History, form, and collaboration coalesce in James Naremore’s Letter from an Unknown Woman

Patrick Preziosi on James Naremore’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

Writer and critic James Naremore opens his monograph on Max Ophüls’ 1948 masterpiece, Letter from an Unknown Woman, with a panoply of formal detail, fulfilling the essayistic preamble conventions of a teased thesis, while giving most of his attention to the historical significance of the film and its production. Ophüls, a director lionised by the Nouvelle Vague, dissected by some of our finest critics and scholars, and canonised by all forms of boutique distributors, still exists as a slippery entity, an intercontinental director whose reputation was beset between breathless critical acclaim and studio meddling: Andrew Sarris famously touted the director’s final work, Lola Montès (1955), as the greatest film ever made, even as it was savagely recut following Ophüls’ death. 

Imperative to understanding the Ophüls behind Letter from an Unknown Woman are the collaborators who aided in delivering it to its final form, a modest subversion of auteurism that Naremore maintains as key to the otherwise singular artistry of its director. In keeping with such authorial objectivity, the production history of the film is also succinctly outlined, as well as the discrepancies between Stefan Zweig’s novella and the finished adaptation, and the issues that arose when the PCA disapproved of the story’s content (even just in its embryonic stages), steering Ophüls and screenwriter Howard Koch towards more indirect references of sex and sexuality. Naremore is prone to academic language and structure—he often draws the lines between sections with a dry straightforwardness—but his weaving together of Letter from an Unknown Woman’s thematic import and its halted creation is otherwise free-flowing without ever losing its informative edge. “Koch’s screenplay made efforts to satisfy censores,” he writes, “but his major task, which he fulfilled admirably, was to convert Zweig’s story from epistolary to dramatic form — a global change that required the development of major and minor characters who speak dialogue and move through a world of sound and image.”

Letter from an Unknown Woman by James Naremore (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021). 96 pages.

Also not lost on the monograph is Letter from an Unknown Woman’s reputation, a film whose graceful filmmaking and contrasting bitterness has inspired fruitful, interdisciplinary investigations from Robin Wood, Tag Gallagher, V.F. Perkins and more. Given its plot—a one-sided, year- spanning romance between a young, passionate girl named Lisa (Joan Fontaine) and an aloof concert pianist Stefan (Louis Jordan)—the multivalenced properties of the melodrama descriptor are also explored in the book’s longest chapter, “Style, Society and the Melodrama of Recognition”. This section also contains the most photos, augmenting a run-through of Letter from an Unknown Woman’s mercurial perspectives, which, according to Naremore, “Operates between these extremes [of Hitchcock’s subjectivity and Preminger’s objectivity].” In eschewing Zweig’s narrative technique, Ophüls, “opts for a voiceover and a fully dramatized narrative allowing for variable points of view of the camera.” Once one enters into Letter from an Unknown Woman’s undertow of oscillating perspectives, the hopscotching across point of views evolves into something impossible to ignore, and Naremore’s devotion to this singular directorial decision elucidates some of the more subtle and even impenetrable gestures. 

As already mentioned, Naremore is yet another significant critic and theorist to tackle Ophüls’ film, and at times, his book reads as a collection of other writers’ thoughts, with the author as the binding force. It’s not a misguided writerly pursuit, considering the amount of ink spilled over Letter from an Unknown Woman (also of note is that Naremore is inevitably drawing from documents that could easily be out of print at this time, so the monograph can also function as a method of preservation). It’s a continued affirmation of how the film continues to live on beyond its relatively deflated release—considered a flop both critically and financially—and subsequently, how such examinations and arguments are inseparable from its formal makeup: its being overseen by Rampart Productions (a studio-within-a-studio of Universal International); its cast and crew; its Zweig-adapting forebears, even.

The Zweig angle is an interesting one, especially considering that the novella ran through the studio system’s “reliable” adaptation machine (i.e., producer imposed rewrites, censorship, etc.), which itself produced innumerable projects in which the source material was practically unrecognisable: the “more conventional but equally free adaptation,” John M. Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933) doesn’t even acknowledge Zweig as a source in its credits. Neramore finds that Zweig’s novella’s staying power is largely attributed to its negotiation of its bonafide romanticism and unnerving characterisations, which skirt the dangerously obsessive and masochistic, as well as the painfully oblivious. It’s posited that the Ophüls adaptation is the most admired, for it “keeps these tensions in play, giving them a tragic dimension and broadening the world around the characters.” This world broadening also plays into the temporal discrepancies: the opening title card places us in “Vienna about 1900”, a presumed two decades before the novella’s setting. The relatively indeterminate period bolsters Ophüls’ own nostalgic tendencies, and as Naremore astutely observes, stands in stark contrast to the bombed-out, contemporary Vienna that served as the backdrop for Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) just a year later.

Even Naremore’s brief reference to The Third Man in relation to Letter from an Unknown Woman’s period setting is indicative of the more general virtues of his writing, where parallels are concisely drawn and then absorbed into the overarching analysis. More dry than emphatic, the monograph nevertheless settles on a style that is easily malleable for a film that encourages all kinds of discussion. To read Naremore on Ophüls is to also read on Stefan Zweig, the Hollywood studio system, the acting career of Joan Fontaine. Nothing superfluous is ever prescribed; everything unveiled has always been there, waiting to be. — Patrick Preziosi

Letter from an Unknown Woman by James Naremore, part of the BFI Film Classics series, is available to purchase through Bloomsbury Publishing.

Patrick Preziosi

Patrick is a Brooklyn-based graduate of Literature from State University of New York, Purchase College. He has written on film, music, and literature for America Magazine, The Quietus, Little White Lies, Metrograph Edition, Commonweal Magazine, Screen Slate, and more.