Thursday, February 25, 2010

1948: Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls)

1948: Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls)
Guess when it comes down to it, I'm still a romantic.  And an idealist, too.  Put these two things together in a film, particularly in the following order, "idealistic romance", and I could be in big trouble. Then, add to it by mostly keeping this "idealistic romance" from being realized, and I'm in even deeper.    

You could call the above my version of a synopsis for the Ophuls film.  It also helps explain why this film has as devastating an emotional effect on me as any film ever made. 

But that's not all.  Take the elements above and add to it one of the most operatic of all directors, the master Max Ophuls, and you've got a real doozy.  It's my favorite Ophuls film (although I do have a few gaps), my favorite Joan Fontaine film (and that's saying a lot), and without a doubt my favorite film of 1948.  And, if it came out in any year that decade, other than '40 or '42, I would say the same.

Other contenders for 1948: One of those years with a number of major titles that I've never seen.  These are:  Frank Borzage's Moonrise, John Ford's Fort Apache, Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate, Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil, Leo McCarey's Good Sam, Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town, Andre De Toth's Pitfall, Michael Powell's The Red Shoes (I know, embarrassing!), John Ford's Three Godfathers, Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours, Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story, and Laurence Olivier's Hamlet.  I need to re-watch Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night.  It's one I've struggled with for some reason in the past. And, although I would consider none of these close runners-up, I do really like Howard Hawks' Red River, Luchino Visconti's La terra trema, Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, John Huston's Key Largo, John Farrow's The Big Clock, and Orson Welles' Macbeth.

10/16/10 I watched Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate.  Gene Kelly and Judy Garland are terrific and magical, but it's not quite top-tier Minnelli in my book.  The story's a little too frivolous and most of the songs not as memorable as they could be.  

10/16/10 I watched Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil.  A masterful noir that seems like one of the two or three biggest influences on The Godfather and on Scorsese's style.  It also seems like a key film to the noir texture found in many of the early French New Wave films.  A masterpiece.  

10/20/1 I watched Laurence Olivier's Hamlet.  I'm not as knowledgeable of Shakespeare's work as I'd like, but this one is far more contained than Olivier's Henry V.  And I think this containment really helps Olivier.  His flights of fancy pop, and his embodiment of Hamlet truly wonderful.  

10/21/10 I watched John Ford's 3 Godfathers.  An unusual and a bit tedious film from Ford.  But it does have a nice existential moment or two.

10/25/10 I watched Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town.  It's a film I knew almost nothing about by a director I knew even less.  It has an interesting style, part Ozu, part neorealist.  And it has some nice, poetic chords and suggests strong erotic undertones once or twice.  But all in all, I found it to be a little too repetitious, with very little to keep me fully connected.

10/25/10 I re-watched Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night.  Finally, I understand all the fuss.  It's an incredible debut and now up there among my favorite noirs.  Bowie and Keechie's chemistry is amazing, and there's something tremendously compelling about both Granger and O'Donnell.  Ray keeps things moving and shows off his inventive eye in a number of different scenes.  And he demonstrates that he has a real poetic connection and understanding of the outdoors.  A wonderful fatalistic build-up near the end rounds up a very, very good film.  

10/26/10 I watched John Ford's Fort Apache.  Fonda's turn as a tough General is memorable and strong.  And some of the suspense Ford creates between the Apaches and the cavalry is strongly felt.  But overall, I can't always connect to Ford's hokey taste in music and lack of subtlety.  

11/2/10 I watched Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours.  It's a stylish but very cold Sturges, lacking much of his fun zaniness.  A bit tedious, I found.

11/4/10 I watched Michael Powell's The Red Shoes.  Powell believed in beauty.  And Powell believed in art.  And this is about as beautiful a film about art, creation, and the artist's life as any I've ever seen.  Walbrook and Shearer's performances are otherworldly.

3/14/11 I watched Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story.  Interesting that I always thought this was a documentary when it's actually a narrative filmed in a documentary manner.  Flaherty keeps the process very fluid and unobtrusive, and I enjoyed seeing my home state presented in such an authentic way.  But it lacks verve.  I wish Flaherty had found a way, equal to the best neorealist films, to punch up the drama.   I also wish the non-professional boy playing the lead was a little stronger.

3/16/11 I watched Frank Borzage's Moonrise.  The strongest film yet I've seen from Borzage. It's melodramatic, but the casting's perfect, and Borzage's ability to tell a story psychologically is crisp and effective.  It's a near masterpiece, ambitious, extremely well-conceived, controlled, and almost always achieving its intent.  

7/15/11 I watched William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie.  A very strange mix of supernatural melodrama.  Original but not very satisfying.

3/31/12 I watched William Wellman's Yellow Sky.  A noir western with some moments of extremely strong atmosphere and unrelenting darkness.  Nice to see Peck in the role of a bad guy, and Baxter is extremely powerful in her role.  A little loose, at times, but an interesting watch.  

11/16/13 I watched Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express.  Twisty and not easy to follow at first glance yet still containing many examples of Tourneur's underrated greatness.  One I will have to revisit at some point to give a full assessment.  For now, I will say of interest yet requiring an additional, extremely attentive look.

12/14/21 I watched Cy Endfield's The Argyle Secrets.  I saw a very poor print and was not near as impressed as I was with Endfield's 1950 film The Sound of Fury.  This one does not seem to have the same level of character development.  I'm not positive about the subtext but as I experienced it, it was little more than a lean and mean noir.  


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1948:

    Bicycle Thieves (De Sica; Italy)


    Letter to an Unknown Woman (Ophuls)
    Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston)
    The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger; UK)
    Hamlet (Olivier; UK)
    Oliver Twist (Lean' UK)
    Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges)
    The Naked City (Dassin)
    The Fallen Idol (Reed; UK)
    Portrait of Jennie (Dieterle)
    A Hen in the Wind (Ozu; Japan)
    They Live by Night (Ray)
    Louisiana Story (Flaherty)
    Une Si Jolie Petit Plage (Allegret; France)
    The Winslow Boy (Asquith; UK)
    Red River (Hawks)
    The Pearl (Fernandez; Mexico)
    Force of Evil (Polonsky)
    Key Largo (Huston)

    Welll, for me, BICYCLE THIEVES, the definitive neo-realist masterpiece is one of the greatest films in the history of the cinema, but so is Max Ophuls's only American film, LETTER TO AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and Huston's TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. But for that matter, THE RED SHOES, A HEN IN THE WIND, HAMLET, OLIVER TWIST, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, LOUISIANA STORY, THE FALLEN IDOL, FORCE OF EVIL, and some others here rank at or near the masterpiece level in what was a packed year. I can't tell you just how much I love LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, which I have been ravished by and have promoted frommost of my life since I first saw it decades ago at a retro in Manhattan. You may well be a romantic Jeffrey as I am, but you have chosen one of the most poetic an dlyric masterpiece in world cinema here!

  2. Your selection is an MIA in my viewing, certainly one I need to catch up on. I found 1948 to be a tough choice, such an amazing year with so many great classics. My selection was difficult and could change like the weather between the three films namely, “Bicycle Thief”, “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and “The Red Shoes.” I selected “Bicycle Thief”, one the masterpieces of neo-realism. I saw it for the first time a few years ago on the big screen at the Tampa Theater. “The Red Shoes” (There is no need to be embarrassed---it is a Scorsese favorite which you probably know) is also magnificent work too certainly one of the finest films to show the conflict between art and life, the sacrifices one must make for their art. “Moonrise” I have on my DVR and hopefully will soon watch.

    Here is my list

    #1 Bicycle Thief

    The Red Shoes
    The Treasure of Sierra Madre
    The Snake Pit
    Force of Evil
    They Live By Night
    Red River
    The Lady from Shanghai
    The Naked City
    Act of Violence

  3. I guess it says something that you like this film more than three of my favorites, HAMLET, RED RIVER, and THE RED SHOES.

    This is only available as an import, right?

  4. Sam, all right, now I'm jealous of you! This is one I've yet to see on the big screen, but hopefully I'll have that opportunity at some point. Wow, that must have been amazing.

    I haven't seen the Ozu film on your list yet. And I like THE FALLEN IDOL and really like OLIVER TWIST, though neither as much as the six runners-up I mentioned.

    Thanks, as always, for the wonderful list and incredible perspective!

  5. Jeffrey - This one is missing from my viewing as well. In fact, I've seen very little from Ophuls, but love what I have seen. His Madame de... is a masterpiece.

    This is another really good year, but I have to stay with one of the great westerns of all time: Howard Hawks' Red River. It has so many elements going for it, it's unbelievable - the great Hawks direction, John Wayne, Monty Clift (one of my favorites), Walter Brennan, cinematography from Russell Harlan. It's not Hawks' best western (that will be a a later selection for me) but it's still a 10/10 for me. Other favorites:

    The Fallen Idol (Reed)
    Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston)
    Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges)
    The Search (Zinnemann)
    Multiple noirs

  6. John, thanks so much for the excellent list! I did know that Scorsese was a huge fan of THE RED SHOES, and of Powell, in general I believe.

    At some point, I need to revisit BICYCLE THIEF and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. The former I've always really liked. The latter I like, but it has always lost considerable steam for me at times. I've never seen BICYCLE THIEF on the big screen, but that sounds like an amazing opportunity. Hopefully, I'll have the same at some point.

    If you catch this Ophuls, I'd love to hear about your experience with it. Always great to have you here, John. Thanks!

  7. Tony, I'm embarrassed to say that I've never seen THE RED SHOES or HAMLET (I make the confession in the post above) so I can't say I prefer this to those two films. But I do like it even more than I like RED RIVER, which I do like a good deal.

    Man, I didn't realize LETTER wasn't available on Netflix. That's a travesty. If I come across it somewhere, and it looks easy enough to get, I'll definitely let you know.

    Always great to hear from you. Thanks, Tony!

  8. Ooops. Busted... I just skimmed the post and missed you were pointing out flicks you hadn't seen. My mistake.

    Yes, let me know if you see that movie elsewhere. Thanks.

  9. All right, Dave, before I address the main point of your post, I have to clear the air. MULTIPLE NOIRS!!! Come on, let someone else cheapen the genre with an expression like that, but not Mr. Hicks, with your excellent noir countdown. I'm kidding, but come on, at least share them with us.

    By the way, I re-read Paul Schrader's "Notes on Film Noir" last night. I have such admiration for that guy, on so many levels. He's such an articulate guy of that generation. I imagine you've already read the essay, but if you haven't, it's available online at:

    As for the Ophuls film, I'm excited for you to see it. When you do, I'd love to hear about it.

    And, you and I are totally on the same page with RED RIVER and Clift, in general. Extraordinary actor!

  10. Tony, I would imagine we're all guilty of that. And even if we say we're not, we're lying :)

    I'll definitely keep my eyes out for you. I want you to see this one.

  11. OK, some favorite noirs of 1948, but these are in no way ranked (you know why!):

    Call Northside 777 (Hathaway)
    Key Largo (Huston)
    Raw Deal (Mann)
    They Live by Night (Ray)
    The Street With No Name (Keighley)
    Force of Evil (Polonsky)
    Pitfall (de Toth)
    The Big Clock (Farrow)
    Act of Violence (Zinnemann)

    Two others that aren't really noir, but that I also really like and forgot to mention earlier: Berlin Express (Tourneur) and Portrait of Jennie (Dieterle).

  12. Thanks so much, Dave! Sorry, you know I had to give you a hard time. There's a few of these I've never seen, aside from the ones I already mentioned, THE STREET WITH NO NAME, BERLIN EXPRESS, and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. Man, you've seen your share of noirs.

    I can't wait for the rest of your countdown to unfold. Among other things, it'll be a great guide for me to fill in some of these noir gaps in the future.

    Thanks so much, Dave!

  13. I love musicals, and I think what guys like Minnelli and Donen accomplished is probably the closest anyone has gotten to the Archers' work in The Red Shoes, but really there's no comparison. Definitely my favorite film of '48, although I have to qualify this because I've never seen Ophuls' film, which is weird as it seems right up my alley, and I love all the films of his I've seen. Have to get on that.

    "Guess when it comes down to it, I'm still a romantic. And an idealist, too. Put these two things together in a film, particularly in the following order, "idealistic romance", and I could be in big trouble. Then, add to it by mostly keeping this "idealistic romance" from being realized, and I'm in even deeper."

    Jeffrey, this is funny because I've been working on my final three entries for my decade countdown, and they're all very romantic films in some sense, in primarily dark ways (is there any other way?), and I've been thinking about that a lot too, how much that affects what I do or don't like.

  14. Doniphon, I know, I need to get to watching THE RED SHOES. I hate that I've never seen it. I have a good feeling though that it's one of these I'm gonna really like.

    And I'll be curious to hear about your experience with this Ophuls film. If you have a chance, please let me know after you have a look.

    Now you've got me even more curious to see your final three entries. I'll be looking forward to them.

    Always great to hear from you here!