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Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Oscar-winning melodrama gets a high-def bump....
Fox / 103 Minutes / 1949 / Unrated / Street Date: September 17, 2013
Joseph L. Mankiewicz knew how to write for actresses.
Between A Letter for Three Wives and his outright classic, All About Eve, Mankiewicz and his various co-screenwriters were able to infuse their melodramatic heroines with enough chutzpah and elegant histrionics to inspire decades of Joan Crawford wannabes.
A Letter to Three Wives won two major Oscars in 1950 - Best Director and Best Screenplay - but regardless of its undisputed qualities, it stands in All About Eve's gigantic shadow. It's a fine film - actually, it's one of the most interesting formal experiments made in post-war Hollywood - but the truth of the matter is that whatever Mankiewicz does in A Letter to Three Wives he does better in All About Eve.
He gets great performances out of his three leads - Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern - but even though his genre-pushing storyline is more than enough to keep things moving, in watching A Letter to Three Wives today, it's obvious that it shows its age. The story is simple enough: A trio of dear friends get a letter saying that one of their husbands has run off with another woman in the past, and these three spend the rest of the day (the film covers only 24 hours in the lives of these ladies) trying to decide which one of them has the disloyal hubby.
And this, of course, allows Mankiewicz's bubbling dialogue for these women to take center stage and wow us with its simple, pseudo-bitchy pop. Douglas Sirk may have the patent on the grandiose, operatic plight of married women in trouble, and Michael Curtiz the secret to drawing a palpable, eerily endearing evil out of his more villainous female characters, but Mankiewicz knows how to have his women speak to one another.
The three women at the center of A Letter to Three Wives never completely let loose at one another - they're all created intelligently enough that their often simple lines of dialogue are loaded with reams of subtext, but don't come off as icy or frigid. These women don't punch or poke with their prodding words; they drop invisible torpedoes in the water and wait for them to strike their enemies (and, in this case, their friends). It's mesmerizing.