Masters Of Cinema #114 - A Letter To Three Wives - Blu-ray Review

'The director at times works the mystery element to his favour, pleasingly keeping the identity of Addie's chosen husband indecipherable until the end of the final act'.

A product very much of its original 1940s release period, whilst also commenting on the universal issues that come with marriage and relationships in general, A Letter To Three Wives creates an intriguing mystery throughout its first act set-up. On the morning of a charity boat ride and picnic, the titular three wives - Deborah (Jeanne Crain), Lora Mae (Linda Darnell) and Rita (Ann Sothern) - receive a letter addressed to all of them from a fourth woman, the unseen Addie Ross (voiced by Celeste Holm). The letter states that, by the time they are reading it, Addie will have run away with one of their husbands, but neglects to tell them exactly whose. The trio then spend the rest of the day agonising to varying degrees as to whether their spouse is the unfaithful one.

It's a simple but effective framework upon which director Joseph L. Mankiewicz can build his film around. The director at times works the mystery element to his favour, pleasingly keeping the identity of Addie's chosen husband indecipherable until the end of the final act. Through the respective stories of Deborah, Lora Mae and Rita told in flashback, there are reasons to suspect all three men, as well as ample evidence to believe each of them would remain faithful.

Mankiewicz's assembled cast ensure the performances in A Letter To Three Wives are of consistently high quality. Whilst all six of the actors making up the central couples are strong, of particular note are Darnell, who manages to make Lora Mae an ambitious gold-digger and a dry-humoured likeable presence; and Kirk Douglas as Rita's husband George, who also provides a great line in witticisms whilst playing the mildly emasculated schoolteacher (Rita earns considerably more than him writing radio dramas) with effortless humility.

The film's structure - three extended flashbacks, one focused on each couple, bookended by an opening and closing act set in the present - garners mixed results. Each of the individual stories gives us some pleasing insight into the lives of each husband-and-wife pair, but at times feel too bogged down in domestic melodrama. The mystery introduced in the opening act is often pushed too far into the background to deliver the intrigue and excitement that were initially promised. The three flashbacks also feel too discretely told, and would have benefited from being intertwined more with each other. Deborah and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), for example, are entirely absent from the second and third flashback narratives, making their involvement in the concluding segment of the film feel somewhat stilted compared to the other two couples.

A Letter To Three Wives is entertaining, well made and solidly performed, whilst also giving some fascinating insight into what was important to middle class Americans hoping to climb the social ladder during the mid-20th Century. But it's also a film that lacks the narrative excitement and intrigue - something which its set-up almost certainly had the potential to more effectively engender - to make it genuinely memorable.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

A Letter To Three Wives is released in the UK on Monday 29th June 2015

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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