A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz / U.S., 1949):

The title is from Balzac, and sure enough there's Joseph L. Mankiewicz serving up the prattle of blind wives and deaf husbands. Postwar suburbia and its fissures, the message from the subconscious arrives courtesy of the silky phantom-siren—a missive about infidelity delivered just as three friends float away from the phone booth. "I think it's laughable." "Okay. Laugh." "Ha." Whose rooster flew the coop? The returning Navy waif (Jeanne Crain) has an upper-crust sweetheart (Jeffrey Lynn) and farm-girl insecurities, the introduction to the social whirl finds her in a ripped mail-bride dress, gliding on martinis. The career woman (Ann Southern) freelances for the airwaves, soap operas ain't Brahms or so proclaims the schoolteacher she's wed (Kirk Douglas), "the literature of the masses" is the quandary. As for the wised-up belle literally from the wrong side of the tracks (Linda Darnell), the married state is but a negotiation of carnal merchandise with the truculent tycoon (Paul Douglas), or is it? "We're beginning to behave like some movie about a women's prison!" Between radio and teevee, cinema's sweet Mankiewicz spot: Voices in the plush proscenium, wrestling for class and correcting each other's grammar. The shapely construction advances from Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle, and allows for myriad pleasures. Darnell and Douglas like Harlow and Beery, delayed sex like railroad tremors running through a couple's embrace. The sedan cigarette-lighter and the silver-framed picture on the piano, the Philistine gorgon (Florence Bates) and the teetering champagne glass that shatters. A comedy of timbres—Thelma Ritter's proletarian rasp launching into "Auld Lang Syne," Celeste Holm's chilled honey as the unseen nemesis, even coastal winds and dripping faucets have their share of dialogue. "Tempo fugit. Right, professor?" "Almost." A pivotal work for Bergman (Kvinnors Väntan), Godard in Paris vu par... ("Montparnasse-Levallois") perhaps imagines the postal joke from another angle. With Connie Gilchrist, Barbara Lawrence, and Hobart Cavanaugh. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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