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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Analysis of "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (1948)

Note: spoilers abound in this post.

Letter was the second film we watched in the Ophuls appreciation class. There were about 14 of us in the class, most of us - including myself - were watching this for the first time.

Before the film began, our instructor wanted us to pay attention to three things:

1) Music and how it's used - diagetic music (music played in the background that the characters can hear) vs. non diagetic music. (music the characters don't hear).

2) Camera work - the axial, tracking, and crane shots. Our instructor recommended the book: "Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios" by Lutz Bacher, where techniques are discussed. On the film, Ophuls worked with his cinematographer from Liebelei - Franz Planer - and was able to achieve the mobility he desired for this film. There will be several crane shots where the camera moves up and is pulled back, such as the steps of the opera scene, a fine example of this. And throughout the film, you'll notice many shots of characters ascending stairs - very symbolic.

3) Melodrama? - is this just an "awful tearjerker" as some have said, or is there more meaning in this? It's a romance, but is it over-the-top?


The opening credits play over the movie's theme by credited composer "Daniele Amfitheatrof". But who is he? Our instructor said that she thought it might be a pseudonym. With a last name meaning "Amphitheater", she doubted it would be anyone's real name. Perhaps Ophuls did the music himself? Neither I nor anyone else in the class knew at the time. But when I got home, I checked his credits on IMDB -- turns out that that Amfitheatrof is his real name, and among his credits include his Oscar nominated score of Song of the South, The Claudette Colbert vehicle Guest Wife (another Oscar nomination) and several other Joan Fontaine movies, including Ivy and You Gotta Stay Happy.

In the beginning of the film, we see a man getting out of a carriage in front of St. Steven's church in Vienna. He is to fight in a duel later that evening. The year was 1900, and duals still went on. We assume it's due to his hard living, hard drinking lifestyle; another character mentions he has a penchant for Cognac. As he walks into his home, it's raining, and the bells of the church sound - almost as to seal his fate.

His servant brings him the mail, which includes a multiple page letter from a mysterious woman. Who cold this woman be? The rest of the film tells the story...

Joan plays teenage Lisa, a young student who lives with her mother - presumably a widow - in an apartment building. Ophuls wants the audience to become the character of Lisa - we see what she sees, and hear what she hears.

Lisa starts to develop a serious crush on the next door neighbor, a concert pianist named Stefan Brand (a dashing Louis Jourdan), who is trying to make a name for himself. She loves listening to him practice Mozart and Liszt when he's home.

At first, I couldn't tell what age she was supposed to be, but later we find out she's about 17 years old. Youthful looking Fontaine, who was 30 at the time, is a convincing teenager here.

Lisa's infatuation with the musician inspires her to take dancing and music lessons.

One day she even sneaks into his apartment and looks around the flat. We see on the wall portraits of Gustav Mahler and Joseph Joachim, both well known Austrian composers of the time.

In these opening scenes, Lisa is shown hanging out with a friend her age, but this character soon disappears from the film. Perhaps this is intentionally to show that Lisa really didn't have any other friends beyond her fantasy of Stefan.

Meanwhile, Lisa's mother is being courted by a wealthy man. One day the mother sits down with Lisa to have a talk, and he announces that he will be getting married and that they will all be moving to Linz, a town in upper Austria. The look of fear on Joan's/Lisa's face upon hearing the news is priceless.

Despite Lisa not wanting to ever be far from Stefan and his music, they all pack and prepare for the move anyway.

In the train station, right before boarding, Lisa decides at the last minute to run all the way back home; she wants to see Stefan just one more time. She nervously waits in her empty apartment until he comes home. Looking around the empty rooms, she remembers: "These rooms I used to live in were once filled with your music....Would these rooms ever come to life again? Would I?"

She hears a noise coming from outside, and she dashes to look....On the staircase, she sees Stefan and one of his female companions enter his apartment. Ophuls films from above the staircase as we see Stefan and the woman climb the stairs. However, we don't know exactly how she feels - is her heart broken? Will she forget about him forever now? The next scenes answer these questions....

A few years have now passed...Lisa is now living in the little town of Linz. The entire Linz sequence was filmed on a backlot, and the public square was nicely recreated. Lisa dresses fancier now, and has a gentleman friend.

One day we see the two of them walking by a military band, badly performing Wagner's "Song of The Evening Star", which was popular during that time. Though such a mediocre rendition is not how you'd expect to hear such a beautiful piece of music, it does seem to work in this scene. Just as there isn't any romance in the rendition, there isn't any romance in the relationship between Lisa and her suitor. Why? Because she is still holding a torch for Stefan. Her suitor even proposes, but she refuses. With her mother and stepfather disappointed, she moves back to Vienna to get away from the pressure. So the diagetic music we hear from the band is symbolic is this scene - bad music during a painful experience in Lisa's life.

In a montage, we see her new life and career in Vienna. The clips show us that she now has become a successful fashion model with many new suitors, all of whom she refuses; she's still in love with Stefan, a man she has never met.

Then, one day, in the cold of winter, snow on the ground and all, the meeting finally occurs. She's waiting outside his apartment, just as she does every single night. Meanwhile, a street band plays a watered down piece by Strauss. "Do you like to listen to street singers?", he asks. She pauses. "Neither do I", says Stefan. This suggests they need more romantic music, perhaps a full orchestra even. (Later on, destiny has them both meeting up at an opera.)

They go on to have a wonderful, dreamlike evening filled with dinner, long talks, dancing - all the romantic elements of a "perfect date".

They take a long walk together through Prater Park, and as they walk we hear a famous waltz that is often associated with amusement parks or trapeze acts, "Over the Waves" by Juventino Rosas. Because the music is so familiar to us, we think of happy times in our own lives.

The next scene is my favorite in the film.

Ophuls directs a simply amazing sequence. Lisa and Stefan find themselves on the most interesting amusement ride -- a little train car with a window, and on the outside is a moving drape with scenery that simulates a moving ride. Scenes of Paris, Rome, and Switzerland generate romantic images.

One of the great scenes of all time, so brilliant because the ride is symbolic of their night together - temporary and phoney

It's kind of cute when Stefan continues to buy more time on the ride. And the conversation on the ride is a fascinating look into these characters. We learn more about Lisa; she traveled quite a bit with her father and mother when she was a child, she says. Stefan asks her more about her father, but she quickly changes the subject, for reasons that are left to us to interpret. Her father may have died when she was a very young girl.

In a music hall, they dance to "Viennese Gals" by Carl Michael Ziehrer (thanks Hal for the information), performed by an all-female band. And they dance all night, right up until closing time. One of the musicians delivers one of the best lines in the film - "I like to play for married people, they have homes".

When the band finishes and steps down, Stefan goes up to the piano and plays a Mozart piece (by either Liszt or Mozart, I couldn't tell) while Lisa watches in awe. Ophuls took great care to film the piano-playing convincingly; I'm not sure if Louis Jourdan played in real life, but he really gets the fingering accurate in this scene.

Another shot that really impressed me is when Ophuls captures Lisa looking up at him playing. This reminded me of Lulu at the end of Pandora's Box

The night of bliss culminates when they finally make love that night, which is implied. There's no need to be overtly graphic; we get the idea when they embrace and kiss in the shadows of his flat. In fact, some of the most emotional scenes in the film are dealt with rather quickly; there aren't any drawn out scenes that you might see in other films considered melodramas.

The next day, Stefan tells Lisa that he must leave for a short 2-week trip to Italy where he will perform with his orchestra.

But he doesn't come back after 2 weeks.

In a twisted turn of events, Stefan abandons her; he never comes back to her. We realize that he never thought of her but anything but just another one of his one-night-stand girlfriends.

While he's away, Lisa bears Stefan's child, a boy, and marries a wealthy man, Johann Stauffer (Marcel Journet). She names her son "Stefan"

The story fast-forwards about 10 years. We realize that Lisa has come along way from naive teenager when we first met her - now she's a mature adult, giving advice to her young son, a very intelligent boy. Joan manages this transition brilliantly.

In a later scene, Lisa has to put her son on a train for school. In a great example of Ophuls' repeating elements - the son assures Lisa that he will see her again in two weeks. This reminds us when Stefan promised her the same thing. Both of those scenes mark dramatic changes in her life.

One night, Lisa and her husband prepare for a night at the opera (Mozart's "The Magic Flute"). As the couple returns to their seats after intermission, Ophuls shows us a long take of the couple ascending the staircase of the lobby, a magnificent shot. Suddenly - she sees Stefan in the lobby. Stefan eyes her too, and Lisa is so filled with emotion that she needs to leave the opera house right when Act 2 begins.

"Suddenly, everything was in danger, everything I thought was safe"

She meets Stefan outside and they talk for several minutes. His mind clouded, he doesn't remember the night they had together, but he keeps asking her, "I've seen you somewhere before, haven't I"?

During our class discussion, one of the students thought that he had a mental illness. I thought he was drunk myself. He certainly became a dissolute by this point. In the theater, ordinary people gossip about him as being a has-been.

Scared, Lisa - along with Johann - leave the theater and return home. Having seen the two together outside, Johann is now suspicious, and wants to know what is going on. "We have a marriage" he reminds her. "You have a will - you can do what is right or throw your life away (by going back to him)".

But Lisa can't help it - she still loves Stefan, and thinks about him constantly. At one point, she concludes, "He needs me as much as I need him". The next night, Lisa returns to Stefan's apartment. Johann Stauffer follows her and notices that she goes in the apartment. Our instructor explained that Johann would be even more inflamed with him than he is with her, since he let her inside.

When she arrives, Stefan is excited at the chance to talk to this mysterious, familiar-looking woman again, and plans to celebrate the occasion with dinner and wine. He's still a bachelor, and still lives with his faithful servant, who remembers Lisa from over 10 years ago when she helped him carry up a carpet. Because the servant is mute, he cannot communicate this to Stefan.

Lisa is prepared to remind him about the night, and to tell him he has a son. "I have something to tell you", she says...but never finishes. Stefan keeps talking without letting her finish. For the most part, he talks about being washed up, and no longer does concerts like he used to.

Lisa wonders if he can still play the piano, but it's locked up, and is hardly ever used anymore, he tells her.

The music has been silenced, and this devastates her inside. Our instructor said that it is at this moment when she realizes she was never really in love with him, but the music all along.

She leaves. Ophuls gives us a nice shot of her walking down the stairs, a high angle shot. --- It's the same shot we saw early in the film, where she - as a young naive girl - noticed Stefan with the other woman (another example of repeating elements). Now, she's the woman she always wanted to be, but she's a different woman now.

Her life then takes a turn of events that changes her fate forever. She is infected with Typhus, which she caught from being on the train car with her son, who dies from the disease.

Knowing she will die, she writes a multi-page letter to Stefan...

The story resumes in the present, with Stefan continuing to read the letter to the very last page.

He finally sees photos of the son he never knew he had. "You would have been proud of him" she wrote in the letter.

Stephen then goes off to the duel - with Johann, we learn - and we don't know what happens after that. We hear the bells from the ironically named St. Steven's Cathedral - another exaple of Ophuls' repeated elements.


This is a fun movie to discuss. Everyone in the class was impressed with it. We talked about whether or not this is a melodrama (our instructor doesn't think so, and I tend to agree). Others in the class, including myself, agreed with our instructor that this is really about a romance between a woman and music, not necessarily a man and a woman.

Regarding the Stefan character, Ophuls perhaps saw himself in this character, and could relate to his womanizing (Ophuls was known to have a mistress). It's not until the very last scenes with Stefan do we as the audience really start to feel some kind of sympathy for this character. Fitting, because the film is mostly all from Lisa's point of view. Some have even called this a woman's picture.

We also talked more about Ophuls being the paradigm case of auterism, because he inpired the whole theory. Film critic David Thompson is a fan of Ophuls' films and has written many positive things about this film in particular.

Ophuls and screenwriter Howard Koch (Casablanca) stay true to the the original novel, according to our instructor.

It's certainly a film that would be enjoyed by any fan of classical music. Ms. Fontaine herself has always been a fan, and I could see her enjoying making this movie. But I'm surprised she did not write more about the making of this film in her 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses.


The performances of the two leads, director Max Ophuls' fluidity of the camera and the beautiful music throughout combine to form a beautiful piece of cinematic art.

Once you see it, you will never forget it.


Anonymous said...

There appears to be controversy about the waltz scene with the all female band. Is it a Strauss waltz or is it" Viennese Gals" by Carl Michael Ziehrer?

Tom said...

Very good observation. Now I'm not sure... will have to look into this...thanks for mentioning this.

Unknown said...

Tom;As as you previously mentioned there was beautiful music throughout. mentioned was; movie theme by Amfitheatrof,Liszt etude "Un sospiro",Wagners"Song of the Evening Star","a street band"plays a watered down piece by Strauss" and the ill-fated couple dancing to a Strauss waltz in the music hall scene. Other than the "Radetsky March" what are titles of the Strauss pieces in the movie?

Tom said...

Dear Hal,

I wish I knew all the pieces....

Here is hoping that another reader may contribute and provide the names of the pieces.

I would certainly welcome any more feedback and would like to know the names myself.


Unknown said...

Dear Tom,

The list of music for the Mar 12 query is;
Un sospiro by Liszt
"Song of the Evening Star" by Wagner
"Over the Waves" by Rosas
"Radetzky March" by Strauss
"Kiss Waltz" by Strauss(street band)
"Viennese Gals" by Carl Michael Ziehrer( dance hall)
"Vienna Waltz" by Strauss(in the cafe)

Tom said...

Thank you Hal

Unknown said...

Dear Tom,
It behooves me to insist on correcting your"movie-music' analysis but, again you missed
the call in the dance hall scene. At the bands leaving the couple, Stefan immediately seated
himself at the piano and played more of "Viennese



Unknown said...

Your instructor gets an "F" as in Fail for her statement that the name of Daniele Amfitheatrof is a pseudonym. How stupid can one be. Why did she not take the time to research his bio on Wikipedia? Thankfully, you did the research yourself. I hope that you put the ignorant troll in her place when you returned to class.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious: why would you say it's not really a melodrama? I actually tend to think the same, but don't know really the reason(s).

Tom said...

In our class, the general consensus was that the film - when compared to certain other tearjerkers of the era - has an almost magical mix of symbolism and substance needed to be meaningful to a modern audience and future generations. In other words, it's outstanding!

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