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Monday, 4 August 2014

Classic Film Review: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman stars Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a former concert pianist who travels home one night having been challenged to a duel. He intends to leave town to avoid it but a letter has been delivered that captures his attention. It's from Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) and begins with the proclamation that she may be dead by the time he reads it. She had fallen in love with him at first sight many years earlier and much of the film is comprised of flashbacks to show how their relationship developed and how it came to be that the intimate letter was from an 'unknown woman'.

I've heard it said that this film is Joan Fontaine's finest and I'm happy to concur. She is outstanding, as much of a presence here as she was in Rebecca eight years earlier (reviewed here). It was impossible for me to look away from her face in any given scene, though sometimes I wanted to due to the strength of emotion she was portraying. A couple of scenes stand out in this regard. The scene where she flees her mother and stepfather and returns to see Stefan is heartbreaking, as is the scene later in the film where she realises that he doesn't remember her at all. Fontaine's ability to convey so much in one look is what makes her one of my favourite actresses and this film showcases that tremendously.

Jourdan is well-cast as Stefan, particularly in the present-day scenes as he struggles with what he's reading. He portrays his charming selfishness perfectly until it eventually cracks under his realisation. The rest of the cast is good but mostly in the background. This film belongs to Fontaine and Jourdan - and more Fontaine than Jourdan. However, a word must be given to the exquisite direction, especially in the scenes where Lisa is watching Stefan. These scenes are works of art and the film as a whole is put together so lovingly.

I can't think of a bad thing to say about Letter from an Unknown Woman. It left me feeling as though my heart had been ripped out but the ending did the story justice. I think perhaps this is Fontaine's finest film, but I'll have to continue my journey through her filmography to confirm that.

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