1900. Stefan Brand (Louis Jordan) is a washed-up pianist who decides to flee the city after he’s challenged to a duel. Before that, he receives a letter from someone from his past. In it, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) details her lifelong, unrequited love for him. This takes her back several years and throws us onto one of the most heart-breaking love stories ever told.
Max Ophuls’ masterpiece is still haunting after all these years. Written by Howard Koch, based on the novella by Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman is an enthralling, bittersweet (mostly bitter) tale, from the letter’s opening sentence to the final frame. Beautifully shot by Franz Planer, the atmospheric mood almost feels like a gothic story at times – very turn of the century indeed. And through it all, the movie belongs to Joan Fontaine. The camera always adored her, because of what she gave her audience. You stay with her the whole time and when her heart breaks in front of your eyes, yours will break too.
Letter From an Unknown Woman gives melodramas a good name. I never even understood that bad rap, anyway. I like them.