Letter from an Unknown Woman
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) - dir. Max Ophüls


Letter from an Unknown Woman is one of those classic romantic melodramas that are attempted every weekend but succeed only every few years.

Joan Fontaine plays the role of Lisa to perfection. She has a schoolgirl crush on the musician Stefan Brand as a teenager, which matures as she becomes a young woman and deepens even more after marrying another man.

She carries her infatuation through her entire life. Her obsession might come across as creepy by someone like Hitchcock or overwrought and pathetic in a Twilight film, but in the hands of Max Ophüls, it has is tragically romantic in the tradition of Tolstoy.

Stefan's profession allows for the heavy use of diegetic music. As Alexander Dhoest points out in his Senses of Cinema essay, the music is used ironically in several scenes. Here, Lisa is finally living her grand romance, but Stefan is just out having some fun.

Examples of the method abound. Here, a local band in Linz plays the Radetzky March. It, like Lisa's failed suitor, are no match for Stefan and his genius.

Lisa's change in roles from participant while she acts to spectator while she writes and reflects adds a layer of depth onto a familiar story.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is #91 on the Top 1000 Films list I’m working on.  I’ve now seen 396.