BLUF: A ho-hum melodrama elevated to something more via the performances of its two leads, the direction of Max Ophuls, and exquisite black and white cinematography.
What’s it about: Unconditional love. Unrequited love. Love at first sight.
What I liked about it:
1. Nobody pines like Joan Fontaine. In this movie, she pines for Louis Jourdan, who is certainly swoon worthy enough as the debonair concert pianist, though perhaps not quite so forgivable in his indiscretions as, say, Don Ameche in Heaven Can Wait. While swooning in and of itself might not seem like much of an acting accomplishment, it is when you can pull it off through several ages, beginning as a young girl and ending late twenties/early thirties. You can see what I mean here: https://youtu.be/JkGrmpOHRdM.
2. It’s rather daring for 1948. Joan Fontaine’s character Lisa gets pregnant from her one-night stand, poor thing, and Jourdan’s Stefan is quite obviously a dandy and a gigolo, and yet neither is ever judged for these things. They are taken on their own terms, both by each other and consequently by the audience as well. Stefan is a second class pianist and a first class cad. That their relationship works anyway is a credit to their performances and to the casting director. In other words, they got chemistry.
What’s not to like about it:
Normally, I title this section “what I didn’t like about it.” I changed it though because while it worked for me, I can certainly see why it would not for some. It’s a bit one dimensional. Critic Josh Larson describes this limitation very well in his review of the film:
I do wonder about Fontaine, then, who keys into Lisa’s fervent adoration of Brand and never hits another note (perhaps she had learned to value obsession too much from her work with Alfred Hitchcock). Rather than a tragic, unrequited romance, then, Letter From an Unknown woman becomes the tale of willful, feminine subjugation “ the sad story of a woman whose entire identity depends on the whims of a callous man.