Best Movies by Farr: Masterful Joseph L. Mankiewicz

October 7, 2011 | John Farr

This Saturday, Reel 13 will air Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic, All About Eve, but before that,John Farr recommends you brush up on three of the master’s earlier works.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

As three female friends (Linda Crain, Jeanne Darnell, and Ann Sothern) head off on a day-long boating excursion with a school group, each receives the same letter from town flirt Addie Ross claiming she has absconded with one of their husbands. Each woman then has the day to spend wondering if it’s her man who’s missing. Their individual musings take the form of revealing flashbacks into their interconnected lives.

The legendary Joe Mankiewcz received direction and screenplay Oscars for this sharp little gem, too often eclipsed by his masterful follow-up, “All About Eve”. “Wives” uses a clever narrative device to explore the pettiness of small-town life, and the foibles and insecurities in three marriages, as the three women react to the mysterious note by taking stock of their lives, each knowing one of them is in for a big shock at day’s end. Intelligent, incisive, and adult romantic drama. Look for Kirk Douglas in an early role as one of the husbands.

House of Strangers (1949)

Self-made immigrant banker Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) treats three of his four employee sons like dirt, reserving his favor only for Max (Richard Conte), a lawyer. When Gino’s old ways of doing business run afoul of banking regulations, only Max tries to help him, and ends up doing jail time, while the other brothers wrest control of the bank from their broken dad. Once Max is sprung, his first instinct is revenge, but time and the love of a woman (Linda Hayward) make him reconsider.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s scorching tale of a destructive family vendetta is a stylish, well-conceived outing. Though screenplay credit went to Philip Yordan, Mankiewicz’s inspired touch is evident in the film’s tight pacing and sharp, flavorful script. Robinson is masterful as an Italian-American patriarch, and the under-appreciated Conte is also aces as a slick operator who’s not quite as tough as he seems. For a gritty noir you won’t forget, enter this House of Strangers.

No Way Out (1950)

Wounded mobster Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is brought to a police hospital along with his brother George (Harry Bellaver), where they are treated by Dr. Luther Brooks (Sydney Poitier), a talented black M.D. whom Ray heckles with racist diatribe. When George dies, Ray blames Dr. Brooks, and begins a campaign of hate that boils over into the city’s black community.

A tense, hard-hitting social drama that earned an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1950, Mankiewicz’s pioneering film looks squarely at the ramifications of racial hostility while keeping audiences on the edge of their seat. Poitier is magnificent in his debut role, the epitome of coolheadedness and quiet self-regard, while Widmark seethes in a typically explosive role. Mankiewicz builds suspense inside and outside the hospital, and the effect is riveting. Keep an eye out for actors/civil-rights activists Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, playing Luther’s brother and sister-in-law in a tandem debut. A potent powder keg of a film that hasn’t lost its bite–or its relevance.

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