Letter from an Unknown Woman
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN
Director: Max Ophüls
Production: A Rampart Production for Universal-International; black and white; running time: 86 minutes (re-released in 1979 in a 90 minute version); length: 7,844 feet. Released April 1948.
Producer: John Houseman; screenplay: Howard Koch, from the story by Stefan Zweig; photography: Frank Planer; editor: Ted J. Kent; sound: Leslie J. Carey, Glenn E. Anderson; art director: Alexander Golitzen; music: Daniele Amfitheatrof, David Tamkin.
Cast: Joan Fontaine (Lisa Berndle); Louis Jourdan (Stefan Brand); Mady Christians (Frau Berndle); Marcel Journet (Johann Stauffer); Art Smith (John); Carol Yorke (Marie); Howard Freeman (Herr Kastner); John Good (Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger); Leo B. Pessin (Stefan, Jr.); Erskine Sandford (Porter); Otto Waldis (Concierge); Sonia Bryden (Frau Spitzer).
Roud, Richard, Index to the Work of Max Ophüls, London, 1958.
Beylie, Claude, Max Ophüls, Brussels, 1958.
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Max Orphüls par Max Ophüls, edited by Robert Laffont, Paris, 1963.
Sarris, Andrew, Interviews with Film Directors, New York, 1967.
Wood, Robin, Personal Views: Explorations in Films, London, 1976.
Willeman, Paul, editor, Ophüls, London, 1978.
Williams, Alan Larson, Max Ophüls and the Cinema of Desire, New York, 1980.
Wilson, George M., Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point ofView, Baltimore, Maryland, 1986.
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White, Susan M., The Cinema of Max Ophüls: Magisterial Vision andthe Figure of a Woman, New York, 1995.
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Williams, Forrest, "The Mastery of Movement: An Appreciation of Max Ophüls," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1969.
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Wood, R., "Letter from an Unknown Woman: The Double Narrative," in Cineaction (Toronto), Spring/Summer 1993.
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The film Letter from an Unknown Woman is such an icon of cinema scholarship that it is difficult to realize it was not well received when it first appeared in the spring of 1948. Described by Bosley Crowther in the New York Times as containing "an hour and a half of wistfulness, of lingering love-lorn expressions and pseudo-Viennese 'schmaltz,"' the movie garnered a series of inconsequential reviews and slipped quietly into obscurity. Letter from an Unknown Woman was Max Ophüls's second Hollywood film after he fled the unstable political situation in Europe in the late 1930s, and although a seasoned director, he was relatively little known in America. In fact, he spent the first six years of his Hollywood exile unemployed until through the efforts of Robert Siodmak, another émigré director, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., asked Ophüls to direct The Exile (1948). It was to be the first of his four American films.
His second directorial opportunity came through the screenwriter Howard Koch, already at work on the script of Letter from the Viennese Stefan Zweig novella Brief einer Unbekannten. John Houseman had been persuaded to produce the film for Joan Fontaine and her husband William Dozier who had just formed Rampart Productions. Koch knew of Ophüls's work, he was later to write, through Liebelei (1932) which was set in Vienna. Houseman also knew the film and approved of using Max on Letter. The collaboration with Koch, Houseman and Rampart Productions proved congenial, for the most part, and the shooting went smoothly with only minor disagreement about the finished musical score, which Ophüls wanted integrated carefully into the film and not just used for background atmosphere. As the critics were to discover somewhat later, Ophüls had made an exceptionally fine film.
If the movie did not attract much attention in the United States, its fate in Great Britain was quite different. Deprived of a London opening it was consigned to the provincial theatres, but due to the intervention of Gavin Lambert and Karel Reisz, then writing for the avant-garde cinema journal Sequence, the film was given a London run some six months after its UK release. The continued interest on the part of Sequence critics kept the interest in Ophüls and his work alive and eventually lead to Richard Roud's index of Ophüls's films and the Ophüls retrospectives at the National Film Theatre and Cinemathèque Française in the late 1950s. A steady series of articles and reassessments appeared during the 1960s, and in 1968 in The American Cinema Andrew Sarris, the influential auteurist critic, placed Ophüls in his pantheon of directors who transcended their materials with a personal vision of the world. What has followed has been an increasing fascination in Ophüls's work and in his Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Of the various approaches taken by critics towards Ophüls's film three stand out as clearly generative. The first was summed up most succinctly by Robin Wood in his 1974 essay "Ewig hin der Liebe Glück" in which he examined the formal properties of Ophüls's cinema. Extending the assessment of Sarris and other formalist critics, Wood set forth some 22 separate categories of stylistic or thematic characteristics to be found in the Ophüls oeuvre. These properties he applied especially to Letter as an embodiment of the romanticism to be found in formal repetition and symmetry in an attempt to elevate the film from a "mere" romantic woman's film to the status of a genuine work of art, albeit in the romance vein. Wood saw the film as being neither debased nor simplified for its attachment to the heroine's yearnings. The sophisticated formal properties of the film elevated its romanticism to art.
The second major critical approach to Letter appeared in 1978 in a publication on the director issued by the British Film Institute and edited by Paul Willemen. As Virginia Wright Wexman has observed, Willemen, as part of the editorial collective which founded Screen, was committed to an ideological perspective which grew out of a synthesis of "semiotics, Althusserian Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and feminism." The BFI anthology followed the retrospective of Ophüls films at the Edinburgh Film Festival and reflected Willemen's ambivalence towards the auteurist critics who tended to consecrate the director as a great artist. Willemen preferred to examine the films as examples of a far ranging spectrum of political repression which were rooted, according to him, in the commercial,
i.e., Hollywood, cinema. Of particular interest to him were the strategies of voyeurism and exhibitionism relating to political questions of gender difference. Ophüls's extraordinary style, under such an examination, revealed a political sub-text which supported the generic and sexual properties of the film. Such an ideological approach exposed social assumptions often obscured by aesthetic criticism. Willemen's analysis opened up Ophüls's text to new interpretations which both enriched the process of watching and of criticism.
Finally, Letter from an Unknown Woman has assumed a central place in the current canon of feminist film criticism. Since the film is easily subsumed into the category of "women's films" and since the themes of the film, such as desire, personal renunciation, and death, all fall well within the areas traditionally encompassed by the Hollywood film aimed at female audiences, feminist film critics have discovered in the film a congenial ground for exploration. Ophüls's curious position within the Hollywood system also provides an opportunity for analysis in so far as he was making movies in Hollywood but from a particularly European point of view, a position reinforced by the fact that as opposed to other émigré directors he did not stay in America but returned to Europe to finish out his career.
Within a patriarchal political and economic system, which dominated the production of the "Hollywood Film," such movies as Letter provide a unique perspective on the place of women both within the system of texts created by the studios and within broader social contexts. If most films project women from a male point of view and determine women through the gaze of the male spectator, some films, such as Letter, offer a slightly different opportunity to "see" women as propriators of the masculine defining characteristics. The female voice-over and hence the female character in many ways "control" the film, limiting the freedom of the male figures in a reversal of patriarchy. Such an approach greatly problematizes the text and opens it up not only to a variety of readings but to revolutionary ones. Implicit in the text is what the text does not seem to be, and such a recognition significantly alters our experience of the film, of the director, and of the system within which the film was produced.
Max Ophüls's Letter from an Unknown Woman provides an exemplary instance of the interpretability of artistic texts. Each new generation of film critics has discovered in its experience with the film new perspectives and in the process reinvigorated the text with each examination. If any possibility still exists that Letter from an Unknown Woman is capable of eliciting only a surface wishfulfilment surely such critical resiliance should put such fears to rest.
—Charles L. P. Silet