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Letter to Three Wives, A (Blu-ray Review)

7 Oct, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas.

The flip way to laud this dually honored, pre-All About Eve Oscar royalty from writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz is to note that this is the only time you’re ever going to see Kirk Douglas, seen here immediately pre-Champion, play a high school English teacher. But the movie is just too accomplished for cheap wiseacre-ness, and in same ways I even like it better than the more obviously imposing Eve because there’s more of an element of surprise here. Each of its three connected stories turns out to be better than the last, and by the time we get to the Linda Darnell-Paul Douglas masterpiece, a viewer can be forgiven for asking, “Is this movie really as good as I think?”

It is, though here are some oddities regarding its history. In a double whammy that duplicated his citations from the year’s Directors and Writers Guilds as well, Mankiewicz, who was never much of a visualist, took the direction Oscar here in addition to the more obviously merited one for screenplay — and these were the only two Oscars the movie won. The question is then begged how a movie that wins writing and direction honors can fail to be cited as the year’s best picture, an award that ended up going that year to Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men — which, to me, has always been an overrated movie in the Hollywood year of They Live By Night, The Heiress, Twelve O’Clock High, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and the list goes on. Wives, though, remains right up there — absolutely among the best of its kind. With the following year’s Eve, Mankiewicz became the only director outside of John Ford ever to win consecutive Oscars.

Delivering on what is essentially a plotting gimmick, the movie traces the Saturday afternoon gut-punches three suburban wives receive when they get a joint letter from a so-called friend (never seen, with the voice of Celeste Holm) informing them that she has run off with one of their unnamed husbands — setting off a trio of flashbacks to explain how any one of the men (though a couple of them more obvious suspects than the third) might credibly be the unfaithful party. The couples break down into Jeanne Crain and Jeffrey Lynn; Ann Sothern (never better) and Kirk Douglas; and then Darnell-Paul Douglas. Perennial starlet (and cult starlet) Barbara Lawrence puts a nice spin on her role as Darnell’s sis (fighting for the same bathroom literally on the wrong side of the tracks), and Thelma Ritter has some priceless comedy relief. It always amazes me that one of the latter’s six Oscar nominations (four of them consecutive) did not come here — or for Rear Window. And following his stage success in Born Yesterday, this was also the screen debut of onetime announcer Douglas (Paul, this is), who enjoyed a popular screen career for almost exactly a decade until he died of a heart attack at 52 just after completing a “Twilight Zone” episode (which was scrapped). He was also set to take what became Fred MacMurray’s role in The Apartment. No one has ever done comical gruffness better.

The Blu-ray essentially upgrades the standard Fox DVD, but the great “other” Arthur Miller shot Wives when he was a key go-to person for Fox’s biggest releases, and it gets a nice, if not staggering, boost in the superior format. One of the bonus inclusions is the “Biography” episode devoted to Darnell, another actress whose beauty sometimes the obscured the fact that she could really act. I once worked at a place that had terrible karma, health-wise, for a litany of ill-fortuned employees, and Darnell’s story (which included alcoholism before her horrible death in a fire) made me wonder what was going on at the studio when you factor in the sad stories of Gene Tierney and Carole Landis. But to wrap this on a happier note, note Wives opened in January of its year, which reminds us all that there was a time when important releases made for grown-ups weren’t exclusively shoved into the final six weeks of the calendar.

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