Archive for A Letter to Three Wives

Soup’s on!

Posted in FILM with tags , , on June 19, 2015 by dcairns

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I have contributed an essay to this fine product. Since most commentary on Joseph L. Mankiewicz tends to focus on the witty dialogue and the performances, I’ve tried to concentrate on the visual and aural aspects of his work — he’s always praised as a master of talk, and rightly so, but there’s a tendency to underrate him as a true cinematic storyteller. Which is what he was.

You can buy the disc here —

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) [Masters of Cinema] Dual Format (DVD & Blu-ray)

The movie is a masterpiece, of course.

A Nice, Clean Girl in a Nice, Clean World

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2014 by dcairns

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The line “A nice, clean girl” &c is sneered — SNEERED! — by Richard Widmark at Linda Darnell in Joe Monkeybitch’s electrifying thriller / issues film NO WAY OUT. It’s a movie whose liberal good intentions are easy to mock, but which are played out mainly in exciting noir situations. Widmark’s racist is suitably pathetic, stupid and inadequate, but still a convincing threat by virtue of sheer vicious malevolence and the actor’s magnetism. It’s fashionable to say that Sidney Poitier, here in his first lead role (even if he’s billed fourth, AFTER the main title and in a clump of supporting schmoes) was cast in boring, squeaky clean parts for much of his career, but he’s no more virtuous than the average leading man of 1950. Perhaps a little too noble by Mankiewicz’s high standards, BUT —

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Widmark isn’t the only one who can sneer.

You also get Ossie Morris Davis and his sexy wife Ruby Dee and Mildred Joanne Smith and Dots Johnson and Amanda Randolph and Maude Simmons too — most of them uncredited, to be sure — I think whoever decided credits at Fox was not as progressive as the director — and because Mankiewicz and co-scribe Lesser Samuels (ACE IN THE HOLE) are good writers, they play a variety of interesting people. I don’t think it’s purely a desire to be progressive, I think it’s just the good writer’s desire to avoid boring stereotypes and give the audience an interesting experience with some interesting characters. Amanda Randolph pops up as a housekeeper and nearly walks of with the film.

Also interesting is Harry Bellaver as Widmark’s deaf-mute brother. The treatment of disability is not as progressive as the treatment of race, with Bellaver treated as a stooge by all and sundry — when the doctors want family permission to perform an autopsy on the third Biddle brother, nobody even considers asking him. One wishes he had a bit more independence as a character but I guess he’s relied on Widmark all his life. It’s kind of interesting to see a deaf racist in a film — we even get the sign-language equivalent of all the racist terms used so freely by Widmark’s venomous bigot — Bellaver presses his nose flat with one hand. An ironic sign, since Bellaver already has a squashed-flat neb that looks like the impact site of a putty meteor.

Darnell has one of the best roles she ever got — Mankiewicz gave her the very best in LETTER TO THREE WIVES — where she gets a tremendous range of stuff to do and a journey from slovenly tramp to well-meaning tart with a heart to racist stooge to class victim to heroine. Stephen McNally, billed ahead of Poitier, has the genuinely boring role as the nice head doctor, and the screenplay sensibly sidelines him as early as possible and omits him from the climax entirely. See The Knick for a stronger solution to the role of the head doctor dealing with his first black M.D. — boldly, the series puts the hero in the wrong.

T is for Las Tres Perfectas Casadas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville writes again, continuing his Alphabet of Mexican Melodrama ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

T is for Las tres perfectas casadas (Three Perfect Couples)

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At first glance, Las tres perfectas casadas looks like a Mexican rip-off of A Letter to Three Wives – adapted, of course, to the exigencies of a macho Latin culture. In the Joseph L Mankiewicz original from 1949, an unseen woman writes a letter to her three ‘dearest friends’ announcing that she has run off with one of their husbands. In this 1952 variant by Roberto Gavaldón, a notorious womaniser dies and leaves behind a confession to his three closest pals. Namely, that he has slept with not one but all of their wives.

The reasoning behind this switch is not far to seek. In most of Latin America at this time, it was considered only normal for a man to have adventures outside marriage. (Indeed, when one of the three husbands says he has never had any woman but his wife, the other two stare as if he’d grown an extra head!) A woman who deceived her husband, meanwhile, was viewed as something lower than a whore. A man might kill his wife for adultery – and be let off on the grounds that it was a ‘crime of passion’.

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But appearances, as we know, are deceiving. The scurrilous Don Juan in question turns out to be very much alive – and played, moreover, by Mexico’s greatest male star, Arturo de Cordóva. The feelings of the various ladies for this reprobate – dormant through years (or even decades) of flawless bourgeois respectability – now spring violently, nay, operatically into life. What started out as a light social comedy with serious subtexts now morphs, shockingly but seamlessly, into Gothic melodrama at its most floridly overripe. Just imagine A Letter to Three Wives turning, midway through, into Laura – only with all the sexes reversed.

Are you still with me? The signs, of course, are there from the start, provided we know how to look. The bourgeois dinner party that opens the film is shot and played like a high comedy by Cukor or Lubitsch. (This is a production so lavish that even the mirrors and the billiard tables get a separate mention in the credits.) Yet raging outside is a thunder-and-lightning storm so grandiose, you would swear the guests had come to reanimate the Frankenstein monster – not to celebrate 18 years of ‘perfect’ marriage. In fact, one of the ancestral portraits on the wall is a dead ringer for Mary Shelley. I would love dearly to imagine this is not an accident.

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As the mood of the film darkens – and Córdova turns up both alive and unrepentant – so, imperceptibly at first, does its visual style. Shadows lengthen, curtains billow and candles glow ominously amid the dark. We enter, before even know it, the world of Mexican noir as created by Gavaldón in earlier films. (See La diosa arrodillada, La otra and En la palma de tu mano for more proof.) Few other directors – or none, perhaps – could make this transition without chopping their film into awkward and disparate chunks. With its blatant disharmony of textures but its overarching unity of tone, Las tres perfectas casadas shows that Gavaldón was one of cinema’s greats.

As its multiples passions and conflicts grow more intense, the film narrows it focus, slowly but inexorably, to one of the three wives. In typically perverse fashion, this central figure is not Miroslava Stern – a huge Mexican star who, nonetheless, gets shunted off to the wings after a nicely poignant, tear-stained confession of her infidelity. The star of this movie (and what a star she is) is the Argentine actress Laura Hidalgo, a lady known throughout the 50s as ‘the Hedy Lamarr of South America’. The resemblance is indeed striking but – in all fairness – Hidalgo strikes me as a vastly more animated actress. Lamarr looked exquisite but often seemed on the verge of dozing off on camera. Hidalgo might pass as her energetic tomboy twin.

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Yet Hidalgo, like Lamarr, was Central European in origin. She was born as Pesea Faerman in Bessarabia, which was then a northern province of Romania. Her Jewish family emigrated to Argentina in 1929 when Pesea was two years old. (Wisely, in the light of future events.) Although she was one of Latin America’s biggest and most glamorous stars, Hidalgo – again, like Lamarr – never took her career that seriously. She quit acting in the late 50s and became a poet of some renown. Her most famous film is the 1953 Armiño negro (Black Ermine) where a boy nurtures an incestuous crush on his mother, only to find out she is a de luxe lady of the night.

But back to our main feature…Hidalgo, whose one-night fling with de Córdova leads her husband to doubt the paternity of their daughter, meets him in secret and demands that he set things to rights. Having convinced their entire circle (mistakenly) that he was dead, he must now face up to his duty and commit suicide for real. Naturally, he must leave behind a note insisting that his first confession was lie. A ridiculous ploy, you might think – but strangely convincing when it is argued with such force! With typically Byronic ennui, de Córdova admits that he is bored with life. He is more than happy comply…provided the lovely Hidalgo will pay him one last call.

Their final meeting á deux is an operatic love-death worthy of Tristan and Isolde – only shorter and vastly more entertaining. Hidalgo’s grand monologue sums up this movie and a multitude of other melodramas like it:

All water has mud at its depths – and all women have, at least

once, a monstrous dream. Waking, we try to root out that bad

dream. Torture ourselves as we reach for its roots. But what, in

the end, do the roots matter? If flowers smelled like their roots,

they would stink of manure. But their longing for beauty is so

much higher than that.

Only the very greatest – or the very worst – of actresses could recite such lines and get away with them. I’ll leave you to decide which.

David Melville

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