It is turn-of-the-century Vienna, the wee hours of a wet night. A man alights from a horse-drawn carriage and jokes with companions about the duel at dawn to which he has been challenged. Entering his flat alone he tells his manservant he will leave before morning, "Honor is a luxury only gentlemen can afford." But the mute servant indicates a letter awaiting him and, as he prepares for his departure, the man opens it and begins to read...
"By the time you read this letter, I may be dead," it says, and the voice of a woman, the letter writer, begins to narrate her story. Her tale unfolds in flashback as the man immerses himself in the letter.
Letter From an Unknown Woman tells of Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) who, as an adolescent, becomes enthralled with up-and-coming concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) when he moves into the building where she lives with her parents. Though the suave virtuoso is unaware of her, Lisa privately harbors a fantasy that they are destined to be together. Many years later their moment does come, but it is brief, Stefan is soon gone and Lisa is left with something more than her memories of him. Eventually she marries a wealthy man and years go by before, by chance, she and Stefan meet again. His has been a self-indulgent life and his career has failed, but Lisa is unable to resist and goes to him again in spite of an ultimatum from her husband. It is only then that she understands Stefan's true character. As Stefan, who has been sincerely moved by Lisa's story, comes to the end of her letter, he notices an official stamp on the last page and realizes its significance. By this time dawn has come and he makes another fateful decision.
The storyline may be melodrama, but this lyrical, dream-weaving film is a keen reflection on love, illusion and human nature. As the film moves from present to past to present again, it becomes clear that both Lisa and Stefan have lived lives steeped in unreality; Lisa by holding fast to her idealized vision of Stefan, and Stefan by relentlessly seeking his romantic ideal night to night. John, Stefan's mute valet, perhaps mirroring director Max Ophuls' viewpoint, observes the all-too-human folly around him and serves as a silent, compassionate witness.
Ophuls, known for his bold and graceful camera movement and use of extended takes, shapes Letter From an Unknown Woman with both sophistication and a light touch. Visually and structurally fluid throughout, the film seems to turn in elegant circles from beginning to end, subtly evoking themes enhanced rather than obscured by its glittering surface. Produced by actor/producer John Houseman, screenplay by Howard Koch (Casablanca), cinematography by Franz Planer (Roman Holiday), edited by Ted Kent, with original music by Daniele Amfitheatrof (Song of the South) and gowns by Travis Banton. As characters undone by desire, both Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan achieve moving eloquence.