Vienna, 1900. Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a washed-up concert pianist, returns to his rooms after a night on the town and prepares to flee before dawn in order to evade a duel. Upon entering, Brand's valet (Art Smith) presents him with a letter left by a former conquest, which he sits down to study after catching its ominous opening line: "By the time you read this, I may be dead." What follows is an account of the life of its author, one Lisa Brendle (Joan Fontaine), an impoverished neighbour of Brand's from earlier in his career when he was still regarded as a promising prospect. Lisa confesses that she fell in love with Brand after hearing him rehearse and became entirely infatuated, rejecting other suitors and lingering beneath his window until long after midnight. Eventually she contrived for them to meet and a brief affair ensued, after which he disappeared, unknowingly abandoning her with child. Lisa writes that she raised her son alone and eventually married an older man (Marcel Journet), living happily until a chance encounter with Brand at the opera 10 years on reignited her passion. His practised attempt to seduce Lisa a second time convinces her that he doesn't remember their past and she leaves him, broken-hearted once again. A postscript to the letter informs Stefan that Lisa has since died of typhus. Chastened, he heads out into into the dawn to face his challenger: Lisa's husband.
German Jew Max Ophüls had fled his home country for France in 1933, anticipating the rise of Nazism, and was soon forced to leave his adopted home as well with the onset of World War Two, reaching the US in 1941. There he continued to direct pictures, of which Letter From An Unknown Woman is commonly regarded as one of the best. It's a typically exquisite romantic melodrama from Ophüls concerning tragic heroines, fine feelings and aristocratic intrigue, perhaps not quite in the same league as Madame De... (1953) but featuring many of the director's most admired traits, not least a roaming, observant camera and some deftly handled symmetrical plotting. The film was based on a 1922 period novella by Stefan Zweig and adapted for the screen by Howard Koch, a left-wing writer who worked on Orson Welles's hysteria-inducing radio version of War Of The Worlds in 1938 and on Casablanca (1942) before he was blacklisted and exiled in 1951. The resulting work from his script is steeped in nostalgia for turn-of-the-century Vienna by Ophüls and magnificently played by Fontaine as the lonely obsessive and Jourdan as the object of her affection, seemingly a complacent womaniser and playboy who has never really had to work hard at anything in his life. Critics like Tag Gallagher, however, have pointed out that the entire film is presented from Lisa's perspective and as such forces us to see things solely from her point-of-view. Perhaps Brand is really a more sympathetic character than the cad Lisa portrays him as. Lisa could be a decidedly unreliable narrator and certainly regards herself as something of an angelic innocent while betraying some rather unhealthy characteristics in the recounting of her autobiography, not least her almost pathological pursuit of this charmer and her morally dubious decision to marry a man she does not love to secure her future. This is to take nothing away from what is a touching and sad tale of doomed passion but such an interpretation does help to blur the lines in an interesting way, I feel.