“A shot that does not call for tracks/ Is agony for poor old Max,/ Who, separated from his dolly,/ Is wrapped in deepest melancholy./ Once, when they took away his crane,/ I thought he’d never smile again.” The actor James Mason’s tribute in verse acknowledged director Max Ophüls’ fondness for the long, elegant tracking shot. Movies, Ophüls thought, should move; his swooping shots would propel viewers over European streets, across drawing rooms and into the hearts of the women at the center of most of his movies. He is celebrated for such later French films as La Ronde, Le Plaisir and Lola Montès, but this Hollywood drama, written by Howard Koch (Casablanca, Mission to Moscow) from a Stefan Zweig story, shows Ophüls’ ability to raise novelettish romance to the sweetest, most soulful heights. The missive delivered to fashionable musician Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) begins, “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.” The unknown woman is Lisa Berndl (Joan Fontaine), a child when she first spots her playboy hero; later they have an affair that is for Stefan a pleasing dalliance but for Lisa besotted destiny. Jourdan’s sleek charm nicely complements Fontaine’s gift for playing insecure lovelies, and Ophüls encases and embraces the pair in tracking shots that can convey ecstasy or emotional distance. Letter is the perfect companion for a rainy afternoon when you’re in the mood for a love story that both leads to death and transcends it.
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