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Sunday, April 26, 2015

LETTER TO AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948)

Generally considered the best of Max Ophüls’ Hollywood films (it’s not, that’d be THE RECKLESS MOMENT/’49), but why quibble among his three late ‘40s glories? (CAUGHT/’49 fills out the trio.) This bittersweet romantic tragedy, set in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna, follows a teen on the cusp of womanhood (Joan Fontaine) spellbound for life in undeserved rapture to Louis Jourdan’s gifted & glamorous, if facile, concert pianist. Told in flashback, as the once-promising musician reads a confessional letter from this unknown woman, his rekindled memories explain his loss, but can’t change it. Superbly designed by Alexander Golitzen, and shot by the great cinematographer Franz Planer who did Ophüls’ earlier fate-filled Viennese romance, LIEBELEI/’33 (more echt-local flavor/less production fluidity). Unlike other pantheon directors attracted to similar material, say, Frank Borzage or Douglas Sirk, Ophüls steers clear of, rather than into melodrama, avoiding ‘bad’ laughs with a tart sensibility and an unchallenged technical finesse. (Watch how he almost repeats an overhead angle used when Jourdan brings an anonymous l’amour to his apartment, then adds a new flourish when Fontaine goes in. (It's like a visual equivalent to Chopin’s First Ballade where the main theme returns ‘corrected.’) Initially rejected at the box-office, perhaps Fontaine’s limited emotional range and Jourdan’s limited warmth were just too dry for popular consumption, that sec quality is now quite rightly prized.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ophüls refined this kind of story to near perfection in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE . . . /’53. But don’t ignore the tear-stained charm of LIEBELEI, mentioned above. No current DVD, but here’s an (barely) acceptable YOUTUBE link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGS7QopjqQc

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