That most underrated of filmmakers William Dieterle — a major stylist who has never been really recognized — made three supremely romantic films starring Joseph Cotten in the 1940s. The first paired Cotten (as a shell-shocked soldier) with Ginger Rogers (as a convict on a Christmas furlough) and was called I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) and, while not without interest, is the least of the three. The third — and most famous — was the romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie (1948), which paired him with Jennifer Jones. But in between the two was Cotten’s first romantic pairing with Jones, Love Letters. It is easily the oddest of the three with its particular — and peculiar — blend of Cyrano de Bergerac, madness, murder, dark secrets, and amnesia. To say that it has little — if any — relation to reality is an understatement. Frankly, it’s a ridiculous story — built on sketchy Hollywood notions of mental illness and amnesia. How much of this comes from the source novel by Chris Massie and how much comes from the — uh, unusual — mind of Ayn Rand is hard to say. Chances are she was trying her damndest to make a good impression on her bosses at Paramount — it was her first solo scripting job — and was toeing with the line. There’s certainly nothing even vaguely political about it. (It didn’t help her. It was her last job at Paramount,while her behavior at Warner Bros. four years later on The Fountainhead pretty completely ended her chances with any studio.)
Yes, the film is nonsense, but it’s the kind of gloriously compelling nonsense that only studio system could provide — and that only a visual stylist like Dietrle could pull off. It’s the kind of movie that feels real enough, but real in a totally movie-like way. You believe it all — though you may feel like telling Jones to quit showing off her eyes and teeth — while it’s on the screen. Afterwards…well, I’m not sure that matters. At worst, you’re likely to just mildly regret that life isn’t like this — and certainly doesn’t look as good as the art directed, studio-created world of the movie. This is not a great film, no, but it’s an excellent Hollywood movie.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Love Letters Tuesday, April 21, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.