‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ or — Viennese Whirl?

It’s a question I never thought to ask before but now I know the answer it’s one of the most delightful questions you could conjure — what would happen if William Dozier, producer and narrator of the Batman TV series, had worked with Max Ophüls? Amazingly this question has an answer, and it’s called ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ (1948).

Sadly there’s very little (i.e. none) of Dozier or Adam West’s Batman contained here. That means no Dutch tilts, no Batusi (we get waltzes instead) and at no point in ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ does Joan Fontaine fly off on a rocket powered umbrella.

What is here, and writ large, is Ophüls and plenty of him at that. So that means doomed love, a woman of a partially identity, points of light, concerts, music, whirling dresses, costumes, trains, letters, duels, the life of the rich and decadent and all seen through camera moves as buttery as a Devonshire dairy.

Vienna, early 20th Century, and a man, seemingly on the cusp of fleeing a duel, receives a letter from an unknown woman informing him that by the time he reads this she will be dead. He settles down and reads about her fate and, in the process, seals his own.

Flashback several years we see a young Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and we also see she is an idiot. She is hopelessly infatuated with the dashing pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), who lives in the next building. Lisa thinks Stefan is perfect. Stefan doesn’t know Lisa even exists.

Lisa’s mother remarries and the family move to Linz but when Lisa is old enough she returns to Vienna and continues to admire Stefan and his playing from afar. If only Stefan would notice her! One day he does and a fleeting, yet passionate, romance commences that climaxes with them making love. Stefan still doesn’t know Lisa’s name when he leaves town the following day, never to see Lisa again.

And so, years later, Stefan reads about the consequences of thoughtless actions and the destructive oblivious arrogance of the male sex drive and it makes for uncomfortable reading. Is he responsible for all this? It seems as though self awareness as arrived but just a little too late to save anyone.

One of the mesmerising aspects of ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is how it seems to flip at some point from being Lisa’s story to Stefan’s. At first we are focused on Lisa and her infatuation with this remote and distant figure until, almost imperceptibly, we are identifying with the reader, and not the writer, of these events.

This is helped by the fact that Jourdan’s Stefan isn’t totally unsympathetic, just oblivious. It makes his situation touching as, if he had known, I’m pretty sure he’d have acted differently. Unless, that is, Stefan is not being entirely honest with himself, or us, about his recollections (his manservant, after all, had known exactly what was going on from the start). Either way, ignorance is no excuse for behaving like a cad and a price must now be paid.

‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is dazzling but reveals its brilliance gradually as we witness a young, immature crush achieve the transcendence of being realised and fulfilled and, as we all know, crushes should never be realised and fulfilled. But by then it is too late and we’re caught up in the rapture, the music, the passion, the glistening reflections of marble floors polished to perfection by the hems of gorgeous gowns and the intoxication of Vienna at night.

Except this isn’t Vienna at all but Hollywood artifice. Yet that knowledge helps tip the film even further into the realm of a dream, of the unreal, of a place where cameras can glide and float because the laws of nature no longer apply, very much like being in love.

The film was produced by John Houseman and written by Howard Koch. Fontaine and Jourdan work well as lovers, their emotions heightened by a strong score by Daniele Amfitheatrof. The cinematography is…well, it’s Ophüls so what else do you need to know? Just watch it and see for yourself.

‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ lingered with me and for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a gorgeous movie and with a surprising emotional punch. Secondly, wouldn’t it be fun if instead of Joan Fontaine providing the voice over as the narrator of the letter that it had been her husband and film’s producer, William Dozier, who had demanded he do it himself? And he did. In his Batman voice. Hey, it would certainly make me laugh.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.