Screened July 11 2009 on 20th Century Fox DVD in Brooklyn NY
Joseph Mankiewicz’ wittily scripted, innovatively structured survey of distaff marital life at the brink of the Eisenhower era pits three middle class wives against an impossible feminine ideal. Addie Ross, the omniscient, goddess-like narrator who opens the film with withering remarks about the lives of the desperate housewives she calls friends, is as much of a structuring absence as Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud. She’s never seen, only talked about as some otherworldly feminine ideal who inspires men and terrorizes women. It’s her letter to the three wives, announcing that she’s run off with one of their husbands, that sets off a chain of collective flashback introspection; the wives are so awestruck that their response is to ruminate in their domestic failures rather than kick some adulterous ass. She’s a gimmick, but one that aptly grounds Mankiewicz’s suburban landscape as a projection screen of insecurities. Even domestic sounds like a ferry horn or a dripping faucet set loose vexing thoughts about infidelity and emptiness among the three wives.
Though they share the same anxiety of being unfit to hold a good man, the three wives each represent a different slice of the upwardly mobile post-WWII woman. Jeanne Crain is a pretty, stay-at-home type of modest background, grateful and anxious about landing the picket fence package. Ann Sothern is the career girl both proud and worried that she makes more than her man, while on the brink of compromising her values for a paycheck. Linda Darnell is the unrepentant maneater who plays the sexist cards she’s dealt with masterfully, but can’t get over the golddigger persona she feels saddled with.
Mankiewicz delights in poking and celebrating the pride and pretensions of each type, succeeding especially with Sothern and Darnell. Some may see their outcomes as regressing into conservative notions of marital subservience, irreconcilable with the self-sufficient superfigure of Addie Ross. But it’s worth putting it out there that feminist ideals can bully women as much as galvanize them. The film, which neither completely skewers nor validates the domestic American dream, hit a nerve with viewers back in 1949; 60 years later, its visually expressive, vocally incisive inquiry into a woman’s place in this world isn’t as obsolete as one might think.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The entirety of A Letter to Three Wives is available on YouTube. Part 1 here
ORIGINAL THEATRICAL TRAILER
The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Letter to Three Wives among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Adeline Weckmans, ymdb.com (2002)
Albert Valentin, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
David Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991)
Michael Henry Wilson, Positif (1991)
Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
Within the absorbing contents of “A Letter to Three Wives,” Joseph L Mankiewicz is peddling some pretty good wisdom and advice. The wisdom, tucked off in corners of this tri-paneled comedy-romance, is that love is a volatile something which can quickly evaporate unless it is constantly guarded with understanding and care. And the advice, angled mainly to the ladies, is never to speak harsh words (or such) to their true-loving husbands who may leave them and never return.
Thus, in the reflections of these ladies, Mr. Mankiewicz cleverly evolves an interesting cross-sectioned picture of the small-town younger-married set. And as writer as well as director, he has capably brought forth a film which has humor, scepticism, satire and gratifying romance.
The fact that so many paces are put on display in this film forewarns that a certain unevenness is likely to occur. And it must be admitted frankly that the whole thing is not in perfect time. The earlier phases are draggy and just a bit obvious. And because this is so, the episodes involving Jeanne Crain as the ex-Wave and Ann Sothern as the radio-writer do less to enhance those stars.
But the final romantic remembrance—that of the hard-boiled wife—is a taut and explosive piece of satire, as funny and as poignant as it is shrewd. And it is played with coruscating vigor by Linda Darnell in the gold-digger role and by Paul Douglas as the rough-cut big-shot whom she tangles with frank and ancient wiles. Indeed, this one rough-and-tumble between Mr. Douglas and Miss Darnell is deliciously rugged entertainment, the real salvation of the film.
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, January 21 1949
Joseph L. Mankiewicz first made waves with this 1949 trilogy film, about three vacationing women who receive a letter from a mutual friend, announcing that she has run away with one of their husbands–but which? Mankiewicz’s writing is bright and hard–he’s sharpening his teeth for All About Eve, made the next year–but his acid wit is almost too much for his fragile characters to bear. His bile seems excessive applied to this satire on suburban mores, in a way it would not when Eve poured it on backstage Broadway, where there were some genuine pretensions to puncture.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
The film could have been called “Scenes from Three Marriages.” It presents, in flashbacks, each wife’s tremulous view of her domestic discord, and the crises are worthy of Bergman: there is the resentful silence of good cheer, the cultural combat of money versus art, and overtly sexual class warfare. Mankiewicz’s writing is florid and expressive, but his daring direction makes it burst into life. When Jeanne Crain, as one of the wives, utters the film’s most anguished line, she gives a defiant, dramatically unmotivated look into the camera, four years before Bergman had Harriet Andersson do the same in “Monika.” This gesture of existential complicity would become a cornerstone of the French New Wave. Despite its emotional intensity, the film is comic, buoyantly so, and the magical ending raises wit to a metaphysical dimension.
- Richard Brody, The New Yorker
In the late 1940′s and early 1950′s, the American cinematic comedy of manners saw a brief Indian summer. Made possible by the studio system operating at high tide and with writers and directors nurtured in the theater and now, after decades in the sound cinema, experienced enough in the ways of film to craft a truly mature genre, directors like George Cukor, working with gifted writers like Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and Joseph Mankiewicz, who directed his own scripts, the American cinema wryly commented on postwar American prosperity, the returning veteran, and the shifting landscapes of gender roles. With their ensemble casts frequently playing comic encounters in long takes and in medium shots, films like Cukor’s Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, and It Should Happen to You were “theatrical,” in the very best sense, finding both joy and social criticism in the ways men and women played roles with one another, and even with themselves, in their everyday lives. Other films, such as H.C. Potter’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and Walter Lang’s Sitting Pretty, satirized suburbanization and “progressive” child-rearing; in their own way, the postwar comedy of manners constitutes a generous but insistent critique of the American dream, circa 1949.
A Letter to Three Wives began life as a property to be made by the master of the comedy of manners, Ernst Lubitsch, but Lubitsch’s death in 1947, and problems with engineering the three stories into a coherent whole shelved the project; the story on which the film was based had five wives. (Indeed, the film’s photo-finish conclusion is still confusing enough that one of the film’s viewers, General Douglas MacArthur, then in Tokyo in charge of the Occupation of Japan, had an aide write to Mankiewicz asking who Addie Ross had actually run off with.) A Letter to Three Wives is unjustly known today as Mankiewicz’s rehearsal for the now more well-known All About Eve the following year. In fact, A Letter to Three Wives was a surprise hit, and won for Mankiewicz his first two Oscars, for directing and writing. It is a hearty and intelligent comedy, tweaking hypocrisy at the same moment that it clearly yearns for reconciliation within and between its three couples. A Letter to Three Wives has a marvelous added attraction: this was bristly comedienne Thelma Ritter’s first major film, and she runs all the way to Flatbush with every scene she’s in. And for all the talk, so beloved of the urbane Mankiewicz, there is the unforced laughter of the film’s several moments of physical comedy; if there’s a funnier quick visual gag than the train bit in the American cinema, then I’m going looking for it.
- Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University, via the New York State Writers Institute
Though Miss Crain received top billing (and this blogger is personally crazy about her), her segment is by far the weakest of the three. Still engaging in the way it captures its characterizations through scintillating dialogue and great performances, the Crain segment doesn’t have the spark that the other wives’ slice of celluloid provide. Jeffrey Lynn as Brad Bishop is neither here nor there.
As Rita Phipps, Ann Sothern is as charming and fun to watch as ever. Her delectable voice and confident character can deliver a line of dialogue like a fast ball over home plate. While at a country club dinner dance, the three husbands are glowingly listing the many attributes of the absentee Addie when Rita pipes in, “also fog lights, white sidewalls and a heater?” Classic Sothern. Kirk Douglas, who plays husband George Phipps, was on the brink of stardom when cast in this role. Champion, released the same year as Wives, would put him there.
As screen time goes, Linda Darnell comes out on top, appearing in all three of the wives individual segments. Her Lora Mae shows a determined calculation in order to get everything she wants, including and especially marriage from her wealthy department store tycoon boss. In order to get the disdainful look he wanted out of Darnell, when she’s looking at a framed portrait of Addie ( the front of which the audience can’t see), Mankiewicz put a photo of director Otto Preminger in the frame during the scene. Preminger had given Darnell a tough time during the filming of Forever Amber(1947), which they made together, and their was no love lost on him by the beauty.
Citizen Kane exeplifies a structure which does not layer the narrative but actually obscures its meaning. Joseph Mankiewicz’ A Letter to Three Wives (1949) uses a similar structure. One morning, three suburban wives receive a letter from their best friend. She tells them she is going to run away with one of their husbands today. Who will it be? The structure of the film allows us to hear each of the women explore their marriage. We do see the other characters. A chronology of sorts is created. Mankiewicz uses the structure to create a meditation on suburban marriages, the roles of men and women, the roles of class, of money, and of sex. The structure of A Letter to Three Wives facilitates an ironic exploration of modern marriage without being prescriptive. In this sense this structure clarifies at least the editorial voice of the writer, more than can be said of Welles and his writer, Herman Mankiewicz, in Citizen Kane.
- Ken Dancyger, The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory, and Practice. Focal Press, 2002. Pages 216-217
Flashbacks are rarer in the classical Hollywood film than we normally think. Throughout the period 1917-60, screenwriters’ manuals usually recommended not using them; as one manuals put it, “Protracted or frequent flashbacks tend to slow the dramatic progr3ession’’ – a remark that reflects Hollywood’s past story events. Of the one hundred UnS films, only twenty use any flashbacks at all, and fifteen of those occur in silent films. Most of these are brief, expository flashbacks filling in information about a character’s background; this device was obviously replaced by expository dialogue in the sound cinema. In the early years of sound, when plays about trials were common film sources, flashbacks offered a way to ‘open up’ stagy trial scenes (e.g.,The Trial of Mary Dugan, Madame X, all 1929). Another vogue for flashbacks ran from the late 1930s into the 1950s. Between 1939 and 1953, four UnS films begin with a frame story and flashback to recount the bulk of the main action before returning to the frame. Yet those four flashback films still comprise less than 10 per cent of the US films of the period. What probably makes the period seem dominated by flashbacks is not the numerical frequency of the device but the intricate ways it was used: contradictory flashbacks in Crossfire (1947), parallel flashbacks in Letter to Three Wives (1948), open-ended flashbacks in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and I walked With a Zombie (1943), flashbacks within flashbacks with flashbacks in Passage to Marseille (1944) and The Locket (1946), and a flashback narrated by a dead man in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
- David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. Columbia University Press, 1985. Page 42.
Mankiewicz is undoubtedly the greatest flashback author. But the use he makes of it is so special that it may be contrasted with that of Carne, as two extreme poles of the recollection-image. There is no longer any question of an explanation, a causality or a linearity which ought to go beyond themselves in destiny. On the contrary it is a matter of an inexplicable secret, a fragmentation of all linearity, perpetual forks like so many breaks in causality. Time in Mankiewicz is exactly as Borges describes it in “The Garden of Forking Paths’: it is not space but time which forks, ‘ web of time which approaches, forks, is cut off or unacknowledged for centuries, embracing every possibility’. It is here that the flashback finds its justification: at each point where time forks. The multiplicity of circuits thus finds a new meaning. It is not simply several people each having a flashback, it is the flashback belonging to several people (three in The Barefoot Contessa, three in A Letter to Three Wives, two in All About Eve). And it is not just the circuits forking between themselves, it is each circuit forking within itself, like a split hair. In the three circuits in A Letter to Three Wives, each of the women wonders in her own way when and how her marriage began to go adrift, to take a forking route.
Time’s forks thus provide flashback with a necessity, and recollection-images with an authenticity, a weight of past without which they would remain conventional. But why, and how? The answer is simple: the forking points are very often so imperceptible that they cannot be revealed until after their occurrence, to an attentive memory. It is a story that can be told only in the past. This was already the constant question for Fitzgerald, to whom Mankiewicz is very close: what happened? How have we arrived at this point? This is what governs the three flashbacks of women in A Letter to Three Wives and Harry’s recollections in The Barefoot Contessa. It is perhaps the question of all questions.
The theatrical character of Mankewicz’s work has often been pointed out, but there is also a ‘novelistic’ element (or more precisely ‘a short story’ element, for it is the short story that asks: what happened?) What has not been sufficiently analysed, however, is the relation between the two, their original fusion which means that Mankiewicz re-created a complete cinematographic specificity. On one hand, the novelistic element, the story, appears in the memory. The memory in fact, following a formula of Janet’s, is story behavior. In its very essence, memory is voice, which speaks, talks to itself, or whispers, and recounts what happened. Hence the voice-off which accompanies the flashback. In Mankiewicz this spiritual role of memory often gives way to a creature more or less connected with the beyond: the phantom in Mrs Muir’s Advenure, the ghost in Whispers in the City, the automata in Bloodhound. In A Letter to Three Wives, there is the fourth girlfriend, the one that will never be seen, that is once barely glimpsed, and who has made it known to the three others that she is going off with one of their husbands (but which one?): it is her voice-off which looms over the other three flashbacks. In any event, the voice as memory frames the flashback. But, in another sense, what the latter ‘shows’, and what the former reports, are more voices: characters and decors which are of course meant to be seen, but are in essence speaking and of sound. This is the theatrical element: the dialogue between the characters who appear, and sometimes even the appearance of the character himself, produces a story (All About Eve). In one of the flashbacks in A Letter to Three Wives there is the dinner scene where the teacher-husband and the wife in advertising entertain the latter’s female boss: all the movements of characters and camera are determinded by the mounting violence of their dialogue, and the distribution of two opposed sound-sources, that of the radio programme, and that of the classical music with which the teacher challenges it. The essential point, then, is the intimacy of the relation between the novelistic element in memory as story behavior, and the theatrical element of the dialogues, words and sounds as conducts of the characters.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Pages 47, 48,49
Through the three segments, the audience experiences both the specificity and commonality of these marriages. Up to this point, A Letter to Three Wives suggests that, for a wife in any relationship from the strongest (the Phipps) to the weakest (the Hollingsways), suspicion and ultimate distrust of one’s husband is possible.
The three women differ sharply, of course. Deborah is a true believer in the feminine mystique, wondering only if she is inadequate. Rita, however, is a rebel, and does not want to abandon writing for full-time domesticity. Lora on the other hand, is an opportunist, pragmatic exploiter of the feminine mystique. Marriage can provide a lifestyle she is unlikely to achieve herself. Though these women differ in character, they are united by both friendship and the spectre of Addie. No woman is exempt from the power of mythic femininity that Addie represents.
The conclusion of A Letter to Three Wives, however, like that of most women’s films, softens and compromises its critical character. After a more intense build-up of suspicion through some suspenseful twists and turns of the narrative, Porter reveals that he planned to elope with Addie. He considered Lora a fortunehunter who had had no longer loved him. Yet, after consideration, he realized how much he really loved his wife, and decided to stay. In a very confusing and unexpected ending, the Hollingsways “kiss and make up.”
Each woman, howver, sobered by her Saturday of suspicion, becomes determined to “work at” her marriage. A Letter to Three Wives concludes on a fairly conservative note. As the film came close to affirming fully their (or even one of their) sense of distrust, it backs off. It cannot carry through with the critique of femininity in initiates. Yet neither is the surprise ending completely reassuring. After all, the letter had not been simply a cruel joke; it did reflect reality. If it had not “touched home,” the women would have ignored it, laughed, and regarded it was a prank. Likewise, the emotions evoked throughout the film do not simply vanish in a sigh of relief. The power of the letter (and the film) lies in the fear and suspicion it evokes.
A Letter to Three Wives hit home for postwar female viewers. Infidelity was a sore subject for waiting women, so sore that Hollywood dared not portray it until peacetime (Klempner’s original story was set in a war-effort club). Joseph Goulden described a pervasive female jealousy: ”an immeasurable factor in the bring-our-boys-home sentiment was traditional feminine jealousy … the woman at home heard enough dire warnings to stimulate any imagination.” In sarcastic comedy, A Letter to Three Wives revealed gnawing doubts and long-held insecurities. In its comically chilling portrait of suburban strife, A Letter to Three Wives is ahead of its time, prefiguring the writing of authors like John Cheever and Betty Friedan. Perhaps, from its inception, the postwar suburban dream, built on forced female demobilization and domestic isolation, was riddled with fear and contradiction. If one were simply to analyze this film as counseling feminine adjustment, she or he would ignore both the deep distrust expressed toward men and the anger and envy acknowledged toward the unattainable Addie. No woman is exempt from the power of Addie, not the conformist (Deborah), the rebel (Rita), or the opportunist (Lora Mae). For Addie is both the price of the feminine mystique and a potential source of its rejection. A Letter to Three Wives prefigures the feminist critique by portraying the impact of idealized femininity on real women. This film foreshadows the words of de Beauvior written 4 years later:
“The myth of woman … substitutes a transcendental Idea, timeless, unchangeable … endowed with absolute truth. Thus, as against the dispersed, contingent and multiple experiences of actual women, mythical thought opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and changeless.”
Addie Ross is the filmic symbol of the Eternal Feminine, personification of male fantasy and female oppression.
- Andrea S. Walsh, Women’s film and female experience, 1940-1950 Greenwood Publishing Group, 1984. Pages 189, 190
The film’s narrational perspective is extremely confused. Addie is the narrator, and she seems a very powerful one, as well as a figure of intended audience engagement. Her introductory voice-over commentary, in fact, immediately sets up a connection between her perspective and the viewer’s: “To begin with, all the incidents and characters in this story might be fictitious, and any resemblance to you or me might be purely coincidental.” Addie is also seemingly omniscient, omnipresent vocal presence throughout the film. She seems so far above her surroundings that she is contemptuous of them, and the spectator might be inclined at first to identify with her contempt for the wives, their small-town lives, and their unfulfilling marriages. Addie ridicules not only the provincial environment she has rejected but also the silliness of the women she feels she has defeated.
In spite of this initial attempt to cultivate audience attachment to Addie, the film moves quickly away from her perspective, encouraging instead strong spectatorial engagement with the plights of the three wives. In fact, the film’s ideological project appears to be a validation of the three wives’ decisions to dedicate themselves more fully to their husbands and a condemnation of Addie as a contemptible woman who not only ridicules her friends behind their backs but even tries to ruin their marriages. Yet Addie’s narration casts an ironic light on the wives’ renewed dedication to their men that cannot be entirely dismissed. Addie is portrayed as an independent and powerful female figure, an object of male admiration and female jealousy. The men see her as a woman of taste, class, and beauty, and the women ask themselves, “Why is it that whatever we talk about we always end up talking about Addie Ross?” Addie comments sarcastically in voice-ver, “Maybe it’s because if you girls didn’t talk about me, you wouldn’t talk at all.”
In portraying group female friendship, A Letter to Three Wives utilizes a number of negative cultural stereotypes that characterize women’s relationships as involving envy, gossip, duplicity, betrayal, and deadly competition for men. The independent nonconformity of Addie’s character does leave an opening for a resisting reading that sympathizes with her rejection of the devoted wives’ boring provincial lifestyle, but this reading is not supported by the film’s structure of spectatorial engagement as a whole. Instead, the film seems to employ possible female fascination with Addie’s character as a “fantasy bribe” of sorts, to use Frederic Jameson’s terminology, to draw the female spectator into the text, only to turn this fascination against her. In this way, the effect of Addie’s final condemnation as an evil, manipulative woman who will stop at nothing to get a man is heightened.
- Karen Hollinger, In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films. U of Minnesota Press, 1998. Pages 37, 38, 39.
A Letter to Three Wives works on several levels simultaneously. On the surface, it belongs to that genre called (sometimes contemptuously) the woman’s film, placing women at the fore and focusing on the problems characteristic of women’s lives—which are, as here, often romantic and domestic. Just beneath that seemingly conventional surface, however, is some often astringent commentary about middle-class America, its social snobbery, pretension, and materialism. The three wives of the title are friends who belong to the same social set, but each possesses a slightly different economic and social status—something that Addie’s voiceover narration points out with quiet pleasure—and this manifests itself in some charged undercurrents in their friendship. There’s also a sense in which the film seems to be satirizing the American Dream, distaff version: All three of these women have a lifestyle to which other women aspire, whether by achieving wealth or social status through marriage, like Lora Mae and Deborah, or by having a career as well as marriage and motherhood, like Rita. Yet over the course of the movie all three have to question the value of what they have and confront how easily they could lose it. That uneasy awareness of the ephemeral nature of what they have aspired to forces the women to examine the values at the core of their comparatively frivolous lives.
Mankiewicz keeps his treatment of these issues entertaining by virtue of the snappy dialogue, a compelling narrative drive, and some unusual and distinctive directorial decisions. One of these is the way Addie Ross is invisibly present right from the start of the film. Her narration gives a cynical view of her supposed friends and shows amusement at the panic she has created in them, which starts the movie off with a sense of ironic detachment—and tells us a great deal about Addie herself. One of the many clever decisions Mankiewicz makes is never to show this character who catalyzes the action. This allows us to accept that she can represent an ideal for three quite different men—and it creates a mystique that underscores the almost supernatural dread and envy she inspires in the three wives. To all three women, she is an unseen presence in their marriage, a rival they are being compared to (even if only in their own minds). Like the unseen title character in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, she gains power in the audience’s mind through her physical absence.
Another standout character—a visible one, this time—is George. The young Kirk Douglas brings energy, quick intelligence, and a bracing edge to this character, and the writing endows him with surprising complexity. George is much more than what we at first expect him to be: an old-fashioned husband who resents his wife’s superior earning power. He is defensive about being a schoolteacher—he carries a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being an intellectual, since he assumes that makes him less of a man in the world’s eyes—yet he feels a passionate sense of vocation and defends his work movingly to his wife. He admits that his “male ego” is put out of joint by the fact that his wife pays many of the bills, but he admires her independence. It’s not the existence of her job that he resents so much as her slavish obedience to her boss—and the fact that he has no respect for the medium for which she writes. One of the most exhilarating parts of the film is George’s blistering denouncement of radio theater as mindless pabulum. (As a friend of mine commented, just imagine what he would have thought of television.) The issues that complicate his and Rita’s marriage are thus drawn not in black and white but in shades of grey, giving their conflict a more adult and realistic quality than those of most film couples whose marriage is threatened by the wife’s career.
‘A Letter to Three Wives’ works on many levels, few of which have anything to do with what is in essence a flimsy melodramatic plot. Most obviously it’s a very funny social satire, but there’s also acute observations about marriage, class, and the dumbing down effect of advertising on entertainment – in the film it’s radio but the criticism can be applied equally to TV today. The upper-middle class ‘society’ setting, well-drawn characters, flashbacks, vitriolic exchanges, a breathily confessional voice-over and the odd but successful combination of high and low-brow wit mark it out as a Mankiewicz film, and ‘Three Wives’ is indeed one of his best writer-director comedy efforts, for many a close second to ‘All About Eve’.
It’s not quite in that class. ‘Eve’ is a film that still makes one want to applaud spontaneously every few minutes whilst one watches it, so immaculate are its script and performances. The wit in ‘Three Wives’ doesn’t sparkle so frequently and its barbs don’t go as deep (it was the movie that Mankiewicz made before ‘Eve’ so could be seen as a warm-up, rather than a companion piece), but it does possess those qualities of intelligence, elegance and sophistication (as opposed to pretense) that one treasures in the best movies of this period, before the process of movie-making became subject to the vagaries of the focus group and the demands of pathologically conservative media colossi desperate to recoup their investment.
- Nat Tunbridge, DVD Times
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has made A LETTER TO THREE WIVES available on DVD in a marvelous looking black and white transfer that frames the film in its proper 1.37:1 full screen aspect ratio. This film is another fine example of Hollywood glamour cinematography- beautifully lit, fairly crisp, glossy and with a silky smooth appearance. Not surprisingly, the actresses’ close-ups have a slightly diffuse appearance, which only serves to enhance their beauty. Blacks appear velvety, whites are clean, plus the picture boasts fine contrast. The film elements have been given a digital cleanup, which is free from most signs of age and wear. A grain structure is noticeable in place, but it gives the DVD a nice film like quality. Digital compression artifacts are always nicely contained.
-Derek M. Germano, The Cinema Laser
This image is a shade soft, but is filled with film grain and has muted grays and fine shadow detail. I saw a bit of brightness flickering in the opening 10 minutes. I dislike the yellow subtitles. Overall this is another exceptional DVD package from Fox – with commentary and a decent inclusion of extra features. Original mono audio is offered as well as a stereo bump. Damn good job Fox !
- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
Like most Fox Studio Classics DVDs, A Letter to Three Wives came with a remixed stereo soundtrack. Unlike most Fox Studio Classics DVDs, this one’s remix sounded fine. Perhaps that’s because it was virtually identical to the original monaural audio, which also appeared on the DVD. If the mix ever spread to the side channels, I didn’t hear it.
And that was fine with me. The vast majority of the stereo remixes often suffered from awkward delineation and excessive reverb, but those concerns never cropped up here. Speech showed the moderate tinniness that one expects of a movie from the Forties, but the lines stayed easily intelligible and lacked any defects. Effects played a minor role in this chatty flick, as they stayed in the background. Those elements were acceptably defined and clean; I noticed nothing special about them, but they lacked distortion or problems.
Music was also subdued. Only sporadic examples of score or source music popped up, and those pieces sounded reasonably clear and distinctive. They lacked much breadth, though, and didn’t add much. A little background popping appeared at times, but otherwise the movie didn’t suffer from any source defects. I wouldn’t call this an impressive soundtrack, but given the constraints of the era and the genre, it worked fine.
- Colin Jacobson, DVD Movie Guide
Fox has provided a very nice array of extras for this release. The feature commentary is a standout and represents one of the best commentaries I’ve heard from the Studio Classics series. Christopher Mankiewicz, the director’s son, is joined by Cheryl Lower and Kenneth Geist, both of whom have written about Joseph Mankiewicz’s life and films. Although Geist appears to be reading his comments, he makes up for a lack of apparent spontaneity with enthusiasm and vivid language. The combined comments of these three speakers produce a commentary that is filled with perceptive analysis of the film, tasty morsels about its making, and welcome background on the major players. I learned a lot from this commentary; I was particularly interested to learn about Mankiewicz’s trouble with the censors and the way his screenplay mines both contemporary issues and his personal convictions (like his respect for teachers). It was also illuminating to learn more about the distinctive Mankiewicz touches in A Letter to Three Wives that make it “the first quintessential Mankiewicz film,” in Lower’s estimation. The commentators also discuss the ending to the film, which some have found ambiguous, and resolve this ambiguity. This is both an entertaining and informative commentary, definitely one of the highlights of the extras on this release.
The inclusion of the Biography episode on Linda Darnell is also a definite plus. Until watching this program I knew very little about this tragic beauty (and how sad it is that those two words so often appear together in the annals of Hollywood), and I found her story fascinating, if often saddening. It’s particularly appropriate for her biography to accompany this particular film since (as we learn from watching it) she and Mankiewicz had a special relationship—and also since her performance here is one of her best (of the Darnell films that I’ve seen, I think her work in this film is equaled only by her performance in the Preston Sturges black comedy Unfaithfully Yours).
The restoration comparison is one of the most helpful I’ve seen in the Studio Classics line, since it is accompanied by text that describes the elements used in the transfer and points out what each state of the restoration achieves. Thanks to the text, we know fully what we’re looking at in each split-screen demonstration. On the topic of restoration, it’s a pity that the sound for the film’s theatrical trailer doesn’t seem to have received one; although the trailer is in good shape visually, the audio is poor. This is a particular shame since the trailer cleverly uses voiceovers by Addie, just as does the film. The Movietone News footage of the Oscar ceremony that honored Mankiewicz’s writing and directing is of much better quality and boasts very clean picture and audio.
- Amanda DeWees, DVD Verdict
ABOUT JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZ
The following quotes are found on the TSPDT Director Profile page for Mankiewicz:
“People Will Talk (1951) is one of the most appropriate titles in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s filmography. The screen was mostly a vehicle for his literate, witty, and satirical screenplays. Although Mankiewicz’s films are dialogue-driven, they are not filmed plays. They have an elegant visual style, and many experiment with narrative form, being told from different points of view with an effective use of flashbacks.” - Ronald Bergan (Film – Eyewitness Companions, 2006)
“The cinema of Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a cinema of intelligence without inspiration. His best films – All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa – bear the signature of a genuine auteur…Mankiewicz’s cranky liberalism sometimes gets the better of him, particularly when he wrenches scenes out of their context to inveigh against the evils of farm subsidies (People Will Talk) and oil-depletion allowances (The Barefoot Contessa).” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Conflicts between the psychologically strong and powerful interest Mankiewicz. The inevitable downfall of at least one of those is usually caused by an ironic flaw in that individual’s makeup or strategy.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.” – Joseph L. Mankiewicz
The recent release in Paris of The Ghost and Mrs Muir, A Letter to Three Wives and House of Strangers suffices to to establish Joseph Mankiewicz as one of the most brilliant of American directors. I have no hesitation in placing him on the same level of importance as that held by Alberto Moravia in European literature.
- Jean-Luc Godard, from his first published review, on Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck, in the June 1950 Gazette du Cinema published by Eric Rohmer
Few of Joseph Mankiewicz’s contemporaries experimented so radically with narrative form. In The Barefoot Contessa, Mankiewicz (who wrote most of the films he directed) let a half-dozen voice-over narrators tell the Contessa’s story, included flashbacks within flashbacks, and even showed one event twice (the slapping scene in the restaurant) from two different points of view. Multiple narrators tell the story in All about Eve, too, and in the non-narrated framing story for that film, Mankiewicz uses slow motion to make it seem as if the elapsed time between the beginning of the film and the end is only a few seconds. For much of the film, The Quiet American also has a narrator, and he seems almost totally omniscient. Apparently, he looks back at events with a firm understanding of their development and of the motivation of the people involved. But in the end, we find out that the narrator was wrong about practically everything, and so gave us an inaccurate account of things. A Letter to Three Wives is made up, primarily, of several lengthy flashbacks, and hallucinogenic flashback sequences provide the payoff to the story in Mankiewicz’s adaption of the Tennessee Williams play Suddenly Last Summer. Mankiewicz’s films, then, stand out in part because of the way they tell their stories.
Perhaps because he began as a screenwriter, Mankiewicz has often been thought of as a scenarist first and a director only second. But not only was he an eloquent scriptwriter, he was also an elegant visual stylist whose talents as a director far exceeded his reputation. He is one of the few major American directors who was more appreciated during the early years of his career than during the later stages. He won consecutive Best Director Academy Awards in 1949 and 1950 (for A Letter to Three Wives and All about Eve), but after the 1963 disaster Cleopatra, Mankiewicz’s standing as a filmmaker declined rapidly.
—Eric Smoodin, Film Reference.com
Théatre du filmé was the genre he created and perfected in order to “approach human beings analytically…in depth.” This genre pays equal attention to the verbal, the visual, and the human, carefully crafting and interweaving all three elements in order to achieve maximum effect – both expressively and analytically. Most importantly, théatre du filmé is a self-conscious genre populated by self-conscious characters. Mankiewicz overlaid this personal genre on top of conventional genres popular at the time of filming. In this fashion, he arrived at his unique style of filmmaking: Mankiewicz movies do not look, sound, or speak like those of any other director.
Mankiewicz’s invention of this new genre has not always met with critical approval. In an article in Senses of Cinema in 2003, Tag Gallagher wrote:
Mankiewicz’s ideal film, whether as director or producer, was something I shall call a “photoplay” – a type of cinema that was less a “movie” than a filmed play, less a storyworld with characters than a document of actors acting the sort of acting for which self-conscious dialogue…and self-conscious mime are inevitable and endless. (2)
Mistaking Mankiewicz’s théatre du filmé movies for filmed plays is the most common error critics make. Mankiewicz needed to invent the genre of théatre du filmé in order for his type of storytelling to work. Movies emphasising characters’ autonomy require reflexive, self-aware performances from actors. Mankiewicz wants the audience to focus on the choices his characters make, and how these decisions determine everything that follows.
This concept of pivot moments underlies the structure of all Mankiewicz films. He builds his movies out of scenes that foreground characters making those decisions that will determine the actions that follow, where more choices will be presented and new decisions made. Autonomy is a paramount virtue in Mankiewicz’s world, and he investigates both its possibilities and its limitations. As a result, his films contain an abundance of dialogue as characters face up to, wrestle with, and finally choose among the options confronting them.
Since the first movies were made, filmmakers have taken advantage of the medium’s ability to capture the beauty of landscapes, and used the outdoors as both backdrop and character in their work. Mankiewicz with his théatre du filmé style, however, approaches film differently. While he may not have been interested in composing lyrical landscape shots, Mankiewicz did create sharply delineated, multilayered interior shots. It was serendipitous that he began his directing career at Twentieth Century-Fox where the house style – crisp, hard-edged photography – was well suited to his approach and intentions.
- Brian Dauth, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
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