Film Review: When You Read This Letter

The title is cribbed from Max Ophuls’ great 'Letter from an Unknown Woman,' but the characters in this absorbingly dank, “lost” Melville thriller all operate on a much less refined level.
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Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire), a knave of all trades if e’er there was, being a sometime boxer, garage mechanic, all-around hustler and serial seducer of women, seems to have all of post-World War II Cannes eating out of his hand. But when his seduction of an innocent girl, Denise (Irene Galter), veers into rape, causing her attempted suicide, her devoted sister Thérèse (Juliette Gréco), who has just left the convent and who just may be attracted to him, seeks retribution.

Such is the simple plot of this 1953 melodrama, upon which director Jean Pierre Melville, the father of the French New Wave and noir specialist, layered so much psychological suggestiveness, rich, louche atmosphere and steamy sex, that its commercial success enabled him to acquire his own studio. (He later disavowed it so completely that it was left out of retrospectives and is only now receiving its American theatrical debut.) The pacing here is leisurely and novelistic, the story unfolding gradually, with Melville agreeably marinating you in the decadent/gritty ambiance of the boxing ring, five-star hotel boudoirs, hectic nightclubs and cafés, contrasted with the decorous stationery shop the two sisters operate together following the car-crash deaths of their parents. And then the director irresistibly pulls you in deeper, into an enticing if often nasty world in which desire, often forbidden and/or duplicitous, rules his characters’ every feverish action. He is marvelously abetted by the great cinematographer Henri Alekan, who makes the most of the director’s preferred location shots, and the music score by Bernard Peiffer, who provides a jaunty theme for each character.

The screenplay is by Jacques Deval, the prolific, understandably successful French writer who had numerous films made of his plays (the charming farces Tovarich and Her Cardboard Lover, Miss Tatlock’s Millions, even Buster Keaton’s The Passionate Plumber), and although it becomes overwrought and dramatically muddled at its finale, it is filled with sophisticated observation and flashy repartee involving those two great noir topics: money and sex. The piquant, fecund lines of Deval (who has a small role in the movie) are delivered expertly by the terrific cast.

Gréco, her face like a blade, the famed singing muse of the Existentialists of the 1950s, supernally calm and proper on the surface, rivets your attention from her first scenes, mortifying her own flesh by slamming a drawer on her hand and then desperately trying to keep everything pristine and proper—especially for Galter (sweet and moving), whom she resolutely wants to protect from any wolf on the horizon. Lemaire (who was married for a time to Gréco) is a convincingly sexy lowlife, a master at striking the exact pose with his athletic physique to entice even the iciest of dames, Daniel Cauchy, as the weaselly hotel bellboy who spies on rich clients for him, is the perfect French Elisha Cook, Jr. Deep-voiced Yvonne Sanson is worldly elegance personified as a rich, doomed victim of Max’s, and that great, satchel-faced doyenne of French actresses, Cocteau favorite Yvonne de Bray, has a vivid little cameo on a train, rapping cynically about—what else?—men.