Forget “Waterloo Bridge” and “Stella Dallas” and “The Magnificent Obsession.” You can keep “Johnny Belinda” and “Beaches.” For me, the greatest tearjerker ever made is Max Ophuls’s “Letter From An Unknown Woman.”
It does everything a four-hankie movie should do, without making you feel like a blubbering idiot. It’s so beautifully conceived and deeply felt that it both fulfills the weepie genre and transcends it.
Out on DVD from Olive Films, Ophuls’s 1948 movie was adapted from a Stefan Zweig novella set in early 1900’s Vienna. Joan Fontaine stars as Lisa Brandle, whom we first see as a moony teenager entranced by her new neighbor, the matinee-idol-ish concert pianist Stefan Brand. (His specialty etude is Liszt’s “Un Sospiro,” dubbed on the soundtrack by Jakob Gimpel).
Louis Jourdan, with his square-cut features and brilliantined black hair, plays Stefan with maximum Continental ooze. Once he sets his sights on Lisa, the girl’s a goner.
What separates “Letter” from so many other love-is-blind sobfests is that with the utmost poignancy, Ophuls makes us feel the woman’s ga-ga yearnings in our bones.
It all starts out well for Lisa but, after a whirlwind romance in which Stefan acts genuinely smitten around her -- the hallmark of this world-class cad -- he drops her.
She bears his child in secret and ends up in a loveless marriage to a wealthy suitor. Then she spots Stefan 10 years later at the opera and everything comes around again. Advancing on her as fresh prey, he doesn’t even recognize her. It all ends gloriously badly.
Ophuls, born Max Oppenheimer in Germany, was one of the great film artists -- and unlike most European directors who fled to Hollywood during the war, he actually thrived there, though not right away.
He became entangled with Howard Hughes on a misbegotten project called “Vendetta” (Hughes dropped him several days into the shooting) and a costume picture with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., “The Exile” (1947), is lumbering. But “Letter From An Unknown Woman” has the lush lyricism of some of his early German films, like “Liebelei” (1933), which has a similar setting.
Ophuls was fortunate in having a relatively free hand on the film, due in no small part to the ministrations of his producer, John Houseman. The screenplay by Howard Koch, who, like Houseman, had enjoyed celebrated collaborations with Orson Welles, perfectly serves Ophuls hyperromanticism.
Ophuls’s languorous camera moves are his signature; they express the persistence, and transience, of desire. Later on, in the 1950s, after he moved to France, this style came to fruition in his masterpiece “The Earrings of Madame de...,” starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer and Vittorio De Sica, each in the greatest performances they ever gave.
If Ophuls had remained in Hollywood, it’s likely he would have enjoyed a success similar to, say, Fritz Lang’s. Both “Caught,” featuring Robert Ryan in a lethal portrayal based on Hughes, and the suspense melodrama “The Reckless Moment,” both starring James Mason, are first-rate.
He died young, at 55, while directing a movie in France about Modigliani. His son Marcel grew up to become the great documentarian who made “The Sorrow and the Pity.”
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).
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