In my mind–and I may be completely wrong–melodrama in film has two golden ages. The first was when Lillian Gish was Hollywood’s biggest star, and the second began when producers realized that you could fill theater seats by slowly killing someone of cancer over the course fo a two-hour feature film.
I always considered the late forties to be the province of late noir and uplifting films about how life can be awesome if you just let it. There are few important melodramas in the mix.
Letter from an Unknown Woman is a significant exception to the rule. A film with a narrative frame using one story to tell another, and then tying them together is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that, in showing a crisis for one character distracts you from knowing about another’s impending problems (don’t want to give spoilers here).
It’s a story of tainted love that isn’t anyone’s fault, of misplaced ideals and of lost innocence… but it catches you by surprise.
In those illness films from the seventies, the masochistic audience always knows that they’re supposed to be suffering. You watch the character you’ve come to care about die (or lose their love, or lose their child to something horrible) with the same numb sense of stupefaction as a cow being led to slaughter.
Letter is a very different kettle of fish. Unless you already know the plot, the film itself never leads you to think that it’s anything but a period play, possibly an exciting one. By the time you understand that you’ve been lured into the world of melodrama and that the supposed main character (who actually isn’t) has been changed into an honorable man by the events of the film… the credits are rolling.
It’s an amazing transformation, and I’m glad I’d never heard of this one before watching it. Yes, the hammer blow at the end falls… but the memory of the film will not be the unfortunate ending but the magical lead-up. This film deserves its place on the 1001 movies list – Max Ophüls was a genius, and his vision of Vienna in 1900 is a visual feast, even though much of the film takes place at night.
Recommended, but only if you haven’t read the review above (oops).
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t really do melodrama. He does do thrillers, though, and his novel Timeless is a good example. You can check it out here.