“If this letter reaches you, believe this – that I love you now as I’ve always loved you. My life can be measured by the moments I’ve had with you and our child. If only you could have shared those moments, if only you could have recognized what was always yours, could have found what was never lost. If only …”
In the 1940s, Joan Fontaine excelled at playing a certain type: the impressionable, almost too easily seduced young woman who finds herself in uncertain circumstances brought about by her inescapable infatuation with a fascinating man. Indeed, the first two films to bring her widespread fame (and her first two Academy Award nominations) demonstrate this type brilliantly; both her turn as the timid (and painfully in love) Mrs. de Winter #2 in Rebecca (1940) and her Oscar-winning performance as the naive wife of ne’er-do-well Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941) showcase Fontaine’s ability to play the soon-to-be-schooled innocent. [The director of both films, Alfred Hitchcock, surely did love to put his unsullied innocents in the throes of potential mortal peril, didn’t he?] Her melodramatic chops were furthered honed in films such as The Constant Nymph (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944), in which the actress portrayed fresh-faced characters much younger than her twenty-something years.
Fontaine took this typical characterization to new heights in 1948, when she and then-husband William Dozier sought to bring the 1922 novella Letter from an Unknown Woman to the big screen. Originally filmed in 1933 under the title Only Yesterday (a heavily-edited version starring Margaret Sullavan in her first movie role), the racy material of the book promised Fontaine the opportunity to inject a more adult sensibility into her typical 40s screen persona, and she took full advantage, turning in one of the strongest performances of her career.
Letter is structured as an extended flashback, as Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) prepares to leave his Vienna home in order to avoid an upcoming duel with an unnamed opponent. He receives a letter from a woman named Lisa Berndle (Fontaine), which tells him about her life and his place within it. The film then shows us Lisa’s story, beginning in her teenage years, when a young pianist–Stefan–moves into her apartment building. Lisa quickly becomes infatuated with Stefan, but he barely acknowledges the shy young girl.
Lisa and her family move away, and she forms a relationship with a young lieutenant. But when he proposes to her, she refuses him, claiming that she is attached to Stefan. She returns to Vienna alone and takes a job, all the while hoping Stefan will notice her as she lingers on his street every night. When he finally does, he takes her out for an entertaining evening before bringing her back to his apartment for a night of romance.
Stefan leaves to perform in a concert in Milan, telling Lisa he will return to her, but he soon forgets all about her. Meanwhile, Lisa gives birth to their son, whom she names Stefan. Even though she eventually marries another man, the wealthy Johann, Lisa never forgets about Stefan. And years later, when fate brings them together once more, the stage is set for an unspeakable tragedy that will lead Stefan to a long-delayed moment of truth and acceptance.
In Lisa, Fontaine presents us with one of her most fully-realized characters. It’s a multi-layered performance, an emotional tour de force in which a deft Fontaine shows us Lisa’s progression from shy teenager to more worldly woman while sensitively portraying the girl’s long-held love with compassion and dignity. In a less capable actress’ hands, Lisa could come off as pathetic and desperately needy, but Fontaine’s luminous and heartfelt execution paints Lisa with a decidedly romantic brush. Her love is true and stalwart, reflected in every longing glance, every tentative smile Lisa casts upon Stefan.
It helps that Fontaine shares a warm onscreen chemistry with Jourdan, in only his second American film. Jourdan had a budding film career in France that was cut short by the outbreak of World War II, eventually making his way to the United States. His American debut came a year before Letter, in Hitchcock’s 1947 courtroom drama The Paradine Case, as the object of Alida Valli’s murderous affections. Letter marked Jourdan’s first lead role, and he functions magnificently as the unwitting source of Lisa’s emotional turmoil. Staring at his handsome, chiseled features, paired with the delicious French accent … frankly, it’s easy to see how any young girl could find herself even mildly obsessed with him.
Letter from an Unknown Woman is a staunchly beautiful film, filled with gorgeous details that faithfully recreate the turn-of-the-century Austrian setting. The inimitable style of director Max Ophuls practically oozes from every frame, from the well-conceived tracking shots that populate the film to the very European flavor that permeates the production and saves it from sinking under the weight of the story’s inherent sentimentality. This is one of four films that Ophuls made in the United States, and I would venture that this nuanced romance is undoubtedly the strongest of those American films, with a compelling emotional core that effectively exceeds the swashbuckling antics of the historical drama The Exile (1947), the melodramatic angst of Caught (1949), and even the tightly-coiled tension at the heart of The Reckless Moment (also 1949).
Fontaine reportedly invested a great deal of her own money in making Letter, and even though it was not a box office success at the time of its release, Fontaine’s leap of faith was ultimately rewarded as the film garnered a much more favorable critical and commercial reception over the years. Fontaine later remembered the making of this movie–particularly the collaboration with Ophuls–quite fondly and rightly cited it, along with The Constant Nymph and her films with Hitchcock, as among her best work.
This post is an entry in the ongoing “Summer Under the Stars Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Make sure to check out the other entries that have been dedicated to the lovely Joan Fontaine today.