Blu-ray Review: A Letter to Three Wives

Starring: Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Linda Darnell
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

letter-to-three-wives 1It’s hard now not to see shades of Desperate Housewives and the goings-on on Wisteria Lane in this sparkling comedy from the Joseph L. Mankiewicz. A trio of suburban housewives learn that disaster has struck and that one of their husbands has run off with their fellow suburbanite Addie Ross. But which husband?

Just like Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives has a flashback structure, a witty, sophisticated script and a keen understanding of the female psyche. Even before she starts stealing husbands, the glamorous, accomplished Addie – who also happens to be the film’s acidulous narrator – is a baleful presence to the other wives because she represents their menfolk’s ideal woman, from which they all fall short in one way or another, at least in their own minds.

In the film this is compounded by an awareness of the changing status of women, most obviously in the case of Rita (Ann Sothern), who, as a writer of radio soaps, earns more than her schoolteacher husband George (Kirk Douglas, belying his muscleman image by seeming thoroughly at home in this milieu) and who harbours social ambitions that her husband lacks. One of the comic highlights of the film is when Rita invites her philistine bosses to dinner, with, as George puts it, “all the pomp and hysteria usually reserved for coronations”.

But there are signs of changing times all around. The quiet Deborah (Jeanne Craine), who longs only to fit in, is the perhaps most revolutionary of them all, having served in the Navy during the war (a twist on the returning soldier motif that was a recurring theme of ’40s film noir).

This being a Mankiewicz movie, these issues emerge through effervescent dialogue and entrancing comic set-pieces. Arguably, the film could have done with a slightly more robust storyline, but why quibble when you can sit back and enjoy the various wise-cracking turns on show, especially the wonderful Thelma Ritter as Rita’s uncouth maid and cook (“Soup’s on!”)? 8/10

The glossy b/w cinematography has a lovely contrast and a wide spectrum of greys. letter-to-three-wives 2The exteriors look especially crisp and fresh, for example the shot of Lora Mae pulling up at the pier in her car and then standing there in her white coat. But there’s no shortage of detail in the interiors too – in the dinner party sequence, for instance, you can see very clearly the ribbed, sparkly fabric of Mae’s top. 9/10

Old newsreel of Mankiewicz collecting an Oscar. ~ Two radio adaptations of the film (ironic that these should even have been made, given the movie’s many jokes at the expense of the medium). ~ Scholarly audio commentary with Mankiewicz’s son Christopher, and film historians Kenneth Geist and Cheryl Power – this offers plenty of insights (especially from Lower) about the changes in American society reflected in the film, as well as background info about the cast. 7/10


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