Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Best Movies You May Have Never Seen (Dec 2015)

Recommended and reviewed by Lady Eve's Reel Life

German filmmaker Max Ophuls.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Max Ophuls, the legendary German-born director most well-known for the films he made in France-- La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), and Lola Montès (1955)--also directed four films in America during the post-war era. The jewel among these, and a film equal to his best French work, is Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948).

A romantic drama based on a novella by Stefan Zweig, Letter From an Unknown Woman charts the course of an ill-starred love affair. Such a narrative may seem sheer melodrama, but this film is a genuinely transporting experience. Credit this to Ophuls’ famed mastery of the mobile camera (moving here with the grace of a Viennese waltz) and staging, a polished script by Howard Koch (Casablanca) and strong lead performances by Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan.
Letter From an Unknown Woman opens in elegant turn-of-the-century Vienna during the wee hours of a wet night. A well-dressed man (Jourdan) steps down from a carriage and, saying goodnight to his companions, jokes about the duel at dawn to which he has been challenged. Entering his well-appointed flat alone he tells his manservant that he will be departing again very shortly, "Honor is a luxury only gentlemen can afford," he remarks. The mute servant indicates a letter awaiting him and he opens the envelope and begins to read as he makes preparations to flee:

"By the time you read this letter, I may be dead," it says. The voice of a woman, the letter writer, begins to speak the words she has written, “I have so much to tell you and, perhaps, so little time…” As the man intently reads on, her tale unfolds in flashback.

The woman, Lisa Berndle (Fontaine), recalls how, as a girl, she became enthralled with up-and-coming concert pianist Stefan Brand, the recipient of her letter. Though the suave virtuoso had been completely unaware of her, Lisa privately harbored a deeply held fantasy that their destinies were entwined. And they are, but not in the way she imagined; the brief encounters they do share exact an incredible cost.

Lisa’s letter has come as a surprise and a shock to Stefan and he only finishes reading it as the dawn is breaking.

As the film circles from present to past to present again, it appears that both Lisa and Stefan have been the victims of their own misspent passions; she risking everything for an unattainable ideal, and he wasting himself on a string of shallow affairs. John, Stefan's mute valet, perhaps mirroring the director’s own viewpoint, observes the all-too-human folly around him and serves as a silent, compassionate witness.

Recommended and reviewed by Richard Finch, co-founder of the Foreign Film Classics Facebook Group 

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Paulette Goddard.
The Young in Heart (1938). This Selznick production is a charming comedy about the Carletons, a family of con artists exiled from the French Riviera by the authorities. On the train to London, they are befriended by a gullible and lonely rich old lady named Miss Fortune (!) who has no living relatives, and they quickly concoct a plan to fleece her. She essentially adopts this family of scoundrels, who then set to work subtly persuading her to leave them her money in her will.

Roland Young as "Sahib."
To make themselves more credible, when they reach London they temporarily assume the appearance of conventionality and even get jobs. The more fond they grow of Miss Fortune, the more they unexpectedly find their new lives of respectability growing on them, and she becomes a sort of moral fairy godmother, granting the family not riches but ethics. The movie, released the same year as You Can't Take It with You, is in a sense a Capra comedy turned on its head, with a family of eccentrics finding happiness by forgoing their nonconformist ways and becoming conventional.

The Flying Wombat.
The Carletons are expertly played by Roland Young as the father, a blustering former actor who pretends to be a British colonel retired from colonial India and is called Sahib by his family; Billie Burke as the dithering, scatter-brained mother; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as the son; and winsome Janet Gaynor as the sweet-natured and intelligent daughter. The stage actress Minnie Dupree plays the childlike Miss Fortune, and lovely Paulette Goddard is Fairbanks's love interest. The movie also includes an incredible futuristic automobile called a Flying Wombat (actually a 1938 Phantom Corsair) that at several points plays an important part in the film. The typically high Selznick production values (including an elaborately staged train wreck), appealing cast, and plot that balances the roguery of the Carletons with the guilelessness of Miss Fortune, and humor with sentiment, results in one of the more unusual comedies of the 1930's and a very entertaining viewing experience.


  1. Good recommendation from The Lady Eve. All of Ophuls' American films are good and I especially like "Caught," but "Letter from and Unknown Woman" is the pick of the lot. Its glorious period detail equals that of the last four films he made in France in the early 50s.

  2. I enjoyed Lady Eve's review of Letters -- I just saw that for the first time last year and really loved it. I have not seen Richard's The Young in Heart, and his review makes it sound like one I would like. Now I have a question for you guys -- Young in Heart reminded me of another movie I like, and I can't think of the name! A group of homeless people and con men, etc., move into a mansion when the owners go away for a few months. They pretend the house is theirs, lots of interesting people are involved, and they end up moving out of the back door just as the real owners come back in the front. Do you have any idea what movie that is?

    1. From your description, it sounds a lot like It Happened on Fifth Avenue.

  3. Two persuasive reviews. I saw "Letter from An Unknown Woman" once when I was a teenager and it went way over my head. A fresh experience with the film is needed.

    I recall enjoying "The Young in Heart" and developing a bit of a crush on Richard Carlson. A "reverse You Can't Take It With You" is a charming description.

  4. Wonderful picks! Thanks for the introduction to "The Young at Heart". I'd never even heard of it before, but happily it's available on YouTube. Yay!

  5. Be sure not to confuse "The Young IN Heart" with "Young AT Heart," the 1954 Sinatra-Doris Day picture with the memorable theme song ("Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you /
    If you're young at heart).

  6. Two very different, but also very good films. LETTER is the only one of Ophuls' U.S. films that I've seen. I encourage film fans to also check out Eve's excellent write-up of Ophuls' French classic LA RONDE on her blog. It has been a long time since I've seen YOUNG IN HEART, but I also love the comparison to YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. And, wow, what a cast! Thanks much to both of this month's guest bloggers.

  7. Wow. I'm definitely intrigued. Two movies I've never seen and both sound marvelous. In truth, I thought I had watched LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN when I was a kid or a teen, but maybe I didn't. The synopsis doesn't sound at all familiar. I will definitely try to find these two gems online or elsewhere. Thanks, Lady Eve.

  8. Reading your review of Young in Heart reminds me how much I miss your blog, R.D. The Movie Projector was and is one of my all-time favorites.

    I have not seen nor did I know of Young in Heart but, from your description, it sounds like a perfect choice for this post, a real overlooked gem. Thanks for the recommendation.