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Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

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A pianist about to flee from a duel receives a letter from a woman he cannot remember, who may hold the key to his downfall.

Director:

Max Ophüls (as Max Opuls)

Writers:

Howard Koch (screenplay), Stefan Zweig (novel)
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1 win. See more awards »

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Cast

Complete credited cast:
Joan Fontaine ... Lisa Berndle
Louis Jourdan ... Stefan Brand
Mady Christians ... Frau Berndle
Marcel Journet Marcel Journet ... Johann Stauffer
Art Smith ... John
Carol Yorke Carol Yorke ... Marie
Howard Freeman ... Herr Kastner
John Good John Good ... Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger
Leo B. Pessin Leo B. Pessin ... Stefan Jr.
Erskine Sanford ... Porter
Otto Waldis ... Concierge
Sonja Bryden Sonja Bryden ... Frau Spitzer
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Storyline

In Vienna in 1900, Stefan Brand must face a duel the following morning. He has no intention of defending his honor however and plans to flee the city when he notices that he has received a letter from someone in his past. A struggling concert pianist at the time he met Lisa Berndle when she was just a teenager living next door. Brand has had many women in his life however and unaware that Lisa is genuinely in love with him, forgets all about her. They meet again but he only vaguely remembers ever having met her. Unknown to him she bears his child and eventually marries a man who knows of her past but loves her very much. When she runs into Brand many years later her love for him resurfaces and she is prepared to abandon her son and husband for him. Tragedy follows. Written by garykmcd

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Taglines:

This is the love every woman lives for...the love every man would die for!

Genres:

Drama | Romance

Certificate:

Not Rated | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »
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Details

Country:

USA

Language:

English

Release Date:

13 September 1948 (Sweden) See more »

Also Known As:

Brief einer Unbekannten See more »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Runtime:

Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »
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Did You Know?

Trivia

Mady Christians (who plays Lisa's mother) was born in Vienna. See more »

Goofs

While most signs in the movie are written correctly in German, since the movie is set in Austria, parts of them are in English, e.g. Stefan Brand's concert flyer, which says "Concert Program" instead of "Konzertprogramm". See more »

Quotes

Stefan Brand: Promise me something.
Lisa Berndl: Anything.
Stefan Brand: And I don't even know where you live. Promise me you won't vanish.
Lisa Berndl: I won't be the one who vanishes.
See more »

Connections

Referenced in Max par Marcel (2009) See more »

Soundtracks

Radetzky-Marsch, Op. 228
(uncredited)
Music by Johann Strauss Sr. (uncredited)
See more »

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User Reviews

 
A Posthumous Appeal for a Life's Acknowledgement
28 October 2010 | by jzappaSee all my reviews

Early on, Fontaine speaks of being born twice, once when you come into the world, once when you consciously actualize the beginning of your journey. I'm totally paraphrasing, but that's the gist. I was intrigued by this theoretical little idealistic theme. Director Max Ophuls deemed love as much a blight as a miracle, and this syrupy but highly sophisticated drama is one of the finest expressions of his refined aesthetic balance. It's composed of three extended episodes, each from another time in the heroine's life. This gives it a format resembling Ophuls' great Le Plaisir.

"By the time you read this letter, I may be dead…. If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn't know who I was or even that I existed." As follows the letter that gives this most famous of Ophuls' American films its title. Joan Fontaine's words come to us from the brink of death. The letter's receiver is Louis Jourdan, the object of Lisa's failing affection, a man who has been blind to her passion, and whom this letter wishes both to alleviate from this state plus to blame him for it. Simultaneously, the letter is also conveyed to us, as Jourdan's reading of it instigates a single flashback, whereby we follow the content as narrative images that seem to spring from Fontaine's perspective, abbreviated periodically by her voice-over, which preoccupies the screen. In jeopardy here is only one thing: her existence has been unrecognized, a truth that rather literally kills her. This is why she returns to haunt the screen; her posthumous appeal for acknowledgement.

Fontaine overdramatically combines the intensity of her daydream with her feeling of reality: "As hard as it may be for you to realize, from that moment on I was in love with you. Quite consciously, I began to prepare myself for you." There are few characters in film history who so thoroughly exemplify the thrust of melodrama. This film, consequently, appears to stem its genre less from formula than from Lisa's actual core, hazarded, not unlike that of the unfortunate leading ladies of opera, on curtains that rise and fall, until they don't rise anymore. Film, naturally, unlike opera, is a form of renaissance, where images can return to preoccupy us from a far-flung past. The melodrama of this film makes the most of this.

Staircases. Sets on multiple levels. Episodic and sectional construction of stories. Historical recreations of continental eras and societies. Entertainment spectacles: the carriage ride with unrolling pictures. Scenes at opera houses. The presence of tradesmen and servants as supporting players in camera movements. Irony. Ophuls' signature panning shots are much more flexible in this film. Ophuls' characters frequently go up or down staircases. The pans can quietly tilt upward or down, keeping the character in the focal point of the composition while crossing the staircase. The staircases here are merely series of short steps, leading from one floor to another. The transitions and pans are likewise minute and elegant. Characters also often move around within a location, such as the businessman incessantly fussing around the train station. Ophuls' camera pans from side to side with this man, as he moves impatiently through the crowd. Fontaine's dreamscape is exposed for us, developed into the geographic web of a city where the sole bystander that matters is Jourdan.


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