A Letter to Three Wives
A Letter to Three Wives was on my wish list for a long time, so I'm happy to have finally seen this one. It's a good premise, with an even better storytelling method: the titular letter is from Addie, the gal pal of the three wives, which says she's been having a secret affair with one of their husbands and she just ran off with him. The rest of the movie is like a whodunnit: through flashbacks, we get a closer look at the three marriages and how Addie figures into their lives, but get this - we never actually see her. To top it off, Addie is the one who narrates the movie!
Letter is another smart and lively drama about women and men from Joseph Mankiewicz. As such, I couldn't help comparing it to his masterpiece, All About Eve. The biggest difference is that Eve is way bitchier. There is no Addison DeWitt equivalent in Letter, for one thing. There are fewer betrayals and double-crosses. Most importantly, as capable as the three leads are overall - Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell - none of them are Bette.
That said, Letter has merits of its own. I remember Darnell from No Way Out (another Mankiewicz film) and Unfaithfully Yours, but she really stood out here. She married into wealth, a calculated decision on her part to lift herself and her family out of poverty. Her hubby, Paul Douglas, is totally hot for her, but she won't let him get at her unless he puts a ring on it, but once he does, that leads to other problems. Darnell goes from femme fatale to bickering housewife; hers may be the deepest of the three lead roles and she carries it off well.
Kirk Douglas was a star on the rise prior to Letter; I think it's safe to say audiences of the day were familiar with him by this point. He's Sothern's husband here, and his is a meaty role: a teacher who's made to feel inferior because Sothern, a radio show writer, makes more money, puts on airs for her patrons and expects him to do the same. He has a great speech about the evils of advertising that, with a few minor changes, could've been written yesterday.
There's also a bit of an anti-intellectual bias against him I found peculiar. It was as if being a teacher was a job that should be beneath him somehow (because he's a man, perhaps?), but because he takes pride in his work and is a little better educated than his friends (just a little; it's not like he's a Nobel Prize winner), his wife and friends look at him funny. It's not unlike the way Ronald Colman's character is regarded in The Talk of the Town. Different times.
I was least interested in Crain's character, a farmer's daughter turned naval officer who clearly loves her man, Jeffrey Lynn, but initially, she was freaking out about making a good impression on his friends when they first met. I couldn't quite buy it somehow; her problems seemed less urgent than those of the other two wives, and Crain didn't strike me as that strong an actor compared to Darnell and especially Kirk Douglas.
Without giving away who the mystery philanderer is, I will say the film does a fake-out at the end; you think it's one guy, but it turns out to be another. He then reveals he started to run away with Addie, but he changed his mind. This is where the film's gimmick broke down for me. I think we needed to see [SPOILER] with Addie at the end, to see him commit and then decide no, it's not worth leaving his wife. To have him say it after the fact wasn't quite enough to sell me. I suspect the desire to tie everything up neatly and have a happy ending got in the way of telling a stronger story. Regardless, I liked this movie.
A word about my girl Thelma. The more I see her in films like this, the more convinced I am that Hollywood did her a great injustice by not letting her become a leading lady. Seriously, friends and neighbors, can you doubt for one second her ability to carry an entire film based on what we see of her here, and in Eve, Rear Window, Pickup on South Street, etc.? I feel like a golden opportunity was lost. Still, what we got of her was superb.
Mankiewicz eases us into the flashbacks in a weird way: a line from the lead actresses is echoed and mixed with a sound effect to produce a peculiar, synthesized noise, not quite voice, not quite sound. I thought I imagined it at first, but it's definitely there, for all three flashback scenes. (Sound on Letter is credited to Roger Heman Sr. and Arthur von Kirbach.) I'm not sure how much it adds to the story - my inclination is to think it calls more attention to itself than perhaps it should - but from a filmmaking perspective, it's impressive for 1949.
Finally, as a New Yorker who remembers their 80s TV commercials with fondness, I got a chuckle out of hearing a radio ad for a company called "Crazy Eddie."