Whenever I start to watch an old movie, one that’s got all the credentials (winning Best Director and Best Screenplay with a nomination for Best Picture) but I hadn’t heard of from the mouth of another person, well I always get a little nervous in the beginning. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the writer/director of some of the very best films of the 40’s and 50’s (including personal favorite All About Eve (1950), made a little movie called A Letter to Three Wives (1949) wherein three wives, about to go off on an island day trip with a troop of kids, get a single, hand-delivered letter from a mutual friend, Addie Ross, who says that she’s run away with one of their husbands. It’s a premise heavy with potential and, coincidentally, the danger of high expectations. After all, what appealed to the tastes of post-war America don’t always translate to today. I need never have feared. Mankiewicz has now solidified himself as one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. It isn’t perfect, but it’s that good.
In this little town, just a few miles outside of the big city, there’s enough society to make things uncomfortable. There’s the country club, the social climbers, and tracks built to have right and wrong sides of. Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) is a native and he came home with a new wife, Deborah (Jeanne Crain). They’re close friends with the Phipps’, George (Kirk Douglas), a school teacher, and Rita (Ann Sothern), a writer for a radio program. Porter Hollingsworth (Paul Douglas), the big-box store owner, and his wife Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) make the clique a sextet. Oh, but there’s also Addie, Addie Ross who has style, sophistication, and the eyes of all the men. Deborah, Rita, Lora Mae, and Addie are all scheduled to help out with this day trip, but Addie never shows. In her place, a letter arrives telling the women that she’s run off with one of their husbands but doesn’t say which. Addie has a cruel streak as long as my arm and her little social bomb gives each woman pause to look back at their own relationships and what clues might shine a light on the mystery.
The film is structured thus: introduction, Deborah’s flashback, Rita’s flashback, Lora Mae’s flashback, and then the resolution. Very neat it is. Mankiewicz has a theatrical streak in form and content which accounted for my initial misgivings. But Mankiewicz has that other theatrical quality that shines through any structure and that’s his cleverness. You have to pay attention to the dialogue because it comes out quick and means a hell of a lot. And it’s absolutely hilarious. The best of it is in Linda Darnell’s flashback. Darnell can rush through the mundane lines, but when it comes to the character work, it’s astoundingly great acting and writing together. Boy did they put her flashback together. Perfection. Absolute perfection. And Thelma Ritter as the maid Sadie is a glorious touch. [Please go see Rear Window (1954) and Pickup on South Street (1953), you’ll be glad you did.]
It’s amazing that this film, with all of its accolades and undeniable quality, could be almost completely unknown to me. This movie is so good that they cut a whole wife, to be played by Anne Baxter (who was astronomically good in All About Eve), because it wasn’t a good enough segment. The only reason it was on my radar at all was that Mankiewicz had made it and I noticed it had a good score on IMDb. None of the lead actresses were known to me at all. In a way, that’s encouraging. Going through these lesser-known films creates the opportunity to share these discoveries with friends and, possibly, play a small role in immortalizing great work.
It’s weird to see a Blu Ray film in full screen. It ain’t sharp, but it’s clean. When it comes to older films, that’s really the best you can hope for. I’d like to think that people’s aversion to black and white has as much to do with the grainy, muffled prints they used to be subjected to on television as it does the quality of the film’s content. Now as we all slowly convert over to Blu-Ray, we expect more because we know what’s out there. I’m glad to know A Letter to Three Wives is out there and to have it in my collection.
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