A Letter to Three Wives (1949) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
10Nov/170

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae stand at strained points with their husbands.  A letter from a mutual acquaintance, Addie Ross, arrives and informs the women she's taking one of their husbands and running off.  This prompts suspicion and reflection, as all three remember the hard times with difficult to love men.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs A Letter to Three Wives, with the screenplay written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Vera Caspary, and stars Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern.

A Letter to Three Wives has a mean streak as subtle as it is all-encompassing.  It starts playfully enough, with a lovely voiceover telling the audience what we're about to watch "might be fictitious" and any character resemblance "might be purely coincidental."  Barely a minute later, after director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's camera takes a jaunty float through town and comes to rest in front of a gorgeous home, the same woman teasing about the veracity of this tale says the home belongs to Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) - the man who gave her a first black eye and a first kiss.  The playful pretense continued, but I couldn't join in knowing what Brad was capable of, and if he's so genial the rest of the husbands deserved the same suspicion.

The tension I felt in this introduction sustained my interest and racked my nerves throughout the rest of A Letter to Three Wives.  I know that Brad's capable of violence, and with that knowledge I couldn't help but cast a suspicious eye on the rest of the men.  This suspicion grew uncomfortably real in George Phipps' introduction - first because George is played by Kirk Douglas, a man so comfortable dominating the screen it feels as though everyone else has to shirk back by default.  Second because he's trapped visually in a frame made from the car window, and as Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) speaks with him his energy grows to genial if somewhat menacing trapped in that space.

Kirk Douglas' George turns out to be the "nicest" of the three husbands, but he demands women in his audience to be receptive to him and must perform appreciation accordingly.

So that brings us to, aside from the voiceover information courtesy of Addie Ross (Celeste Holm), the unspoken subject of A Letter to Three Wives.  The titular wives - including Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) and Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) - are all vocally concerned with which one of their husbands may have run off with Addie.  In the meantime, the threat of violence builds in the background.  Watch the way Brad's face and eyes narrow to slits when dealing with pushback from Deborah.  He can't pay a straight compliment, cruelly interrogates her on every detail of her dress for the evening, and when she talks back that barely happy façade seems ready to explode in a moment that would teach Deborah what Addie knows.

Sad sack Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas) seems the outlier, but Mankiewicz's way of framing him is that Porter's just too tired to be as aggressive as George or Brad.  In one of several flashbacks, Porter takes Lora Mae's space insistently, leaning over to put his face within centimeters of hers.  When Lora Mae asks, "Which is the ash tray?" it's as much an excuse to smoke as it is to get this man to back off for a moment.  Lora Mae, like the other wives, has to resort to wit or decoration to make their lives palatable.

Poor Deborah is the worst off in this respect.  The only thing separating her from Brad is a wall of potted plants whose sad stems and lack of flowers indicate a lot of nervous plucking to avoid discussing their marriage.  The most stomach-dropping is in her flashback, where we see Brad's idea of welcoming decor is her military photo arranged on a long wood surface like a memorial service.  It might as well be, as Deborah is needled constantly to behave more like the never-seen (only heard) Addie.

All the wives are expected to perform like Addie, and the more troubling developments are at the intersection of their husbands' anger.  From the tight framing around George to the daggers of Brad's eyes, Mankiewicz's camera excellently captures the subtle way men try to exert power over a room.  Even a minor character like Mr. Manleigh (Hobart Cavanaugh) has impressed onto his wife his rage, never letting her words stand and having to have the last say himself, and in one great shot we see his reflection instead of Mrs. Manleigh's (Florence Bates) as she joins in a verbal sparring match with George.  Bless Sadie (Thelma Ritter) for being able to flip the script twice by deadpanning a dinner disruption, and later by staring down Porter with such a cold edge he grows visibly uncomfortable being seen the way he sees other women.

Past bleeds into present and echoes of unhappiness layer on the soundtrack in a ghoulish wail.

Everything I despise about Hollywood sexism is here in A Letter to Three Wives. The entitlement, potential for violence, men feeling emasculated by women who have even the tiniest bit of power over them, and bosses exercising control over the women under their employ.  In fact, the only bit that feels inaccurate is Lora Mae's "gold digging" as Sadie sizes Porter up just fine in their first meeting.  The nausea building inside me got a release in some ghostly transitions with overlapped dialogue so unsettling in its auditory affect I thought I was watching a horror film.

I suppose I was. It's hard to find much comfort in the patronizing way George reconciles with Rita, Brad dressing down Deborah, or Porter basically telling Lora Mae, "I could have and wanted to cheat but here I am."  The abuse from men is still there, evidenced by Porter's admission so that he can use what space he has to keep Lora Mae from leaving.  So when the glass cracks at the end it's like Mankiewicz nudging my ribs to let the tension go.  Or it's a warning - something or someone is bound to crack under the abuse from these men, and it may be one of the wives who learned what Addie did so long ago.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Screenplay written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Vera Caspary.
Starring Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Jeffrey Lynn, Paul Douglas, and Kirk Douglas.

Posted by Andrew

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