Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)



“The course of our lives can be changed by such little things. So many passing by, each intent on his own problems. So many faces that one might easily have been lost. I know now that nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured; every step is counted.” 

            The only line from a play I will ever remember by heart is “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life” from The Prime of Miss Jean Brody.  If you know the play you know what it means and why Miss Jean Brody said it but it can apply to anything for an impressionable young girl. The line can definitely apply to the character of Lisa Berndle in the film Letter From an Unknown Woman.
            Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) has to leave immediately. He is in trouble and needs to leave Vienna in a hurry. As he is preparing to leave his butler gives him an envelope. The envelope is thick with a letter several pages long and filled with photographs. Forgetting all that is going on around him he takes time to read the letter. The letter is read by the disembodied voice of the woman who wrote it and through her reading we are given a look back on her life and how Stefan left a lasting impact on it.
            Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) was a young girl when Stefan moved into her building. Walking home from school she found movers carrying many instruments including a grand piano. She finds out that the man is Stefan Brand a famous concert pianist. Every night Lisa stays up to listen to him play the piano. In her letter Lisa writes that she liked to think that he was playing just for her. She admired Stefan from afar following him in the streets or looking in on his parties. Stefan is always seen with many women surrounding him and entertaining them all through the night.
            Lisa gets what is the worst news in her young life: her mother is to remarry and they are to move away to another town. At the station she runs away from her mother and her new husband just to see and hear Stefan one last time. We fully grasp her obsession with the concert pianist when months later she does not accept a marriage proposal by saying she is already engaged to someone else and moves back to Linz.
            Every night after she leaves the clothing shop where she works Lisa stands outside Stefan’s window. One night he finally notices her, actually he has noticed her many times before but just now goes to talk to her. He takes her out and for the next few weeks they begin to see each other. This is more than Lisa could have ever dreamed of. The two enjoy themselves at fairs and dance to the early hours in the morning. There seems to be nothing that can tear the two lovers apart until Stefan has to leave for a tour for two weeks. The night before Stefan leaves they give into their love for each other. When Stefan leaves the next day Lisa’s whole world changes and she does not see Stefan for ten years.
            When Stefan sees Lisa for the first time since he left he vaguely remembers her.
            The story is without a doubt a melodrama and worse a melodrama about a little girl’s infatuation with an older man that never dies…. Oh wait a minute, does this sound kind of familiar? Scarlett O’Hara anyone? For some reason the plot really works and does not get unbearable (well to me anyway). Both characters have many faults- Lisa has either a mental or moral weakness which never lets her get over Stefan and Stefan just floats through life never committing. For one it works so well because of Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in the leading roles. Fontaine is amazing this is one of her best roles (apparently this is her favorite film she made). Besides the voice over she does not really say too much in the film but she does not have to she could always say so much just through her facial expressions. Jourdan was perfectly cast of a man who is surrounded by women and cannot settle in his life even giving up on being a concert pianist. The second thing that makes it work is the writing. The screenplay was written by Howard Koch who wrote such films as The Sea Hawk, In This Our Life, Sergeant York, and my all time favorite classic film Casablanca. The characters and story come from a novella of the same name by Stefan Zweig. I am not sure if it is the same in the novella but I liked how there was great meaning given to trains in this film they are sentimental and heartbreaking.
            Letter From an Unknown Woman is a very good film and a good story no matter how melodramatic it is. Lisa Berndle was a girl at an impressionable age when she first laid eyes on Stefan Brand. Her first impression of the man stayed with her all her life. I guess I am a sentimental at heart otherwise I would have laughed off a story like this but I did not instead I found myself thinking of the film long after it was over. In many ways Letter From an Unknown Woman is heartbreaking it is heartbreaking in the fact that Lisa was so infatuated and obsessed with this one man and while she practically lives for him he never remembers her and he is made to seem like he never cared for her. I really cannot explain why I was left thinking of the film later on but I was. It is not incredible or life changing it is just very well done all around.