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Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

letter-from-an-unknown-woman-movie-poster-1948-1020436819Letter from an Unknown Woman is such a beautiful movie, it seems incredible that it is not better known. It was a box-office failure when it was released in 1948 and received some critical praise, but nothing lavish. Through the years, it has risen in critical estimation , but still has not garnered the attention it deserves, though it has, fortunately, been released on DVD and Blue-ray.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that the movie has a very European feel and the director, Max Ophüls, is not a well-known director in America. German born, he made many movies, but fled first to France, becoming a citizen, and then to America before WWII. He didn’t like Hollywood, however, and made only a few movies, most of which are not well-remembered today. Most of his masterpieces came later, when he was in France; but Letter From an Unknown is still an achievement, with brilliant direction, fine acting, and a beautiful score that captures the era and mood of each scene. It is a stunningly, achingly beautiful film.

The movie follows the unrequited love of Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) for the charming libertine and pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a man so self-absorbed that he does not remember her each time they meet.

It opens in Vienna in the early 1900s with Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) having been challenged to a duel. An irresponsible man – at this point he’s thrown away his career as a pianist – he intends to leave before the morning when he is supposed to fight the duel. But when he returns to his house in the evening he is given a letter by his servant from an unknown woman, detailing to him her lifelong love for him.

The first time he sees her

The first time he sees her

The movie is told in a series of flashbacks, narrated by Lisa, of the three separate occasions that she saw him. The first time was when she was a very young woman, still a girl, and he was still studying music and preparing for his career. He moves into her apartment complex and she sees him several times, living it up, mostly with other women, and hears him practicing constantly on his piano. He only notices her once, but he has become everything to her and, she writes in the letter, she “began quite consciously to prepare [herself] for [him],” taking lessons, studying music.

But her mother remarries and they move away from Vienna. Having refused a very eligible offer of marriage, she returns to Vienna when she is grown and meets him, now a burgeoning concert pianist, and they have one night together, though he has to leave the following morning. The third time they meet is many years later. She has had his child, but married a man who loves her and is willing to raise her son as his own. But she runs into Stefan at the opera. He has given up concerts and now seems to live a very idle life, but she is determined to explain to him about her love for him and their child, and perhaps re-spark his career. She goes to him that night, much to the anger and sadness of her husband, only to find that Stefan still does not remember her from the previous occasions. She is just another casual pick-up for him and in grief she leaves him.

It sounds quite melodramatic, but is a surprisingly moving film and there are a variety of things going on. On one level it is a tragic romance, but on another level it is look at romantic obsession, delusion and self-destruction. What is surprising is, despite the blatantly self-destructive tendencies of the characters, how beautiful the film remains. You can see what’s going on, but find yourself drawn into the romance nonetheless.

Their second meeting

Their second meeting

Glenn Erickson, in his review for DVD Savant, calls the film a taking “of the romantic coming of age’ fantasy to its logical extreme.” It is like a fairy tale gone terribly awry. In a fairy tale, they would have been meant for each other and eventually she would have been noticed by him and he would have realized  that she is what he has always been searching for, his ideal woman. And in the film, it is as if Lisa lives in a fairy tale, though the rest of the world is going on prosaically. The film looks like a fairy tale, but there is enough evidence for us to realize that we are seeing the world through Lisa’s eyes because we are hearing her story, told by her, but with our clearer eye we can see her self-delusion and how utterly self-absorbed and unworthy Stefan is. The film draws us into her fantasy, but we remain aware that it is a fantasy.

Both Fontaine and Jourdan are excellent in this film. She plays the role with complete simplicity, naiveté, sincerity and purity of love, as if the very purity of her love ought to be rewarded. But in reality it is not so much purity of love as an obsessive delusion. Fontaine ages quite believably from girl to young woman to mature woman of society and through the very intensity of her devotion, despite its less admirable aspects (like leaving her kind husband for this man she has foolishly dedicated her life to) she retains your sympathy.

There is also a very good performance from Art Smith, who plays Stefan’s servant who, cannot speak, but his eyes are very speaking and you can see his compassion as he watches what unfolds. At the end of the film, after Stefan has finished the letter, Stefan realizes that his servant knew who she was all along and the servant quietly writes down her name for Stefan: Lisa Berndle.

Stefan and Lisa, with her husband in the background - third meeting

Stefan and Lisa, with her husband in the background – third meeting

Louis Jourdan is charming, handsome, completely selfish, but earnestly searching in his own, dissolute way, and Jourdan conveys this exceedingly well. You can see the shallowness of the man, but also his desire for something more ,which he is too lazy or pleasure-focused to truly seek. Each time they meet, he always asks if they’ve met before; he’s sure he’s seen her before. Alexander Dhoest, in his article on the use of music in the film, writes “Stefan’s words sound like hollow pick-up lines, but his insistence suggests a genuine internal restlessness, thus adding to the complexity of his portrayal.” And truly, he has seen her before, if he would only really look at her (though he has had so many women it is understandable that it would be difficult to keep track).

There is a scene, during the night that Lisa and Stefan spend together, where the two of them are at an amusement park. It is winter and covered with snow and carnival music is playing in the background (as many writers have pointed out, demonstrating the artificiality of the relationship that is in contrast to her belief in him). He says he likes the amusement park better in the winter, when there are no people around. That way he can imagine it as they could be instead of as it really is. One suspects he feels the same way about his music, he can imagine what it should be, but can’t quite produce it. He definitely feels that way about women; he’s never found his ideal.

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another example of artificiality – an amusement park ride; it is a mock train where paper scenes roll by the window to create the illusion that it is moving

Scenes like the one at the amusement park are illustrative of the physical beauty of the film and Ophüls was known for his tracking shots and fluidity of camera work. Vienna looks artificial, but also so stunning that you want to believe in the artificiality (like fairy tales and romances). Music is also extremely important in the film, with every kind of music you would expect to hear in Vienna. Daniele Amfitheatrof wrote the score and weaves in” Un Sospiro” into the score, an etude by Franz Liszt that Stefan is practicing at the beginning, which becomes his theme. But, as Dhoest writes in his article, there is quite a fair use of diegetic music (music that occurs from the action of the film). There is the etude that Stefan plays, street singers, carnival music, a military band, opera. And  apparently (I read somewhere) the song from the opera playing in the background is from “The Magic Flute,” by Mozart, where a character is singing, but does not recognize the woman he loves.

It’s really amazing the layers that are in the film. I don’t usually pay much attention to what kind of music is playing or to symbolism, but it enhances the film in a very natural way, without being showy or bizarre. Despite the fact that Letter from an Unknown Woman is often described as a melodrama and a tearjerker (i.e. women’s picture), it’s much more than that.

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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Drama, Romance

 

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Casanova’s Big Night (1954) – Bob Hope Spoof of Swashbucklers

300px-Casanovas_Big_Night_1954_posterNobody can spoof a genre quite like Bon Hope. In My Favorite Brunette, he spoofs film noir, in My Favorite Blonde, it’s Hitchcock spy/thrillers. He spoofed westerns, gangster films, ghost stories and in Casanova’s Big Night, he aims at the swashbuckler.

Made in 1954 in glorious Technicolor, replete with extraordinary costumes of extraordinary color (the women’s costumes were by Edith Head, who must have had a ball, though Yvonne Wood probably wasn’t bored designing the men’s clothes, either), Casanova’s Big Night has an excellent cast who all look like they are having the most tremendously good time and might start laughing any minute.

Bob Hope is Pippo Popolino, Casanova’s tailor’s apprentice. He disguises himself as Casanova in the hope of stealing a kiss from one of Casanova’s paramours, the merchant grocer widow Francesca Bruni (Joan Fontaine – definitely looking like she would like to laugh at any moment). However, his ruse is discovered and the real Casanova appears (delightfully played by an uncredited Vincent Price). Casanova, it turns out, has not paid his bills in many months, even to his grocer/paramour, and although she does like his kisses, she would prefer her money. He tells her to bring all the merchants to his home the following morning and they will be paid.

Basil Rathbone, Bob Hope and Joan Fontaine

Basil Rathbone, Bob Hope and Joan Fontaine

The merchants arrive en masse to be let into the house by Casanova’s snaky valet, Lucio (Basil Rathbone), who says he hasn’t been paid in eighteen months, either. Lucio then discovers a note left by Casanova informing him that he has skipped town. At the same time, the Duchess of Castelbello has arrived from Genoa and she wants to hire Casanova to test the fidelity of her future daughter-in-law, Elena (Audrey Dalton). If he can steal her petticoat, then she has obviously been unfaithful. The merchants and Lucio see a perfect way to recoup their losses and talk Pippo into posing as Casanova and going to Venice – where Elena lives – to try and steal the petticoat. Francesca and Lucio will go with him, to guide and try to instruct him on how to be Casanova.

In brief moments, then (all too brief) who have a Pygmalion set up with Lucio and Francesca trying to mold Pippo into the shape they want him. But they fail miserably. As Lucio later tells him, “You will never be anyone other than Pippo Popolino and I can’t think of anything more insulting.” There is also a hilarious moment when Lucio, demonstrating with Francesca, shows Pippo how to kiss, how to fight and how, in extreme cases, to kiss and fight at the same time.

Once in Venice, Pippo discovers the trials of being Casanova. There is a rather complicated political situation going on, with the Doge of Venice (Arnold Moss) wanting to make war on Genoa. If Casanova were to steal the petticoat of Elena and the Duchess of Castelbello were to then break of the engagement of her son to Elena, then it would be an insult to Venice and the Doge could then go to war with Genoa. Meanwhile, the Doge’s sidekick, Foressi (John Carradine) is not convinced that Pippo is really Casanova and devises various tests for him, including a duel. And also meanwhile, Pippo has met Elena and finds that he cannot bring himself to ruin her reputation and refuses to steal her petticoat, despite the Doge’s offer to assist him any way he can.

Joan Fontaine and Bob Hope in drag - she keeps losing her moustache and he keeps losing his shape

Joan Fontaine and Bob Hope in drag – she keeps losing her moustache and he keeps losing his shape

Bob Hope’s persona was always that of a coward, with a good heart, who often lets the women do the heroic stuff that the guys usually do and Casanova’s Big Night is no exception. In the movie, it is actually Joan Fontaine who does most of the swashbuckling. She breaks into prison to rescue Pippo, she fences her way out of the prison while Pippo clutches his bundle of clothes, and when they jump into a gondola, she is the one to row them away. Pippo’s great talent is that he can sew.

And in an extension of this role reversal, when they crash the Doge’s party it is with Pippo dressed as a woman, while Francesca is dressed as a man. Francesca tries to get in touch with Elena while Pippo wangles a dance with the Doge, though the petticoat he stuffed down his dress to give him more shape keeps slipping.

Perhaps not exactly sophisticated or deep, Casanova’s Big Night has a high entertainment factor for me and I think one of the reasons is that the cast really does look like they are having a ball. It looks like so much fun to be in this movie, that I almost wished I could be, too.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2014 in Comedy

 

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Rebecca (1938) – by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca (1940)Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Manderley, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca

A somewhat forgotten book today, it was interesting for me to discover that Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, was one of the most successful books of the twentieth century, has been translated into many languages and has never been out of print. It has also been adapted into three film versions, most famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson – a film version that du Maurier reportedly liked. She wrote many other books, several of which were also adapted into movies, but she would always be associated with Rebecca.

However, I might not have heard of Rebecca if I hadn’t watched the movie. I saw the Masterpiece Theater version from 1997 with Charles Dance and Emilia Fox and then I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s version, which I especially have grown to appreciate. It might possibly be my favorite Hitchcock and it is not a typical Hitchcock film. The accuracy is mostly owing to producer David O. Selznick, who believed that if a book were good, it ought to be adapted faithfully. Hitchcock, however, did not like to adhere to his source material; he preferred to use a book or short story as an inspirational spring board for his own vision. He did that with du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in 1939 and du Maurier was not pleased. But when I began reading Rebecca, I was amazed at how closely the movie follows the book, in spirit, character, events and dialogue.

Of course, the first thing that happened when I sat down and opened the book was that I could hear Joan Fontaine’s voice narrating the opening words, just as she did at the opening of the film, and I could see Hitchcock’s opening scene and it took me forever to get off the first page because I was so busy seeing and hearing the movie. However, once I got going, my reading was much smoother.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…

Daphne du Maurier in boat at her home

Daphne du Maurier in boat at her home

The book is narrated in the first person. We never find out the narrator’s first name or maiden name, but know her only as “I,” and Mrs. de Winter. But she is actually the second Mrs. de Winter. The first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, was drowned ten months earlier.

She meets Maxim de Winter at a resort in Monte Carlo, where she is a paid companion to a Mrs. Van Hopper. She falls completely and rather desperately in love with him and, like a fairytale, is amazed when he asks her to marry him. But she is not sure if he loves her. She has heard repeatedly about his first wife, Rebecca de Winter, who he is said to have adored.

And when she comes to Manderley, she instantly feels how inadequate she is to the task of being mistress of the house. She feels that people are comparing her to Rebecca and she can see all around her evidence of Rebecca, at her desk, in the west wing of the house that has been shut up. People mention Rebecca frequently, except Maxim, and she hears about her from both the servants and the neighbors; how beautiful Rebecca was, how accomplished she was at all things. Rebecca becomes a constant ghost in the house that the narrator is comparing herself to and she believes Maxim is comparing them, too.

One of the great characters in the book is Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper. She was played in Hitchcock’s movie by Judith Anderson, who also would be known for playing Lady Macbeth several times, which gives one an idea of what kind of a person Mrs. Danvers is. She is part malign and chilling presence, always prepared to cow Mrs. de Winter and demonstrate how little she has a place in Manderley, and part tragic and pathetic figure who worshipped Rebecca and has been devastated by her loss. She is, from the beginning, an implacable enemy to Mrs. de Winter.

Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers

Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers

The book is an interesting combination of genres. It is part ghost story, part gothic romance and part psychological study of insecurity and jealousy. Her son, Christian, has said that du Maurier maintained that she was not writing a romance novel, but “a study in jealousy.” The ghost element comes in how Rebecca is, essentially, haunting the house, but she is haunting it in people’s memories and in their minds. The new Mrs. de Winter becomes so obsessed with Rebecca that at one point it completely skews how she is understanding the behavior of others, especially her husband. She becomes convinced that he regrets marrying her and is still grieving for Rebecca.

It is gothic in the mystery regarding Maxim and Rebecca and in the suspense and setting at Manderley, with the sea and the dark woods and the fog and rain and storms. Maxim also strikes me as a classic gothic hero; elegant, impatient, masterful in his treatment of people, and brooding.

But as Daphne du Maurier maintained, it was mostly about jealousy. I think that is a significant reason why the book has an enduring appeal; it taps into something that all people understand. We all know what it’s like to look at another person and think how inadequate we are in comparison to them. It is a story about insecurity and the narrator blames herself, several times, for her own timidity. It prevents her from understanding, both because she is too timid to ask and because her insecurity is distorting her understanding of things.

Daphne du Maurier does a remarkable job of portraying the inner life of Mrs. de Winter. Many people believe that it was partially autobiographical, but whatever the reason, it is almost painful to read at times, because the emotions are very recognizable: the shyness, awkwardness, discomfort with people and the role that she is expected to play as mistress of Manderley. There is the mortification she feels when she accidentally breaks a china cupid and, like a guilty child, tries to hide it only to have Mrs. Danvers accuse another servant so that Mrs. de Winter has to confess it. She is clumsy, her clothes are not chic, her manner shrinking and all the while the servants are looking on. And like many shy people who think inside themselves a lot, she has a tremendous imagination. She is constantly imagining how something is going to turn out or what a group of people are talking about and she draws on experience, expectation and the things she’s read to fill out her inner fantasy. When she believes that Maxim is going to jail, her imagination kicks into gear and she has it all figured out from when they take him away to the last time she will see him before he is executed. The irony is that her flights of imagination are almost always wrong.

Menabilly, the estate that Manderley was based on

Menabilly, the estate that Manderley was based on

Although du Maurier called it a study of jealousy, the book is also an expression of du Maurier’s own love affair with one particular estate called Menabilly, in Cornwall. She first had a sight of it while she was vacationing with her sister and would frequently come back to trespass on the land, once even slipping through a window to wander around the now shut-up house. Later, she received permission to walk on the land and even later rented the place.

Her love of the place is very central to the book. Maxim loves his home and lovingly describes the various scents of the flowers and the gardens and one particular valley and his love plays a central role in his story and is the cause of several of his decisions, unwise ones, that drive the plot.

It’s an interesting book in that a character who is dead should play such an important part of the story. In fact, much of the story is past by the time the book begins. Rebecca was never much admired by the critics, but du Maurier felt that they had missed the point. They took it at face value and didn’t look at it more closely. Most books celebrate, or at least are about, bold and impetuous characters and I’ve never particularly identified with them. Rebecca goes a little farther. It gives a wonderful portrayal of the inner life of a shy and insecure person and how they view the world.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2014 in Fiction

 

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