Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature, Blu-ray) (1948), the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophüls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), is his first American masterpiece, an exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) informed by his continental sensibility.
“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.
Ray Milland earned an Oscar playing an alcoholic desperately seeking a drink while facing a very bad night of the DTs in Billy Wilder’s 1945 The Lost Weekend, one of the first Hollywood films to seriously confront alcoholism as a disease. George Stevens’ 1952 Something to Live For is in no way a sequel but The Lost Weekend can’t help but inform Ray Milland’s character Alan Taylor, an advertising copywriter and recovering alcoholic who, at 18 months sober, has volunteered to go on calls for problem drinkers.
Joan Fontaine takes top billing as Jenny Carey, a no-longer-fresh young actress whose career is finally gaining traction, or at least was until she started lubricating her anxieties and emotion wounds in alcohol. She’s almost unrecognizable in her first scenes, sprawled across her hotel bed in slacks and blouse, more Katherine Hepburn modern woman than the usual Fontaine shy beauty or vulnerable sophisticate, and she doesn’t overwork the drunk act. She’s more wary and suspicious of Alan, who was called by the hotel’s worried elevator operator (Harry Bellaver) and proceeds to use the wily tricks of a veteran drunk to steer her clear of another drink (the inevitable echoes of The Lost Weekend reverberate through this scene). It looks like the beginning of a possible romance, until Alan returns home to his wife and children.
“Only a drunk can stop a drunk,” he explains to his supportive wife Edna (Teresa Wright) the next morning, but he came home with more than duty on his mind. Alan and Jenny continue to see one another, meetings that are as ecstatic as they are painful when reminders of his marriage and family responsibilities never fail to intrude on every reunion. Between their mostly chaste trysts, we follow their struggles in their respective worlds of corporate advertising (where Alan loses faith in his talent as a young hotshot takes the prime accounts) and New York theater (where Jenny’s confidence is undercut by the subtly cruel gestures of a jealous ex-lover). Even when they are apart, however, director George Stevens unites them in the many long, slow lap dissolves that connect them through their thoughts.
On Monday, January 23, Turner Classic Movies is showing all four films made by Max Ophuls, the great German director, during his brief tenure in America (when he dropped the “h” and signed his films “Max Opuls”).
The evening of “Max Ophuls in Hollywood” is followed by two of his greatest French films, La Ronde (1950) and The Earrings of Madame de… (1954), but while they are well represented in superb DVD editions stateside, the four American films showing Monday night—Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), Caught (1949) and the rarity The Exile (1947), his Hollywood debut—have still not been released on DVD in the U.S.
The films of Ophuls haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. His fluid, elegantly choreographed camerawork and intimate yet observant directorial presence have resulted in some of the most delicate and beautiful films made on either side of the Atlantic, but his American films have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films (Ophuls left Germany in the early 1930s for the same reason so many fellow artists did).
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in The Exile, a lightweight adventure film that looks to Fairbanks Sr. for inspiration. The film, about a king in exile, lacks the showstopping stunts and show-off acrobatics of Sr.’s silent classics, but the old fashioned love story and simplicity of adventure is pleasantly retro. Even for 1948. Fairbanks does his best impression of his father ever, with a tiny mustache and a big smile and a leaping energy, even going as far as writing the scenario and producing the independent feature. And while Ophuls is no action director, he has nothing to apologize for in this rousing little film. His camera glides through some lovely scenes and while Fairbanks lunges and leaps, Ophuls choreographs the crowd scenes to give the film a scope the belies the budget and a grace lacking in most such adventure films.