Yesterday I watched Fox Home Video’s Bluray of Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s A Letter To Three Wives (’49), which I first saw…oh, sometime in my teens. Even in that early stage of aesthetic development I remember admiring the brilliant writing and especially the way it pays off.
Nominally it’s a woman’s drama about whose husband (Jeanne Crain‘s, Linda Darnell‘s or Ann Southern‘s) has run away with sophisticated socialite Addie Ross, who narrates the film from time to time (the voice belongs to Celeste Holm) but is never seen. But that’s just the story or the clothesline upon which Wives hangs its real agenda. For this is primarily an examination of social mores, values and ethics among middle-class marrieds of late 1940s America.
Over and over the film reminds you how long ago this was. Southern is fairly liberated in the sense that she’s the main breadwinner in her household; her husband, played by Kirk Douglas, is a more-or-less penniless schoolteacher. One of the film’s quaint highlights is Douglas’s cocktail party rant against the dishonest and vulgar hucksterism of commercial radio. This was a valid point, I’m sure, from Mankiewicz’s perspective 60-plus years ago, but if Joe could see the world now…
But I’d really forgotten how effective the ending is. It’s partly the surprise admission from Paul Douglas (as Darnell’s wealthy, somewhat crude businessman husband) that it was he and not Craine’s husband Brad (written by Mankiewicz as a bland and patronizing type, and certainly played that way by Jeffrey Lynn) who ran off with Addie. But what really got me is the final bit when Douglas and Darnell hit the dance floor and the camera drops down to the table and suddenly Addie is a spirit of some kind — a spectral force.
All through the film Addie has been the absent “other” and suddenly she’s a spook who tips over a champagne glass and breaks it. A metaphor for disappointment and defeat, sure, but I find it fascinating that Mankiewicz would shoot Wives as a thoroughly dialogue-driven, medium-interior, right-down-the-middle relationship drama and then, at the very last second, change the rules and turn it into Topper or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. That’s a surprise ending in spades.
Congratulations to Fox Home Video’s Schawn Belston and his restoration team for managing a superb upgrade of this classic. I’ve never seen it look so rich and clean and dynamically alive.