A Letter to Three Wives (1949, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

After seeing and falling hard for All About Eve nearly a decade ago, I binged on the other Joseph L. Mankiewicz films available to me like I’ve done with no other director save Hitchcock and perhaps Wilder, and sadly this was probably the reason that I haven’t employed a similar viewing strategy since then. Each of the movies I spent time with was slightly less impressive than the last — in succession: No Way Out, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and House of Strangers — and none were on the level of the nearly perfect Eve. Before I ever even really had much concept of his writing or directing style, when I was reading about movies more than watching them, the film of his that I actually really wanted to see the most was this one, concerning just what it sounds like, a letter sent to a trio of friends by locally infamous seductress Addie Ross informing them that the author has run off with one of their husbands. God knows why she decided to pull such a bizarre stunt as making them spend a boat ride playing a guessing game, but anyway, it sounds interesting, right?

Well, it isn’t, really. A Letter to Three Wives just doesn’t feel very substantive — a great idea that ends up feeling like three tenuously connected stories that are neither sufficiently interesting on their own nor cumulatively impactful enough to justify the film’s existence. Its reputation as an unusual and artful production precedes it, but such platitudes are measured in the standards of both studio pictures in general and specifically Fox’s late ’40s prestige pictures, which tended to be a bit stagnant in the Zanuck period. The film’s just disappointing and not altogether bad, but any virtue is because of the great dialogue and direction in the individual vignettes. (Two of them, anyway.) The sheer passion and precision of Mankiewicz’s best work seems washed out in favor of flabby, tone-deaf dramatics that add up to an unsatisfying whole despite a few choice moments of real imagination and eccentricity (including but not limited to the guest appearance by a talking drainpipe, of which more to come).

The movie is, predictably, divided into thirds, each investigating one wife’s reasons to be suspicious that her husband has ditched her. The cast is game enough — the titular wives are enjoyably felt out by Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and especially Ann Sothern, each a distinctive and believable character even if they all unmistakably are figures of another era. The male cast is more problematic, with Paul Douglas a leeching bore and Jeffrey Lynn hulking and ridiculous, though Kirk Douglas does offer possibly his most restrained performance ever. The first third, focused on Crain’s besieged soldier’s wife, is a terrible attempt at class commentary, with the characters all too stagnant and perpetually in wait of something to happen. The remaining two sequences involve Thelma Ritter and are thus automatically superior. The second is the strongest easily, featuring good-ish commentary on commercialism, occupational ambition, and pretension (some real vitriol toward radio ads, too, in case you were curious to know what nerds were angry about in the late ’40s.), and Douglas and Sothern are actually a somewhat believable couple (though this makes the convoluted reasons for suspecting dirty tricks by Addie on Douglas’ character seem a bit poorly thought out). The third involves ins and outs of a poor family with a refrigartion-mogul bigshot; it feels the least complete but has some wisps of the reality inherent to a romance between a young woman and a much older man with, yet again, a class imbalance. Such interesting observations are mostly only evident in performance details, and the film tends to move on all too quickly, with little sense of depth or exploration.

The experience of seeing this film is, for all practical purposes, identical to watching old episodes of an anthology TV show, and for all the wit Mankiewicz has, he doesn’t do much with the material except a fascinating Blackmail-style experiment involving sound and consciousness, exemplifying the sort of thing people ought to do more often to take advantage of their medium, even if it’s quite jarring when a drainpipe starts chattering with a name, like you accidentally flipped the station to Twin Peaks. Mankiewicz too often seems like a director content with “photographs of people talking,” but we know from No Way Out and particularly The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that he’s full of excellent visual ideas, and it wouldn’t matter anyway if his characters all had as many interesting things to say as they do in Eve and only sporadically do here.

He does, anyway, do a reasonable job of capturing the personality of the offscreen Rebecca-like adulterer slash secret heroine, who has the film’s best moment in her resigned final word to us. The mood she exhibits there is not dissimilar to mine upon finishing the film, so I appreciated it. You end up longing for more information about Addie, as she seems a more intriguing figure that what’s usually happening on-camera. But even more than that, you wish that the enjoyable interaction between the three female leads took up as much time as the exhaustingly dull business about their husbands. Mankewicz really was exceptionally good at writing strong female characters, even if Jeanne Crain throws herself on the bed a few too many times. It’s telling that the most compelling moment here, regarding Sothern’s dispute with her boss, has so little to do with the mainline story. Letter is hardly an embarrassment, but it should have been better.

[With some small changes, originally posted in 2005.]

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