Blu-ray: ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ – Olive Signature Edition

Olive Films

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature, Blu-ray) (1948), the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophüls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), is his first American masterpiece, an exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) informed by his continental sensibility.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.

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Cool and Classic: ‘Letter From an Unknown Woman’

Letter From an Unknown Woman (Olive) was the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophuls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), but his first American masterpiece, and he invests this exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) with his continental sensibility.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.

Fontaine delivers one of the best performances of her career, vulnerable and yearning without lapsing into sentimentality and ultimately showing a hidden strength as she risks all for one more moment with the love of her life. Jordan is genial and callow, an empty figure faced with the meaningless of his life and shamed with self discovery. Meanwhile Ophuls’ endlessly moving camera tracks, cranes, and circles around the characters while maintaining a measured distance, offering a privileged view of intimacy that captures both her life-defining rapture and his momentary engagement. It’s a sensibility more European than American, right down the empty gesture that concludes this sad melodrama, but it’s also a transition to making films in the American vernacular.

Ophuls only made four films in America. This is the first to make its long-awaited stateside debut on Blu-ray and DVD. No supplements.

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‘Something to Live For’ on TCM

Ray Milland earned an Oscar playing an alcoholic desperately seeking a drink while facing a very bad night of the DTs in Billy Wilder’s 1945 The Lost Weekend, one of the first Hollywood films to seriously confront alcoholism as a disease. George Stevens’ 1952 Something to Live For is in no way a sequel but The Lost Weekend can’t help but inform Ray Milland’s character Alan Taylor, an advertising copywriter and recovering alcoholic who, at 18 months sober, has volunteered to go on calls for problem drinkers.

Joan Fontaine takes top billing as Jenny Carey, a no-longer-fresh young actress whose career is finally gaining traction, or at least was until she started lubricating her anxieties and emotion wounds in alcohol. She’s almost unrecognizable in her first scenes, sprawled across her hotel bed in slacks and blouse, more Katherine Hepburn modern woman than the usual Fontaine shy beauty or vulnerable sophisticate, and she doesn’t overwork the drunk act. She’s more wary and suspicious of Alan, who was called by the hotel’s worried elevator operator (Harry Bellaver) and proceeds to use the wily tricks of a veteran drunk to steer her clear of another drink (the inevitable echoes of The Lost Weekend reverberate through this scene). It looks like the beginning of a possible romance, until Alan returns home to his wife and children.

“Only a drunk can stop a drunk,” he explains to his supportive wife Edna (Teresa Wright) the next morning, but he came home with more than duty on his mind. Alan and Jenny continue to see one another, meetings that are as ecstatic as they are painful when reminders of his marriage and family responsibilities never fail to intrude on every reunion. Between their mostly chaste trysts, we follow their struggles in their respective worlds of corporate advertising (where Alan loses faith in his talent as a young hotshot takes the prime accounts) and New York theater (where Jenny’s confidence is undercut by the subtly cruel gestures of a jealous ex-lover). Even when they are apart, however, director George Stevens unites them in the many long, slow lap dissolves that connect them through their thoughts.

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