ChiaroScuro presents

(Lettre d’une inconnue | Brief einer Unbekannten)

by Max Ophüls

USA 1948

Max Ophüls
John Houseman
Executive Producer:
William Dozier
Production Companies:
Rampart Productions for Universal International Pictures
Howard Koch (based on the novel Brief einer Unbekannten by Stefan Zweig)
Franz Planer, A.S.C. (35 mm, b/w, 1.37:1)
Ted J. Kent
Music Score:
Daniele Amfitheatrof
Additional Music Score: Franz Liszt (from "Etude in D Flat Major"), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (from opera "Die Zauberflöte"), Richard Wagner (from opera "Tannhäuser: O du mein holder Abendstern")
Glenn E. Anderson, Leslie I. Carey (Mono, Western Electric)
Art Director:
Alexander Golitzen
Set Designer:
Ruby Levitt, Russell A. Gausman
Travis Banton
Bud Westmore
Assistant Directors:
John Sherwood
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), Erskine Sanford (Porter), Otto Waldis (Concièrge), Lester Sharpe (Critic),

Filming Locations:
Universal City Studios
2 September– 27 October 1947; 8 January, 16 January, 3 February 1948
2381m = 87 min
28 April 1948 (Rivoli, New York City)
National Film Preservation Board 1992 National Film Registry

"An intense and lush romantic film made by the incomparable Ophüls during his often trying sojourn in America in the WWII and immediate postwar years. Fontaine plays Lisa, who has a brief encounter with and falls for her pianist neighbor Stefan (Jourdan). As he heads off on a concert tour, Stefan promises to return for her, but that doesn't happen. Lisa holds out as long as possible but is forced to marry another man when she discovers that she's pregnant with Stefan's child. She meets the pianist some time later, but he doesn't remember her and sets about seducing her all over again. The story is told in flashbacks as Stefan reads a letter from Lisa as she is suffering from typhus, and he finally learns her entire story.

The first film from the production company formed by Fontaine and William Dozier, Letter from an Unknown Woman has an unusually persuasive Continental look to it. Its lyrical, sweet sadness and incredibly lovely mise en scene are typical of Ophüls at his best. His meaningful, highly deliberate camera wanderings beautifully capture the sorrows of Lisa's entrapment by cultural norms. The direction and Koch's well-judged screenplay admirably manage to retain an ironic edge despite the potent romanticism of it all. Fontaine has never looked lovelier and gives what is probably the greatest performance of her career. The dashing and persuasive Jourdan and a fine cast ably support her, as does the incredible camerawork of regular Ophüls collaborator Franz Planer. Although Caught and The Reckless Moment are films of considerable merit, Letter is almost certainly Ophüls' greatest American film. Watching it is like finding a locket you thought you had lost, one which contains the picture of someone who once broke your heart."  
—  TV Guide

"A victim of respectable but somewhat patronizing reviews at the time of its original release, Letter from an Unknown Woman has achieved classic status during the past decade, both as one of the two or three best examples of what used to be called "the woman's picture" and as perhaps the most impressive showcase of the camera wizardry that distinguished Max Ophüls' direction. "Max and his tracks" were legendary, and the Ophüls tracking shot would follow the characters into rooms, out of rooms, and through the walls of rooms as if the cameraman had the mobility of a ghost. Even beyond the camera movements, Planer's use of lighting provided the director with a look of opulence appropriate for this story of lifelong, unrequited love. ... Andrew Sarris wrote of Ophüls: "Love, the memory of love, the mortality of love comprise the Ophülsian heritage ... [and] Ophüls offers no ... comforting consolation... There is no escape from the trap of time... This is the ultimate meaning of Ophülsian camera movement: time has no stop..." ...

The story of lifelong, unrequited love-told via a posthumous letter-in being almost absurd is more cynical than it is romantic. To paraphrase Michael Kerbel in Film Comment, Ophüls's circular structure, endless repetitions and treadmill movements express the entrapment of a woman unable to exist outside her illusions. While A Day in the Country leaves us with an exquisitely tender and bittersweet feeling, Letter from an Unknown Woman leaves us deeply saddened."
Pacific Film Archive

"Of all the cinema's fables of doomed love, none is more piercing than this. [...] Ophüls' endlessly elaborate camera movements, forever circling the characters or co-opting them into larger designs, expose the impasse with hallucinatory clarity: we see how these people see each other and why they are hopelessly, inexitricably struck."
— Tony Rayns, TimeOut

"Letter from an Unknown Woman displayed not only sincerity but a still rarer quality: sensitivity. [...] the film [...] reveals [...] his almost Mozartian faculty for concealing deep emotion beneath an elegant, decorative surface."
— Charles Higham, Joel Greenberg: Hollywood in the Forties. London-New York 1968, p. 41sq.

"Like the greatest directors, Ophüls reveals .... deep conflict through surfaces: through the endless movements of camera, and characters in a fixed society, he captures the inner movement of the soul in its rare, solitary passage to tragedy and grace."
— Molly Haskell: From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. New York 1974, p. 186.

"Intently listening to Letter from an Unknown Woman is like watching the film for the first time: being surprised again by its fluidity and getting caught up in the smooth progression of the story, guided by the music. Letter is operating within the framework of classical Hollywood cinema, creating a sense of spontaneity through a strict structure. As Claudia Gorbman notes, music serves the classical Hollywood film style through its “inaudibility” and subordination to the film narrative, creating a sense of continuity and unity. [...] Ophüls turns this emotional story into classical melodrama with a twist, adding both visual refinement and distanced irony. Rather than merely underscoring the images in a traditional way, the music adds another dimension of commentary, sometimes at odds with Lisa's voice-over narration. [...]

Music is a powerful signifier of atmosphere, and more than any other filmic element, functions on the level of emotions rather than that of intellectual understanding. In Letter, it is used in two distinct ways: the soundtrack both reinforces the mood of the images and contradicts it. This double use of music corresponds to a tension in the film as a whole. On the one hand, Letter is a typical Hollywood narrative, preserving a high degree of unity, as every element has a clear function in telling the story. On the other hand, the film is highly self-reflexive, suggesting multiple meanings, breaking through appearances, and uncovering internal contradictions. Music is one of the multiple voices telling the story, but the story itself is also musical. Repetitions and variations occur in the narrative as they do in the score, and rhythmical patterns and changes in pace typify the images as much as the soundtrack. Thus, music isn't only an important storytelling device for Ophüls, but also a powerful metaphor to describe his work."
Alexander Dhoest: Ophuls Conducting: Music and Musicality in 'Letter from an Unknown Woman', in: Senses of Cinema, August 2003

"Cette œuvre dont chaque plan est 'signé' prouverait, s'il en était besoin, les étonnantes facultés d'adaption d'Ophüls et l'incroyable aptitude du système hollywoodien à accueillir, d'où qu'il vienne, le talent le plus personnel et à lui donner les moyens de s'épanouir. Ophüls n'a jamais été plus lui-même que dans cette Vienne admirablement reconstituée en studio. [...] L'art d'Ophüls est ici à son comble, jouant aussi bien sur les dialogues et sur l'interprétation que sur l'utilisation de l'espace du décor ou du montage."
— Jacques Lourcelles: Dictionnaire du cinéma. Les films. Paris 1992, p. 840.

Max Ophüls and Joan Fontaine (left) | On the set (right)

Film Reviews | DVD Reviews

Collection Les introuvables


Wild Side Vidéo / Universal Pictures Vidéo
Region 2

83:28 min (PAL Speedup + 4% = 87 min)
1.33:1/4:3 FullScreen
Average Bitrate: 8.42 mb/s, 5.40 GB
PAL 720x576 25.00 f/s
• English Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (448 kb/s)
• Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (448 kb/s)
Français (non-removable)
• Audio Commentary by Philippe Roger
• Presentation of the film by Noël Herpe
• A propos de Max Ophüls, interviews with Noël Herpe (15:05 min) and Ulla de Colstoun (06:26 min)

• Filmographies
• Photo Galery
• 8-pages Booklet with Liner Notes by Philippe Garnier
• Web Links

DVD Release Date: 2 September 2003
Digipak Case
Chapters: 8
DVD Encoding: PAL Region 2 (EU/France)
1xSS-DL/DVD-9 (6.92 GB)

Beautiful print with very rich greytones and deep blacks, revealing the sublime craftmanship of Planer's cinematography, a flawless compression that thankfully retained at least some of the film grain, the English soundtrack clean and resonant: the Wild Side DVD would be a perfect presentation for this absolute masterpiece, a bittersweet artistic hommage to Vienna and one of the greatest melodramas of cinema history, if it were not for the fixed electronic subtitles.

Film: ***** out of *****
**** out of *****


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Average Bitrate :
8.42 mb/s

The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes

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Last update: 3 February 2004