By the time you read this letter I may be dead. I have so much to tell you – and perhaps very little time.
As with The Third Man, it is set in immediately post-war Vienna, and was made one year before Carol Reed’s classic. The Viennas they portray are entirely different however. While The Third Man is all shady underpasses and shadowy sidestreets, here it is awash with ornate fountains and idyllic snow scenes.
It does feel like there is a slight competition between the actors, Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, and the script. The structure of the film is impressive (more about this later), but the actual characters are somewhat difficult to empathise with, despite the best efforts of the leads.
Watching it in 2011 it is hard to fully grasp the minutiae of what emotions were supposed to be inspired in the viewer. The below scene is one of the least convoluted, and probably most openly romantic.
* Getting into plot spoiler territory now! *
The difficulty is that amidst scenes such as the above, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) is portrayed as a ‘cad’ or a slightly pathetic alcoholic womaniser. Whether this would have been such a criticism at the time is hard to know, because in some ways he is living the early equivalent of the rock ‘n’ roll livestyle befitting his role as prodigy of piano, frequently compared to Mozart (presumably also trying to suggest the hellraising).
Joan Fontaine’s character, Lisa, on the other hand is about as wet as feasible for the time. Basically pining after her much-loved pianist her entire life without doing much about it. Even when she finds she is pregnant with his child she doesn’t mention it to him, and simply goes off and finds another man to raise the child with.
Perhaps it’s interpreting the narrative through a modern lens, but it doesn’t seem either of them act like people passionately in love. I wonder if that might be the point. That they were somehow fated to be together, but it never quite comes about. It’s slightly hard to get that upset however as it’s so plainly both their faults!
The device used to unfold the narrative is probably the most impressive part of the film. The entire narrative is relayed as Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) reads a letter from Lisa (Joan Fontaine) confessing her undying love for him, pointing out that they’ve actually met and spent a considerable amount of time together (even though he seems to forget every time), and concluding that she’s about to die of typhus.