While the plot may have disconcerting whiffs of melodrama, the execution is thoroughly charming, due to endlessly engaging dialogue, wonderfully constructed characters, and meticulous narrative framing, in which details are revealed at precisely the right time to keep you guessing. We are introduced to the wives by none other than the infamous Addie Ross, whose omniscient narration gently mocks these mere mortals, but who, prudently, we never see. Ross remains an invisible succubus, with her claws ready to enclose upon any one of the husbands, apparent perfection as a reminder of each wife’s own, self-evident imperfections.
Each relationship is enjoyably different, with individual strains that resonate with emotional honesty. Deborah is concerned that Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) is ashamed of her humble origins; Rita worries that her successful writing career is emasculating schoolteacher George (the always superb Kirk Douglas); and Lora Mae bickers endlessly and bitterly with the significantly older Porter (Paul Douglas). The strategically placed flashbacks deepen our knowledge of each marriage, and so too grows empathy for each situation. For a film of only 103 minutes, all six central characters are impressively well-rounded, each with aspirations, fears and frustrations providing a web of potential infidelity without presenting inherently irreparable damage. Rather than paw through the evidence as one might an autopsy, instead the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with all involved, an altogether more difficult trick to pull off.
There is a gentle but powerful message of gender equality through A Letter to Three Wives. Despite the unseen presence of a classic ‘vamp’ femme fatale, there are hints of restrained feminism in the way that the wives never resort to petty bickering and, instead, pull together in solidarity. Ostensibly the happiest relationship by far belongs to Rita and George, due largely to their understanding of each other’s individuality and that a man’s worth does not amount to his financial standing, nor a woman’s to their demure domesticity. Lora Mae, meanwhile, enters her marriage as a strategic step from poverty to prosperity, but this too is presented non-judgementally as the playing of a rigged game, in which a woman’s place is dictated by her husband’s social standing.
Progressive but never preachy, A Letter to Three Wives has not aged a day in sixty-six years, bubbling with wit, nuance and generous heart. Mankiewicz deservedly won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay with this insightful exploration of the universal turbulence of romantic relationships.
Review by Peter Wood
[SRA value=”5″ type=”YN”]
A Letter to Three Wives is out in dual format edition on 29 June