Category: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra (1963)

The biggest epic of them all – and one of the most infamous – is a mess but at times entertaining

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Roddy McDowell (Octavian), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), George Cole (Flavius), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Cesare Danova (Apollodorus), Kenneth Haigh (Brutus), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), Robert Stephens (Germanicus), Francesca Annis (Eiras), Isabelle Cooley (Charmian), Jacqui Chan (Lotos), Andrew Faulds (Canidius)

One of the most legendary epics of all time – for all the wrong reasons. Cleopatra is the mega-budget extravaganza that nearly sunk a studio, years in its shambolic, crisis-hit making that turned its stars into a celebrity brand that changed their lives forever. Painfully long, it’s a rambling, confused film that feels like something that was filmed before anyone had the faintest idea what the story they were trying to tell was. Then, just when you consider giving up on it, it will throw in a striking scene or intelligent performance and you’ll sit up and be entertained. Just never quite enough.

In its four hours it covers eighteen years. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Egypt after victory over his rival Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. There he quickly becomes enamoured with Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), the cunning, intelligent witty sister of bratty Pharoah Ptolemy XIII (Richard O‘Sullivan). Caesar takes Cleopatra’s side in the civil war for the Egyptian throne and takes her as a second wife, having a son (and potential heir) with her. Made dictator for life, he and Cleopatra return to Rome – where is assassinated. A friendless Cleopatra finds herself drawn towards Caesar’s deputy Mark Antony (Richard Burton), the two of them starting a passionate affair that will tear the Roman world apart and lead them into a civil war against Caesar’s politically astute but coldly realpolitik nephew (and official heir) Octavian (Roddy McDowell).

Cleopatra’s shoot – and the hullabaloo of press interest around it – is almost more famous (and perhaps more interesting) than the film itself. After a long gestation, filming started in London under the direction of veteran Rouben Mamoulian, with Taylor on board (for a bank-busting fee) with Peter Finch as Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Antony. Then it all fell apart. Taylor caught meningitis in the cold conditions, nearly died and the film nearly collapsed. The script was rewritten (again), Mamoulian, Finch and Boyd all left. Joseph L Mankiewicz came on board to write and direct, London filming (and all the sets) was junked and production moved to Rome. This all took a year.

In Rome, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton joined the cast as shooting began again practically from scratch. The planning however had been so laborious that Mankiewicz hadn’t been able to finish the script. So, instead, he decided to start shooting what he had and write the rest as he went. Sets were built for unwritten scenes and money continued to pour down the drain. This also meant a huge amount of hanging around for all concerned, spare time Burton and Taylor used to start a tabloid-filling affair which became the talk of the world. After nearly two years of filming, the studio ended up with millions of feet of film, a feud over whether to release two films or one long one and no-one with any real idea why they had made the film in the first place.

And God you can tell watching it. Cleopatra is an over-extended, rather unfocused mess that feels like the compromise product it is. What is this film trying to say? No one seems to know, least of all Mankiewicz. Is this an elegy to the loss of the Roman republic? Hardly when Caesar is presented as sympathetically as he is. Was the film looking to explore Antony and Cleopatra as tragic lovers or deluded would-be emperor builders? God alone knows. Is Cleopatra a temptress or a genius, a chancer or a political genius? No idea. Her infinite variety here is basically to be whatever the scene requires at the time, all wrapped up in Taylor’s effortless charisma.

Mankiewicz’s script – presumably written and then filmed almost immediately in many cases – falls back onto what he was comfortable with. Dialogue scenes are frequently over-written and over-long, so intricately constructed it was impossible to cut them down and still have them make sense.  The man who rose to the height of his profession directing witty conversation pieces in rooms, tried to do the same with his three leads in these massive sets. Acres of screen time stretch out as combinations of three leads spout mountains of dialogue at each other, often to very little dramatic impact. To keep the pace up, the film is frequently forced to take huge time-jumps.

Empires rise and fall in the gaps between scenes, armies assemble and are defeated in the blink of an eye. At one point Caesar and Cleopatra find a murdered character in the garden – the impact rather lost on the audience as this character is never mentioned before or after this. Years fly by and characters swiftly report off-screen events of momentous import, from Antony’s marriage and peace with Octavian to Caesar’s victory over Ptolomy. Caesar himself is murdered – Kenneth Haigh leads a series of stalwart British character actors in glorified cameos – in a silent ‘vision’ witnessed by Cleopatra, that cuts to Antony’s briefly shouting (unheard) his funeral oration (this at least means we don’t need to hear cod-Shakespearean dialogue in either scene).

The other thing that couldn’t be cut was the film’s epic scale. Cleopatra’s entrance to Rome plays out nearly in real time, a never-ending procession of flights of fancy parading into the capital capped with Taylor’s cheeky grin at the end of it at Cleopatra’s panache. The battle of Actium looks impressive – with its boat clashes, flaming ships and colliding vessels – so much so that you almost regret we don’t get to see more of Pharsalus and Philippi than their aftermaths. The huge sets are striking, as are the legion of costumes Taylor has to change into virtually from scene to scene.

Of course, what people were – and always are – interested in is how much the fire off-stage between Burton and Taylor made it to the screen. I’ve honestly always felt, not much. Perhaps by this point both actors were too fed up and punch-drunk from the never-ending project. Perhaps they simply didn’t have any interest in the film. Burton falls back on grandstanding – he confessed he felt he only learned how to act on film from watching Taylor. Taylor is undeniably modern in every frame, but she somehow manages to hold a rather loosely defined character together, so much so that you forget she’s fundamentally miscast.

Of the leads Rex Harrison emerges best as an avuncular Caesar whose well-spoken wit hides an icy interior overflowing with ruthlessness and ambition. The film loses something when he departs just before the half-way mark. (It’s a mark, by the way, of the film’s confused structure that Burton only appears an hour into the film – and that for an inconsequential “plot update” chat with Caesar’s wife Calpurnia). There are decent turns from Cronyn as Cleopatra’ advisor, Pamela Brown as a Priestess, Andrew Faulds as a gruff Agrippa and even George Cole as Caesar’s trusted, mute servant. Best in show is probably Roddy McDowell’s ice cold Octavian – like a version of Harrison’s Caesar with all charm removed – who would have certainly been an Oscar nominated if the studio hadn’t screwed up his nomination papers.

Cleopatra still ended up with multiple Oscar nominations – even some wins – but took years to make back the money blown on it. At four hours, it bites off way more than it can chew and vey rarely comes together into a coherent shape. Scenes alternate between too short and way too long and three leads with very different acting styles struggle to make the best of it. You feel watching it actually sorry for Mankiewicz: it’s not really his fault, the scale of this thing would have sunk any director. Cleopatra has flashes of enjoyment, but much of it drags for the viewer as much as it did for those making it.

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

An enigmatic beauty finds fame but not happiness in Hollywood in Mankiewicz’ slightly muddled mix of satire, romance and tragedy

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas), Edmond O’Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini), Elizabeth Sellers (Jerry Dawes), Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards), Franco Interlenghi (Pedro Vargas)

Rain hammers down on a funeral in the Italian Rivera. A group of (mostly) men gather to pay their respects to deceased film star Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). In flashback, two of the men who discovered her as an exotic dancer in a Madrid nightclub, remember her. Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is the world-weary writer-director and her friend and mentor, Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) a publicist to power-mad producers and self-satisfied millionaires who wanted to use Maria for their own ends. Maria’s success goes with a growing loneliness and ennui: marriage to Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi) feels like a fresh start but leads only to further tragedy.

Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa was an attempt to do for Hollywood what he so superbly did for theatre in All About Eve. What’s fascinating is that it’s clear Mankiewicz loved the theatre – for all its bitchy acidness – but clearly didn’t like Hollywood that much. The Barefoot Contessa is a cold, cynical film where Hollywood is a shallow, selfish place with no loyalty and where people are only commodities.

The only exceptions are Dawes and Maria. Dawes – an obvious Mankiewicz stand-in (and who hasn’t wished they could be Humphrey Bogart?) – is an artist, with an abashed guilt about wasting his talents on shallow films. Played with a quiet, observational languor by Bogart (so ashen faced at times, he seems almost grey), Dawes narrates with a dry distance, seeing but avoiding involvement, an arched eyebrow for every event. He’s also got a level of principle and integrity largely missing from the other Hollywood figures.

What we see of them is often hard to like – could Mankiewicz already be so bitter about his profession, just a few years after dominating the Oscars? Maria’s first producer, Warren Stevens, is a spoilt millionaire (inspired by Howard Hughes), played with a stroppy greed by Kirk Edwards. Stevens humiliates underlings in restaurants, treats Dawes like a bellboy, demands total devotion from Maria (sulkily ordering her to stay away from a potential rival at a dinner party) and has not a shred of interest in art. Under his control, Dawes directs films which sound formulaic (Black Dawn!) and which he clearly despises. A screen-test for Maria is gate-crashed by a series of European producers who gossip about money, stars, finance and never art.

Maria rises above all this as a true romantic ideal, her tendency to go barefoot part of her defining characteristic as a natural free-spirit in touch with the Mother Nature (“I feel safe with my feet in the dirt”). Ava Gardner is perfectly cast as this romantic but enigmatic figure, an idealised figure we never quite understand. Introduced as curiously indifferent about auditioning for Hollywood (partly due to her instinctive dislike for Stevens), Maria almost drifts into stardom but finds little contentment. She lives the ultimate Cinderella story (as she comments on with Dawes) but never find a satisfying fairy tale ending after her rags-to-riches story.

The Barefoot Contessa starts as a Hollywood expose, but becomes an ill-focused study of this almost unknowable glamour figure. Gardner is, of course, nothing like what a Madrid dancer from the slums would look or act like, but she is perfectly cast as the idealised figure Mankiewicz wants for his Maugham-ish exploration of ennui and shallowness among the jet-set of Europe. They’re not that different from Hollywood producers: obsessed with status and class, and uninterested in truth and art. Marius Goring’s Italian millionaire turns out (for all his Euro-charm) to be as much a stroppy ass as Stevens (humiliatingly blaming Maria for his gambling losses). Her husband, the Count, seems to be her salvation, but turns out to be as much a deceptive empty-suit as anyone else.

I suppose it’s part of the point that we never get to hear Maria’s own voice, only the perceptions of the men around her. You could say the same about All About Eve’s Eve and Margo, but they were such rich characters our understanding of them was always clear. But Maria is never quite compelling enough and Mankiewicz never escapes from making her feel a variation on a fantasy figure (between sex bomb and earth mother). Mankiewicz was forced to compromise on his central conceit (rather than gay, her husband is cursed with ludicrous war-wound induced impotency) of Maria marrying the man least suited to giving her the family-life purpose she seeks.

The Barefoot Contessa – strangely for a film from a director whose best work was with women – eventually becomes a film about men, fascinated with a woman they can never really understand. Dawes gets the closest, the only man free of sexual desire for her, but to the others she is often seen as an unobtainable sexual figure (on a yacht, she defiantly confronts the lecherous stares of the men on board). When we finally see her dance, she has a freedom and naturalness you feel has been crushed by the circles she now moves in.

It feels like two films pushed together: one a Hollywood expose about a newly-grown star (that film is a broader, farcical one where Edmond O’Brien’s hammy Oscar-winning turn as a wild-eyed, famously sweaty publicist seems to fit); the other a novelistic musing on ennui in the moneyed jet-set classes, where an unobtainable woman is at last obtained by a man who can do nothing with her.

Mankiewicz’s weakness is not pulling these two narratives together into a coherent thematic whole. He himself was later critical of the films structure. It’s beautifully written of course – Mankiewicz is a master of theatrical pose – and Jack Cardiff’s technicolour beauty is outstanding. The Barefoot Contessa sits in the shadow, both of In a Lonely Place (Bogart’s vicious 1950 Hollywood expose) and films that loosely followed in its ennui-exploring footsteps, like La Dolce Vita. But it’s as if Mankiewicz got a bit lost (like Dawes) about what his intentions were in the first place.

All About Eve (1950)

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis become deadly rivals in All About Eve

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Thelma Ritter (Birdie), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Marilyn Monroe (Claudia Casswell)

At a theatre awards ceremony, a table of people watch Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) collect the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. She thanks them all effusively. They stare at her with mute loathing. I guess that’s show business. Mankiewicz’s biting and witty film boasts possibly one of the greatest scripts for the movies ever written, a biting expose of rivalries and backstage politics, that also manages to find a lot of warmth for its characters. Arch, but in its own strange way tender hearted and hopeful, its Mankiewciz’s greatest achievement.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a gifted actress and one of the leading lights of Broadway, as well as the on-stage muse of playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), close friends with his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and in love with her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merill). But Margo is just beginning to worry, now she has reached her forties, that her parts are drying up. Into her world arrives Eve (Anne Baxter), a besotted fan who swiftly becomes first her assistant then her understudy and eventual replacement. Despite her sweet exterior, Eve is fiercely ambitious determined to find fame and success – and only cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) seems to notice.

All About Eve cemented Mankiewicz as Hollywood’s go-to for high-brow literary entertainment. Which is odd when you think about it, because what makes All About Eve work – and enduringly popular – is that it’s a fantastically quotable soap, played with relish. It’s not a million miles away from a ten-part, cliff-hangers aplenty Netflix drama. But it stands out because of Mankiewicz’s craft – when you pen lines as cutting, acerbic, tender and true as those in All About Eve, is it any wonder that Hollywood sees you as the next Fitzgerald?

And the dialogue is sparkling, from start to finish. From a cuttingly dry opening voiceover from George Sander’s Addison DeWitt – beautifully delivered, crammed with cynicism, cattiness, pride and purring contempt (“Minor awards are for such as the writer and director since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it.”) that it sets the tone for a film where dialogue is king. Mankiewicz is not much of a visual stylist – only the final shot, a besotted fan starring into an endless series of mirrors – sticks in the mind, and his approach as a director is intensely theatrical, but it doesn’t matter when his dialogue sings.

All About Eve works as both a supremely entertaining peek behind the curtain and also a neat parable about ageing, change and relevance. Perhaps there are few better examples of the changing of the guard, than the impact of growing old on a woman in theatre: from girlfriend to mother, with hardly a role in between. It’s the change Margo is dreading. And as she grows too old for her leading lady roles, what has she actually to show for it? Not much in the way of family or happiness.

If Eve looked closer, perhaps she’d wonder if it was worth it. As Margo makes clear in her dressing room and at a party thrown for Bill, she’s not got much to look forward to. (It’s not often commented on that the film’s most famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night”, is followed by an evening of Margo’s maudlin self-pity). For all her glamour and fame, it’s clear Margo is unhappy: “So many people know me. I wish I did” she says at one point, and for all the whirlwind of her life, she’s not exactly over-burdened by close friends.

It’s easy to forget, because All About Eve is so well known for being a bitchfest – and Mankiewicz’s cutting one-liners are genius – that you forget its lead is a sad and lonely figure, and the film presents a conservative view of motherhood being a crucial role for a woman. We don’t automatically remember this speech’ but it’s crucial for Margo: “There’s one career all females have in common – whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed – and there he is.”

Margo is the signature part for Bette Davis, but memory has distorted it. You can expect it to be a parade of sharply barbed attacks, but it is much more than this. Yes, she does these with aplomb (“I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be”), but under the regal grande dame, there is a rather vulnerable woman, scared about where her life is going and terrified of being unloved. For all the Davis fireworks, it’s an affecting – and perhaps this is why it became such a gay icon, during those years of people forced into the closet –vulnerable and lonely performance.

That vulnerability contributes to the sense of vampire story. Eve arrives in the dead of night, inveigles her way into Margo’s life and then slowly takes that life over. Eve is almost draining Margo’s life force, leaving her even more aware of the lonely impact of her choices. There’s the suggestion of sexual obsession in Eve – standing on stage, holding Margo’s costume in front of her and imagining the applause, Eve seems as much besotted with Margo as she does with becoming her. And of course Eve is a unknowable fake. Anne Baxter’s gentle, butter-wouldn’t-melt sweetness is just the right side of phoney. Only Thelma Ritter’s (very funny) bitchy dresser detects dictates her invented backstory about a deceased husband is baloney (“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”).

Later Birdie will comment Eve is studying to become Margo – and that’s spot on. As Eve moves further up the ladder, Baxter drops her gentleness and becomes increasingly steely. “A contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition – and talent. We deserve each other” Addison will tell her – and he’s spot on. Eve’s driving motivation is ambition, and anyone is fair game if it will help her move up the greasy ladder of theatrical success.

Eve uses everyone. She manipulates Karen into making Margo missing a performance – then invites the press in advance to her performance, which is met with raves. Afterwards Eve gives an interview in which she lacerates Margo as a bitter has-been holding her back. It’s enough for Karen – and Celeste Holm is very good as this gently supportive woman, with the firmest principles of anyone on show here – but the men can’t let go. It takes an attempted seduction to drive away Bill, but the weaker Lloyd seems to be sucked into her web (the film is coy about the implied affair). It should be clear that Eve is a force draining energy out of everything she can, determined to get to the top.

And we know she gets there: after all we’ve seen her win the Sarah Siddons prize! But Eve has none of Margo’s soul. The film ends with her meeting the even more vainly empty Phoebe, who Addison immediately recognises is intent on the same scheme as Eve was. And so, the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. Eve has learnt everything from Margo, except how to be a human: she has all her technique and none of her heart. The film even manages to feel a bit sorry for her – a woman who has achieved everything she wants, and finds it makes her neither happy nor popular.

It’s the heart of Mankiewicz’s film, perhaps even its warning message. What is the point of all this greatness, if all you have to show for it are false-friendships with poisonous pals like Addison? It’s the moral message behind a film filled with one-liners and wonderful speeches, a masterclass in theatrical writing for cinema. Bette Davis is superb, funny and heartfelt. Baxter is quietly terrifying. Ritter and Holm are superb and Sanders is so well case in this role, you wonder if Mankiewicz somehow invented him specially for it. All About Eve may be grand, soapy entertainment – but soap has never been smarter than this.

Julius Caesar (1953)

Mason and Gielgud confront Brando in Hollywood’s faithful Shakespeare adaptation Julius Caesar

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Marlon Brando (Mark Antony), James Mason (Brutus), John Gielgud (Cassius), Louis Calhern (Julius Caesar), Edmond O’Brien (Casca), Greer Garson (Calpurnia), Deborah Kerr (Portia), George Macready (Marullus), Michael Pate (Flavius), John Hoyt (Decimus Brutus), Douglass Watson (Octavius)

Hollywood has always been in awe of Shakespeare. For large chunks of Hollywood’s Golden Age, it was felt the Bard’s mighty words could only be performed in a certain way by certain actors and that it somehow besmirched the Bard to put him on celluloid. It’s partly why there are few truly radical productions of Shakespeare on screen. By 1953 Orson Welles had directed inventive, challenging productions of Macbeth and Othello that reworked Shakespeare for cinematic effect, but these had been met by horror by some critics (‘how dare he change things!’). Julius Caesar fit the mould in many ways for how Hollywood felt Shakespeare should be done – traditionally, respectfully and by a cast of trained theatre actors. Then they threw in a curve ball by casting Brando as Mark Antony.

It’s hard now to really understand the hesitancy (and outright snobbery) from many about the very idea of Brando doing Shakespeare. This was the mumbling Stanislavsky-trained star of Streetcar, the earthy, T-shirt wearing slab of muscle that yelled “Stella!” – who on Earth did he think he was? Shakespeare is for plummy accents, focused on poetry. Brando took a huge risk taking this role on. But, today, his performance feels fresh, vivid and in many places strikingly modern.

Brando bought a more relaxed, natural style – and, yes he also affected a slightly plummy Brit accent – and bought a emotional realism to the most exhibitionist of Shakespeare’s great roles. (Let’s not forget, most of Antony’s part is a massive public speech). Brando creates an Antony who is passionate, loyal, committed – but also cunning, manipulative and very aware of the effect he is attempting to generate in that famous speech. He delivers the speech with aplomb, but concentrated as much on the emotion of what he was saying as the poetry of how he said it. It makes for an excellent marriage between two different styles of theatre, and Brando’s powerhouse delivery (Oscar nominated) carries real energy and dynamism.

It sits within a very traditional production, carefully shepparded to the screen by Joseph L Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz was a two-time Oscar winner for Best Director – but his reputation was largely formed on his mastery with dialogue and actors, rather than any visual sensibility. Julius Caesar is intelligently and faithfully bought to the screen – albeit with little cinematic flourish – shot with a moody black-and-white (designed to ape news-real footage and add further dramatic urgency to the action) on sets that were leftover at the studio from Quo Vadis. (Some of the busts are hilariously out of place – pretty sure Brutus has a bust of the Emperor Hadrian in his home, quite something seeing as he died 160 years before Hadrian was born.)

Mankiewicz by and large lets the play speak for itself.  What Shakespeare wrote, he largely says, and there is little in the way of message in a play that has been reversioned to almost any oppressive regime you can imagine. A few flourishes diverge from the text. He radically simplifies Acts 4 and 5 of the play (particularly the Battle of Philippi and the consecutive suicides of Brutus and Cassius), reducing these down to little more than half an hour. Wisely he focuses on the more dramatic Acts 1-3. The scheming is tense and moody, the assassination swift and brutal. The crowd scenes in Rome bustle with an immediacy and vibrancy – the camera often sits among the plebians during the speeches, encouraging us to share their feelings and reactions to the speeches. Antony is made a calculating and cunning figure – consciously waiting for certain reactions: he even, in one directorial flourish, enters bearing Caesar’s corpse during Brutus oration.

Mankiewicz’s main strength is in working with actors. Although Brando claimed the plaudits, the play is actually centred around Brutus, the intellectual of good intentions drawn into a conspiracy for the best intentions who finds principles and coups make for impossible bedfellows. The film’s finest performance is from the simply superb Mason, who was born to play tortured decent patricians like this and creates a Brutus stuffed with doubt, pride, arrogance, uncertainty and a little touch of fear. His patrician voice is perfect for this “most honourable of all the Romans”, and he sets about murder as the deeply unpleasant task it is, guided by his assumption that he-knows-best. The little moments are brilliantly done: from his petrified nerves at the assassination to his pious sermons on morality to Cassius to his tenderness and care for his wife and servants. It’s a wonderful performance.

To complement him, Mankiewicz recruited one of the greatest Shakespearean actors living as Cassius. Gielgud hadn’t done a film for over ten years (he always felt the cinema to be a minor art), and Julius Caesar was the only opportunity he had to capture one of his great Shakespearean performances on film until Prospero’s Books nearly 40 years later. It’s fascinating to watch a film where the old school (in Gielgud) and new school of acting (in Brando), both bring their own approaches to Shakespeare. This is Gielgud’s finest Shakespearean performance on camera – he must surely have learned more about acting on camera from Mason and Brando – the first time his style moved away from ‘singing the verse’ towards something more emotional, his Cassius a bitter, manipulative man who starts the film holding all the cards and ends up with none of them.

Watching these three powerhouse performers work is a treat – and also to see their styles merging and playing off each other. Mason is the perfect fusion of the realism of Brando and theatricality of Gielgud. Brando learned huge amounts from Gielgud, frequently consulting him on delivery. Gielgud surely took as much from Brando on adding greater emotion and realism into his screen performances, shirking the declamatory style that often makes him grand but unconnectable. The other actors around them offer versions of these styles: O’Brien stands out best as a shrewd and cunning Casca, Calhern tries a little too hard to be grand as Caesar, Kerr and Garson are a bit too theatrical in thankless parts as “the wives”.

Julius Caesar as a whole though is a lean, pacey and intelligent staging of the play, directed unobtrusively but professionally, very well acted by the cast. While Mankiewicz does nothing radical here – look at Orson Welles Othello and there you’ll see how the language of cinema can add a whole new perspective to Shakespeare, in a way this film never does. But while not radical, it focuses on story and character really well. The set-piece moments – the speeches, the murder, the plotting – are staged with urgency, energy and drama. Mainstream Hollywood still wasn’t ready for radical reworking of Shakespeare (this got lots of Oscar noms, Welles Othello was a flop), still seeing him as someone best cast in marble – but with Julius Caesar Hollywood took baby steps towards suggesting there could be a different future.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern and Jeanne Crain read over the eponymous Letter to Three Wives

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Cast: Jeanne Crain (Deborah Bishop), Linda Darnell (Lora Mae Hollingsway), Ann Sothern (Rita Phipps), Jeffrey Lynn (Brad Bishop), Paul Douglas (Porter Hollingsway), Kirk Douglas (George Phipps), Thelma Ritter (Sadie), Barbara Lawrence (Babe Finney), Connie Gilchrist (Ruby Finney), Florence Bates (Mrs Manleigh), Hobart Cavanaugh (Mr Manleigh), Celeste Holm (voice of Addie Ross)

It’s strange to think that, back in 1949, this slight story of three women one of whose husbands might have run off with another woman (the film’s narrator, the omnipresent Addie Ross, coolly voiced by Celeste Holm) was garlanded with multiple Oscars. It’s the sort of material you half expect would make an episode of Desperate Housewives– although of course today the whole thing would have been sorted out in a few minutes with mobile phones (A WhatsApp to Three Wives?). What makes it work so well is Mankiewicz’s dialogue, which lifts this slight melodrama of suburban couples into something that feels like it has more weight and intelligence than it really does.

Anyway, our wives are a mixed bag living in a commuter town “just outside the city”, all from middle-class or lower upper-class backgrounds. Seconds before taking some underprivileged children for a boat trip and picnic, insecure Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), blowsy Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and ambitious Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) receive a goodbye letter from their “friend” Addie Ross, who announces she has left town with one of their husbands. But which one? Is it Addie’s ex-boyfriend, privileged Brad Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn), her school-yard sweetheart, academic George (Kirk Douglas), or her admirer, businessman Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas)? As the poster says, “While they wondered, one of them wandered”!

If that sounds to you like a rather small-scale storm in a teacup – well you’d probably be right. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to care which of these husbands might have headed into the sunset with the arch Addie Ross, since most of the characters seem at first rather smug, self-centred or tiresome. It takes time to warm up to these guys, but eventually Mankiewicz’s sparkling dialogue starts to work some magic and you invest in a clichéd little story (based, bizarrely, on a glassy magazine short story).

At one point the film was entitled A Letter to Four Wives – until studio executives decided that was one too many (bad news for Anne Baxter who had been cast as the final wife). That speaks to the episodic nature of the film. It has a clear five act structure – the set up, an act establishing the backgrounds of each of the marriages, and a final act that reveals who went where and wrapping the plot up. It’s a simple structure, and today it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.

Mankiewicz’s framing device for his flashbacks may be a bit contrived, but he puts it together with skill. Each flashback is cleverly introduced with an intriguing device where various mechanical items near the women slowly take on a voice of their own, echoing their inner dread back to them. It sounds a bit odd – and it is at first – but it sort of works as an unsettling reflection of the unease of the central characters.

Once we get into the flashbacks themselves they are a mixed bag. The weakest by far is the first, focusing on Jeannie Crain’s Deborah Bishop. Rather plodding and dated – and forced to also introduce all the characters – it’s a shapeless section of reflection in which Deborah comes across unengaging, sulky, insecure and tiresome. Mind you that’s as nothing compared to her husband Brad, played with utter forgettability by Jeffrey Lynn, who is nothing more than a self-important idiot. Frankly, you end up thinking Deborah might be better off without him. The sequence focuses on the possibility that Brad might think Deborah is a little beneath him – compared to his old love Addie – but basically serves as a teaser for the next two flashbacks and an intro to the more interesting couples we are going to spend time with.

Our second sequence offers several comic highlights as it follows Ann Southern and Kirk Douglas (both very good) as the Phipps, middle-class intellectuals. George is an academic, Rita a writer for radio soaps, and the flashback revolves around their dinner party for Rita’s bosses, two radio-and-advert obsessed moneybags who demand the meal is interrupted so they can listen to episodes of assorted radio shows (accompanied by a long discussion of their advertising slots). Plenty of comic mileage comes out of George’s irritation at their vulgarity, but also serves to demonstrate the tensions in the Phipps marriage – George believes his wife is wasting her talent, Rita thinks her husband isn’t taking her career seriously. But underneath that is a nice little commentary on the insecurity of men returning from the war to find their wives have made professional lives of their own – and in this case, even become the main breadwinner in the household.

Our final flashback is probably the finest, around white-goods factory owner Porter Hollingsway (a bombastic Paul Douglas, with a touch of self-loathing) and his secretary turned wife Lora Mae (Linda Darnell, brassy self-confidence hiding vulnerability). Largely set in Lora Mae’s family home, a house on the wrong end of the tracks which hilariously has a train track running past its window (which at frequent occurrences leads to the whole house shaking, an action the family responds to with a casual familiarity). The drama here revolves around the couple’s feelings for each other – Porter can’t believe Lora Mae isn’t a gold digger, Lora Mae can’t believe her husband genuinely loves her for herself – but it’s told with a real sense of comic vibe laced with emotional truth. It’s the finest – and funniest – sequence and leads to a pay-off that really works.

A Letter to Three Wives maybe a little too soapy and frothy to be much more than an entertainment, but it is at least a very entertaining one. At all times this is due to Mankiewicz’s witty, sparkling and truthful dialogue that hums in every scene and gives all the actors some of the best opportunities of their career. Linda Darnell in particular is outstanding – warm, witty, fragile – but each wife has her moments, and Kirk Douglas is charm itself as George with Paul Douglas’ fragility under the surface eventually quite moving despite his bullying exterior. There is also fine support from Thelma Ritter among others. It’s a fine film, handsomely mounted and offers more than enough laugh-out-loud moments and moments of sweetness to make it really work.