Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Vera Caspary
Based on a Novel by: John Klempner
Starring: Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: U
The romantic drama A Letter to Three Wives isn't the usual sort of film I'd volunteer to review. However, I'm a big fan of All About Eve, which is also written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, so I was intrigued and anything released as part of Eureka's Masters of Cinema series is worth a watch.
A Letter to Three Wives has quite a simple premise. Three friends, Deborah (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) and Rita (Ann Sothern) get a letter from a fourth 'friend' (the three are always bitching about her), Addie Ross, stating that she has run away with one of their husbands. She doesn't say which one however and, as the three are away at a children's picnic, they are left to grow increasingly more anxious about whether their husbands will be at home waiting for them. The rest of the film is largely made up of flashbacks, telling the wives' stories. All of them have suspicions about their husbands, who all had their own interests in Addie, and all three relationships are growing strained in different ways.
It's an interesting concept which is simple to describe, but paves the way for a rich and involving look at love and marriage. It's refreshing to see an adult drama surrounding women. It's well documented that films these days are far too male-centric. OK, so the stories here are about relationships with men so it might not pass the Bechdel test, but it makes a change from the typical damsel in distress or arm-candy roles too regularly dumped on women.
Although this suggests the film is ahead of its time, the film still feels a bit dated at times (plus I'd argue there were more female-led films back in the 40's than there are now). Some lines such as “women are so silly” are jarring and the three protagonists fit certain stereotypes – the innocent farmer's daughter out of her depth in polite society, the 'working girl' and the 'ice queen' bitch who's with her husband for his money. The characters are given room to expand upon these labels though.
Personally I felt more interested in one of the stories than the others too. Rita as the successful writer, earning more than her husband, stood out for me. For one, her character was stronger than the others, but I also felt Sothern's performance stood out. Plus, her husband is played by the great Kirk Douglas, who is always a thrill to watch. Their story had an interesting aspect about the worth of trashy radio shows too.
I was less interested in the other two women. The performances aren't as strong, with Crain coming across as a bit wooden (although she plays a decent drunk in one section) and Darnell slightly overplaying her seductress role. I think the main problem was that I generally didn't care much for their characters though. Deborah is a bit weak and useless (I found it hard to believe that she worked in the Navy) and Darnell is plain nasty most of the time.
However, the film remains engrossing. What helps keep you interested is the dialogue. Like in All About Eve, Mankiewicz keeps the script full of witticisms to give a comic edge to the fairly dark drama. These sharp lines never feel forced though, so the characters and relationships remain fairly believable. The fairly happy ending is maybe a bit neatly tied up, but it's pretty well handled.
Overall, it's a well written and enjoyable adult drama that never gets too melodramatic and presents a surprisingly natural portrayal of married life in various guises. It may feel a bit dated at times and perhaps the characters are a little stereotypical, but it's refreshing and interesting to see a straight up examination of relationships from the era, particularly one focusing on a female point of view.
A Letter to Three Wives is out now in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I watched the Blu-Ray and it looks and sounds great as is to be expected from the company. You get options of watching with the original soundtrack (mono I imagine), a 5.1 mix or with English SDH.
For special features you get a feature commentary by Mankiewicz biographer Kenneth Geist, film historian Cheryl Lower, and actor Christopher Mankiewicz, the director's son. There's also a Fox Movietone newsreel covering the Academy Awards ceremony as well as the usual trailer.
As usual with Eureka's releases, you also get a booklet included with the discs, which I didn't get a copy of this time, but I'm sure is jam packed with essays, stills and other such treats.