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Tag Archives: Louis Jourdan

Letter From an Unknown Woman (April 28, 1948)

The key to Max Ophüls’s Letter From an Unknown Woman lies, simply enough, in its title. No matter how rapturous or romantic the proceedings get, the title of the film will nag at viewers’ minds. We know what is coming, even if we’re not fully conscious that we know.

Letter From an Unknown Woman takes place mostly in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. It tells the story of a love affair between a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and a concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan).

When the film begins, Stefan is coming home in a carriage. He appears dissolute and wasted. He is to fight a duel in the morning, and he’s more upset that he’ll have to get up early than he is about possibly being killed.

In his apartment, a letter awaits him from Lisa, his old love. In the letter she recalls the stages of her life with him, beginning with girlish obsession, moving on to a more mature love affair, and finally … the end of it all.

Through it all we see Stefan, a brilliant and temperamental musician, experience his own journey of love with Lisa, albeit a more selfish one.

Like his fellow German expatriate director Douglas Sirk, Ophüls has a love of beautiful costumes, sumptuous set design, and moments of beautiful whimsy. One scene in Letter From an Unknown Woman begins with Lisa and Stefan sitting in a train compartment, having a conversation. The moving background outside the train’s window looks almost ridiculously fake until the full scene is revealed to the viewer. They are at a carnival, and an old man on a bicycle is making the painted backgrounds scroll past their window. He even has a wooden train whistle he blows as they stop at each new “station.”

Letter From an Unknown Woman is based on a story by Stefan Zweig, with a screenplay by Howard Koch. It’s a meditation on love, memory, and loss that I really liked, but didn’t completely love, although I suspect that repeating viewings might reveal added layers.

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The Paradine Case (Dec. 29, 1947)

The Paradine Case
The Paradine Case (1947)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Selznick Releasing Organization

The Paradine Case was the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed while toiling under the heavy yoke of his contract with David O. Selznick.

Even though The Paradine Case was filmed entirely on sets in Selznick’s studio in Culver City, it ended up costing nearly as much as Gone With the Wind (1939), partly because Selznick insisted on extensive reshoots and constantly rewrote the script. Selznick even took over the postproduction work, editing and scoring the film without Hitchcock’s assistance.

Some of the money shows up on screen, though. The set used for the courtroom scenes that dominate the second half of the film was a perfect facsimile of London’s Old Bailey. It cost Selznick about $80,000 and took 85 days to construct.

The Paradine Case is a talky, slow-moving courtroom drama, and it’s rarely on lists of people’s favorite Hitchcock films, so I had pretty low expectations going in, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, though. No matter how static the setting or how garrulous the script, Hitchcock always found a way to make the proceedings fun to watch.

He doesn’t go to the lengths he would later go to in set-bound pictures like Rope (1948), with its takes that last an entire reel, or Dial M for Murder (1954), which was shot in 3D to create a sense of immediacy and intimacy, but The Paradine Case contains a lot of long takes and subtle dolly movements at critical moments to keep things interesting.

I think the biggest problem with The Paradine Case is the performance of Italian actress Alida Valli as the accused murderer Mrs. Maddalena Anna Paradine. Valli was touted as the “next big thing” when she appeared in The Paradine Case. She was known professionally as just “Valli,” and her name even appeared in the credits (and on the poster above) in a different font than the other actors’ names.

Grant and Valli

The central conceit of the film is that the sober, level-headed, married barrister Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) falls instantly in love with Mrs. Paradine, convincing himself not only that she is innocent of the crime of poisoning her husband, but that he knows who is really guilty — Colonel Paradine’s valet, Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan).

The problem, for me at least, is that Valli is too cold and distant to be believable as an irresistible femme fatale. On the other hand, it does lend her character an air of impenetrable mystery.

Sparks don’t exactly fly when Valli and Peck share the screen, and Ann Todd is pretty bland as Keane’s too-understanding wife Gay, so I especially enjoyed Charles Laughton’s performance as the mildly sadistic judge who presides over the Paradine case, Lord Thomas Horfield.

The Paradine Case is not a film I’ll be championing as “misunderstood” or “underrated,” and it will never be in a list of my favorite Hitchcock films, but I still thought it was really good. Peck’s accent is a little weird for a London barrister, but the acting in the film is excellent, the story is involving, and the direction is assured.