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I’ve found it almost impossible to find a Max Ophüls film. Two are located at my local library, and one is actually available on Netflix. To purchase even a used VHS tape of one of his movies on Amazon can cost upwards of $45. I’ve seen Ophüls named countless times in a myriad of film books I’ve read; he’s always praised extensively, yet I felt, why bother with him? I know he’s supposed to be one of the greatest directors of all time and is famed for his moving camera and long takes; but if his movies are practically unavailable, why should I be willing to spend on one Ophüls used VHS tape what I would on four DVDs? I rented Letter from an Unknown Woman, virtually a cult classic due to its unavailability, and I discovered why. My surprise at the end of the film (and re-watching the essential first five minutes) brought me a joy I’ve felt during few movies.

The film begins with a man who is going to duel in a few hours. (He has always been a womanizer, and, this time, he was with another man’s wife.) He goes upstairs to ready for his duel in a mere few hours. His butler gives him a letter, but our protagonist doesn’t know who sent it. Over the course of him reading the letter, the history between the man and the sender, a woman, slowly unravels. We see all the moments they bumped into or met each other, and to him, it was as if the previous meeting never took place, for she was lost in a sea of memories of numerous affairs.

Even though Ophüls is famed for his moving camera, the camera motion is not what struck me with this movie. The screenplay is beautifully written and constructed. Usually I’m completely turned off by the use of flashbacks, but they are crucial for this movie to work as it does. The story could have easily fallen into gooey melodrama á la Stella Dallas, yet the screenplay magnificently brings us into crying territory without the manipulation and forced feeling of the scenes in another more sappy film.

Joan Fontaine, as sexy and pretty as can be, plays a very shy girl, which I’m not used to seeing from her. Her performance allows us to sympathize greatly with her. We can understand why she does some irrational things because we understand her thought process. This is what great actors, screenplays, and movies do….

I would like to say more, but there is too much to express about this masterpiece. Anything that anyone has to say about this film is not enough. I noticed Letter from an Unknown Woman on Jim Emerson’s list of 20 favorite movies, and the film is also featured in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. What a shame that these are the only two places that have listed this movie! If you’re like me, and you had never heard of this movie until reading about it in a book or on a list, or even if you’ve never heard of the film, all I can do is spread the word and tell you that Letter from an Unknown Woman is an essential, must-see movie that every film lover should see.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for the info! We are finders of such rarities. It is now on our list to watch for.


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