Most of the letters Judge Daryl Loomis sends come back "Return to Sender."
"You see, girls, I've run off with one of your husbands."—Addie
When you look down the list of the films of Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve), there is one thing that consistently stands out: women in prominent and strong leading roles. In an industry that, both then and now, marginalizes actresses and the roles they play, forcing them into a virgin/whore dichotomy, Mankiewicz showcased their talents and created some of the most memorable female characters in film history. A Letter to Three Wives is an early example, but also a great one. It highlights three of the best actresses of their generation, draws a compelling mystery out of a high comic story, and is just a plain great film.
Facts of the Case
Just as they're about to shove off on a day cruise and weenie roast, three high-society best friends are delivered a strange message. It seems that a fourth friend is not only leaving town, but is taking one of their husbands with her as a souvenir of her time with them. The trouble is that she doesn't reveal which of their spouses she's snatched. Now, as the picnic commences, each one takes a trip down memory lane to when their relationships were new to see whether they can figure out which of them will come home that night as a jilted wife.
Addie Ross (voiced by Celeste Holm, High Society) only appears in A Letter to Three Wives as an arm on a balcony in one of the flashbacks. Otherwise, she is an invisible antagonist, sowing seeds of doubt into the heads of three women who had none before. Their marriages are of varying happiness and stability, but none of them had a clue that there was even a chance of this happening. In about fifty words, Addie Ross changes all of that.
So let's meet our three women. First, we have Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain, Leave Her to Heaven), the new bride of Brad (Jeffrey Lynn, The Roaring Twenties), whom she met while serving in the Navy. She's a simple person with no connection to the high society life she's about to lead. She's scared to death that she'll be an embarrassment to Brad at the big party where her flashback takes place, especially because Addie, his beautiful and sophisticated ex, will be there and all she has is an ugly mail-order dress she ordered seven years ago. Chance that Brad is the adulterer (before seeing the ending): high.
Next up is Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern, Lady in a Cage), a writer of radio dramas and the loving wife of her teacher husband, George (Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory). She's very secure in herself and her marriage, but when she brings her bosses over for a dinner party, who are little more than petty advertisers, she realizes that her sniveling desire to keep her job has caused George to lose all respect for her. With his own personal history with Addie, her security about all of this has been shaken. Chances that George leaves: low.
Finally, we have Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell, My Darling Clementine, wife of appliance store maven, Porter (Paul Douglas, Joe MacBeth). From the wrong side of the tracks but upwardly mobile, she worked at Porter's shop until he asked her out on a date. Back at his mansion, she sees Addie's picture in a gorgeous silver frame. Immediately, she decides she wants to be in that frame and uses all her powers to manipulate him into marrying her. She's successful but, three years later, this is a loveless marriage that she's only in for the money. The thought of him leaving doesn't really bother her, since she'll get all his money if he does. Chances of Porter cutting out: medium.
Along with these three stories, in which the other characters enter to varying degrees, we have the framing story that introduces us to the characters and complete the mystery. Mankiewicz executes the technique masterfully, delivering on both the mystery and the comedy. There are some very funny moments in the movie, including a few jokes that only got through censorship by some act of luck or influence, but few others could have pushed them through. It's a great screenplay, which he adapted himself from a magazine novel by John Klempner in Cosmopolitan.
The female characters are outstanding, with each representing a different facet of female anxiety brought on by the non-existent idea of the perfect woman, each of whom believe is lesser than she. However, by not actually appearing in the film, she is little more than an idea, a concept that magazines and movies have exploited forever to keep women believing they need to improve in order to "keep their man."
Speaking of men, where the women are sharply written with detailed characters, their husbands are stock stereotypes. One's a social mover, one's an intellectual, and one's a corporate rich guy; they really have no characters beyond that and, even though they could be stronger, more independent personas, they aren't what they stories are about. A Letter to Three Women is about the women solely and, in that, Mankiewicz's story is a masterwork.
It would be nothing without the performances, though. This trio of actresses, all very different in both their characters and in real life, are incredible and perform some of the best work of each of their careers. They're brilliant together, but each given their own vignette allows them to have an individual showcase to display their talents. Jeanne Crain and all her insecurity; Ann Sothern and her assuredness, all torn down by her decision to bow down to her gods; Linda Darnell, with her designs on the fortune, ripped apart by finally realizing that she can still love; they come together to make a trio of real and moving characters that resonate to this day.
The beauty on screen is amazing. The writing and direction is brilliant. The performances are out of this world. How this couldn't have won Best Picture, which it got nominated for, is bizarre (it lost to All the King's Men, so okay, but still). Rarely does a movie exhibit such mastery in every facet of the game, but A Letter to Three Wives most definitely does and it's an absolute pleasure to watch.
A Letter to Three Wives has been given a strong Blu-ray release from Fox. The 1.33:1/1080p full frame image looks fantastic, with a brilliantly clean print that has no noticeable defects at all. The grain structure looks great, black and white contrast is stark and solid, and the grey spectrum is exactly where it needs to be. The sound, while not all that dynamic, performs well. The 1.0 Master Audio mix sounds great throughout; the music and dialog are consistently clear and bright and, though there isn't the dynamic range of newer movies, it sounds very good. There's also a Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix added in for some reason, but it adds nothing.
Extras aren't as extensive as they could be, but still good for what they are. An audio commentary with writers Kenneth Geist and Cheryl Lower, along with Christopher Mankiewicz, son of the director, is good for information, but is a little stunted because each recorded their clips separately, and it sounds cobbled together. It's still interesting and informative, though. A Biography special on Linda Darnell continues, showing us the life and times of the troubled star in a shallow way that only Biography can deliver. Finally, newsreel footage shows us the stars of the heavily-nominated film at that year's Oscars ceremony. Maybe not the disc the movie deserves, but still a perfectly solid one.
At this point, A Letter to Three Wives may not be the most famous movie that Mankiewicz directed, but it's one of his very best. Brilliantly written and acted, with mystery and comedy in equal measure, it's as fun as it is smart. The Blu-ray might not be the spectacular release I would have hoped for, but if you like spectacular performances from spectacular actresses, A Letter to Three Wives is the movie for you. Highly recommended.
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