The marriage most in trouble, though, is that of Darnell and Paul Douglas. Their conversations consist of cruel digs and insinuations. Douglas is at least ten years older, and suspects his wife is a golddigger. Darnell, in return, believes that Douglas only married her for her looks.
All three couples are frenemies with the unseen and unattached Addie Ross, voiced by Celeste Holm. Ross is beautiful, fashionable, etc. and stokes the jealousy of the housewives. The husbands, in turn, are fascinated by Ross.
Just before the three housewives embark on a daylong do-gooder outing with a group of young children, they receive a letter addressed to all three from a gloating Ross. Ross boasts that she has left town with one of their husbands. She omits mention of which one. All three wives spend the way worried that their husband is the one who skipped town.
The supporting cast includes self-important matron Florence Bates as a radio executive always accompanied by her milquetoast husband Hobart Cavanaugh. Also, sassy Thelma Ritter as a maid, Darnell's hottie sister Barbara Lawrence, and Darnell's plainspoken mother Connie Gilchrist. Prior to her marriage to Paul Douglas, Darnell literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks, with their house shaken like an earthquake every time the train passed by. Which was often.
How others will see it. A Letter to Three Wives was apparently only a moderate box office hit, but it received critical acclaim. Joseph L. Mankiewicz won two Oscars, for best director and best screenplay. It was also nominated for the biggest prize of all, Best Picture, but interestingly, it received no acting nods, despite memorable performances by Darnell and Paul Douglas.
Today, the movie remains popular. This in part due to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose long life and successful career included such great films as All About Eve, Julius Caesar, and Sleuth. A star-studded cast (especially Kirk Douglas) further adds to the appeal.
At imdb.com, the user ratings are very high, especially among women over 45, who give it an 8.5 out of 10. Younger men give it a moderately lower rating, 7.4. The movie is technically a mystery, but it soon becomes fairly obvious who ran off with socialite Addie Ross. The script of Mankiewicz delves deep into character, such that the viewer identifies strongly with the actresses.
How I felt about it. A Letter to Three Wives is third-tier Mankiewicz, well below the standards set by his best three movies (listed above). It is also somewhat weaker than his good films, among which are The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Guys and Dolls, and The Quiet American.
The major handicap for the movie is the credibility of the characters. For example, why should Jeanne Crain have such a low self-image when she is a first-class beauty? Why should Kirk Douglas despise Sothern's soap opera gig when it pays the mortgage and allows him to work at a job he relishes? Why do Paul Douglas and Darnell exchange insults when neither obtains any pleasure from it?
But it is the very premise of the movie that is most suspect. Why would Ross write a letter to three wives within a hour after running off with one of their husbands? Out of malice? But if so, wouldn't she have more fun by remaining a flirt in town and making the wives fume with jealousy? When would she have time to write such a letter and see to its perfectly timed delivery? How would the husband react to the letter? He would feel used, since it would be obvious that the purpose of their affair is simply for Ross to flaunt in the faces of the wives.
Then again, why would one of the husbands run off with Ross? Paul Douglas and Jeffrey Lynn face costly divorces. Kirk Douglas would lose his prized teaching post. And how long would it be before Ross tires of her new acquisition? In retrospect, Paul Douglas has the best motive to leave. He's miserable as things are now.