Set mainly in a back-lot version of Freud’s Vienna, “Letter From an Unknown Woman” (1948) is as exquisite an account of romantic obsession as Hollywood ever produced, dramatizing a passion as outsize as it is understated.
The film, to be shown twice in a recent 35-millimeter restoration from the University of California, Los Angeles, is part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s international survey of movie melodramas, titled “Emotion Pictures.” Directed by Max Ophüls (as Max Opuls), it was adapted by Howard Koch from an epistolary novella by Stefan Zweig, first published in the early 1920s, around the time that Freud — with whom Zweig corresponded — brought out “An Autobiographical Study.”
The movie “Letter From an Unknown Woman” shows Zweig and Ophüls at their best. Zweig’s book is a first-person account of a woman’s heart-wrenching masochistic love for a famous novelist who unknowingly fathers her child. It’s a case history that the New York Times reviewer thought rose to “the level of Greek tragedy.” Ophüls’s movie, which was initially not so highly regarded (at least in The Times), treats Zweig’s story as a bittersweet meditation on the evanescence of love. It’s more sardonic than the book and, being governed by Hollywood codes, more tactful in recounting the fate of a woman who loved not wisely but too well.
Co-produced by John Houseman (like Koch, a former associate of Orson Welles), “Letter From an Unknown Woman” was one of several European-style art films produced in Hollywood in the late 1940s, mainly directed by émigrés like Douglas Sirk. The impetus for the movie came from its star, Joan Fontaine. Then about 30, Ms. Fontaine enjoys an onscreen transformation as her character, Lisa, evolves from a 15-year-old mouseburger to a sophisticated matron, without losing her wistful naïveté. Stefan, the carefree womanizer who is the object of her adoration, is played by the French actor Louis Jourdan in one of his earliest Hollywood movies. He’s glibly self-absorbed; she’s enraptured, possessed by a drive beyond her control.
Making Stefan a concert pianist rather than a writer allows for near-constant music and a waltzing tempo. Dreamy and fluid, the movie was shot in gorgeous black and white by Frank Planer, who worked with Ophüls on his last German film, the romantic drama “Liebelei,” also set in Vienna. It was in that city that Ophüls achieved early success as a theatrical director, and “Letter From an Unknown Woman” has a number of authentic, perhaps ruefully nostalgic touches, including a glassed-in wine garden where an all-female orchestra wearily plays for the entranced lovers.
Earlier, Ophüls had Stefan take Lisa on a Hale’s Tour (an early form of motion picture entertainment that used slides to simulate a train trip), as a means to comment on her romantic illusions. Throughout, with greater subtlety, the movie alludes to the mechanisms of the plot by setting major scenes on staircases or in railway stations. The atmosphere is made tangible with fog and rain, and Lisa’s isolation is emphasized, as she is frequently shot through a window.