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Letter From an Unknown Woman

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One of Max Ophuls's four Hollywood films, this masterpiece nearly defines the film melodrama, complete with the genre's often implausible twists--the lover who fails to remember a former flame, the child a father never knew was his, the train compartment contaminated with typhus. But Ophuls brings to life this story of the tragically selfless love of Lisa (Joan Fontaine) for Stefan (Louis Jourdan), a dissolute pianist in turn-of-the-century Vienna, with imagery that's at once convincingly rapturous and humorously down-to-earth. A key moment in an army officer's courtship of Lisa is interrupted by a marching band--but with the precise choreography of ballet; a romantic "ride" in a fake train car with painted panoramic views is twice interrupted by the changing of backdrops. More deeply, while Ophuls uses camera movements and written narratives to convey love's delirium, the baroque architecture of his frames also imprisons the characters, denying them transcendence, even happiness. Watch for a shot of Lisa waiting on a stairway for Stefan's return: the camera films his entry with a giggling woman from Lisa's point of view, panning right as they enter his apartment. When the same shot is repeated (but from no character's point of view, the stairway now being empty), this time as Stefan enters with Lisa, we understand that their fate is foredoomed both by the artifices of melodrama and by the cycles of human fallibility and misunderstanding, which the form at its best so devastatingly expresses. I for one am always brought to tears. This superb 35-millimeter print is the first in a Film Center series of newly restored classic American films. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, February 3, 6:00, 443-3737. --Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.

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