In the middle of one of the most dramatic periods of his life, Joseph L. Mankiewicz received a phone call from his celebrated older brother Herman, the co-writer of Citizen Kane. Herman greeted his brother with the question: “What do you and Andrew Johnson have in common?”

The Late George Apley

The Late George Apley

Think about this for a moment. Herman Mankiewicz was calling his brother, then the president of the Screen Directors Guild, to warn him that Cecil B. DeMille and his cronies were clandestinely visiting the homes of Guild members urging them to sign a recall petition against him. (During the Communist scare in 1950, DeMille and his loyalists wanted the Guild members to adopt a loyalty oath, about which Mankiewicz had shown insufficient enthusiasm; there was also the matter of DeMille using open rather than closed ballots for voting on the issue, which Mankiewicz strongly opposed.) At that volatile moment, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s name and career could have been in jeopardy, and American culture itself was being torn apart.

And Herman says: “What do you and Andrew Johnson have in common?” Here is an example of how life might be lived according to wit. Of course the answer is “impeachment,” but rather than directly commiserate with his brother, Herman felt compelled to speak in the manner of an Addison DeWitt—the Wildean critic played by George Sanders in All About Eve (50)—because he surely knew that little brother Joe would savor the quality of the repartee. On the one hand, one can see from this small anecdote (recounted by the filmmaker in Elia Kazan’s amazing autobiography) a glimmer of the erudite style that Herman knew his younger brother shared, a style Joe must surely have learned from his sibling. On the other hand, Herman’s bon mot suggests a kind of monstrous elegance, a cold-blooded appreciation of style above the petty human concerns of the moment.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz came to Hollywood as a very young man at Herman’s behest, and his increasingly jaundiced opinion of the business suggests he never forgave his brother for the invitation. He worked years before moving into the director’s chair, first as a Paramount writer—working on comedies more slapstick than sophisticated, plus the surreal classic Million Dollar Legs (32)—then as a writer-producer at MGM, where he had a great deal of input into projects such as Fury (36), Three Comrades (38), and The Philadelphia Story (40).

A Letter to Three Wives

A Letter to Three Wives

When people speak of Mankiewicz the director, they emphasize wordplay and urbanity. He was interested in high culture, psychoanalysis, modernity—the first two favorably, the latter queasily. There’s almost always some lacerating quip about television in his non-period pictures, epitomized by Addison DeWitt’s “That’s all television is, my dear—nothing but auditions.” If A Letter to Three Wives (49) had been made a few years later, the hilarious sequence of moronic radio dramas taking over a dinner party would’ve been aimed at TV.

The traditional knock against Mankiewicz is that he’s a word man to a fault, lacking visual evocation or rhythmic syncopation. Andrew Sarris found his technique “pedestrian,” and when Pauline Kael gave credit to cinematographer Robert Krasker on The Quiet American (58), she had to add, “which may explain why this Mankiewicz film has some camera movement.” Despite naming it his favorite film of the year, Jean-Luc Godard, a Mankiewicz booster, asserted that The Quiet American was “ultra-talkative, rather pretentious, slightly flabby although studded with good intentions,” and that Mankiewicz was “too perfect a writer to be a perfect director.” Even in an admiring review of a movie everybody loves, All About Eve, Bosley Crowther asserted that the movie’s 138 minutes “might have been comfortably done in an hour and a half.”

Having lately watched a bunch of Mankiewicz-directed films, I will suggest that these remarks contain truth but are not the whole story. For one thing, the camera does move, if not always confidently. The crane shot that opens The Barefoot Contessa (54) goes well beyond “here’s an interesting establishing shot,” as it rises over a rainy Italian cemetery and backs up to reveal the crowd gathered for a burial. Having begun on two humble, anonymous mourners departing a modest gravesite and then arriving at a funeral tableau worthy of the late, great movie star Maria D’Amata (Ava Gardner), the movement evokes the fraudulence of the showbiz world—and in characteristic Mankiewicz language, we simultaneously hear a voiceover from film director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) that sardonically points out how this scene is worthy of a Maria D’Amata film.

Even pulling off an evocative visual moment (Jack Cardiff on the camera), Mankiewicz can’t help but point out the artifice of it. Of course, that fits his theme. But perhaps that mistrust of the more sensual possibilities of the cinema kept Mankiewicz from giving himself over to feverishness, or the poetry that happens inside the frame. He was too smart to fall for such things. This sort of running mockery on a story’s absurdities became a Mankiewicz tic; his films are full of wise guys warning others that life isn’t like the movies.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Nevertheless, Mankiewicz’s first films as director show little strain at adopting the Twentieth Century Fox house visual style, whether Gothic, as in Dragonwyck (46) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (47), or film noir as in Somewhere in the Night (46) and House of Strangers (49). In fact there are distinct visual coups here: Rex Harrison’s specter emerging from a shadow-filled rectangle of the screen as Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) lights a candle in her new bedroom, or the flares that illuminate the jazzily staged race riot in No Way Out (50), Mankiewicz’s exciting contribution to Fox’s run of social-issue pictures.

These early films serve notice of a brightly adult sensibility. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir isn’t really a Gothic film but a sex comedy, in the manner of Blithe Spirit, and No Way Out has a silent-movie gag with a swinging chandelier indicating whoopee-making in the apartment upstairs. Mankiewicz is already unabashed about applying the new psychology. No Way Out is insightful in locating the racism of Richard Widmark’s character in his loveless childhood and embattled self-pity: “But who cares about me?” he whines, pointing out the advantages he imagines Sidney Poitier’s young doctor has enjoyed. (Some of the do-gooder spirit of the movie is now creaky—Stephen McNally’s liberal MD insisting he doesn’t care if a man is black, white, or polka dot—but Widmark’s racist remains very contemporary.)

The Late George Apley (47) is a skillful comedy about Boston bluebloodism, adapted from J.P. Marquand’s novel. It’s 1912, but there is already a volume of Freud in the house, like a snake loose in the garden. The story arc of the loosening up undergone by Ronald Colman’s hidebound patriarch is a conventional one, but beneath the humor Mankiewicz seems moved by it. And it might signal a key theme in his work: the way people seek release or authenticity against overpowering traditions and expectations. That beat can be heard beneath A Letter to Three Wives, The Barefoot Contessa, The Quiet American (in Michael Redgrave’s desperate British journalist), House of Strangers (family as a strangling force), and 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer (ditto).

Staying with that thread, The Late George Apley has a neat visual device, thankfully not hammered home by dialogue. Apley is fussy enough to straighten a tilting framed print every time he walks through his house’s entryway, and we grow accustomed to his doing so. As plot events shake his world, Apley passes by the slanting print and doesn’t pause to set it right—the offending imbalance is framed by Mankiewicz so that it occupies the lion’s share of screen space as Apley moves across the frame. And you feel it, this little earthquake in a tidy world. That’s a visual stroke that anticipates a key moment in Jeanne Dielman by almost 30 years.

Of Mankiewicz’s twin triumphs, for which he won back-to-back writing and directing Oscars, little introduction need be given. Little defense, either; the abundant pleasure offered by A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve remains tangy, their literacy and breeziness completely refreshing. As a director, Mankiewicz’s style—now unharnessed from the bolder visual style of genre expectations—may be plainer, as though demanding closer attention to the performances and dialogue. But the blocking is thoughtful, and small felicities lap around the edges. The realization of Linda Darnell’s family home in Letter, for instance, is precisely laid out and wonderfully a-jumble (the gag about the walls shaking when the train passes is classic).

Barefoot Contessa

The Barefoot Contessa

The focus on female characters in these two films brings up a trait for which Mankiewicz has been rightly praised. Many of his films feature women who are headstrong and self-determining, from Gene Tierney’s seekers in Dragonwyck and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to the skeptical movie star in The Barefoot Contessa to the Queen of the Nile in Cleopatra (63). Even when the women don’t function in his films as feminist models, Mankiewicz demonstrates his fascination with their characters (Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor as Tennessee Williams hothouse figures in Suddenly, Last Summer), his skill with female performers (Linda Darnell was never better than in No Way Out and A Letter to Three Wives, and Taylor is terribly touching in Suddenly, Last Summer), or his enthralled reaction to feminine beauty—I still think Guys and Dolls (55) is a peculiar treatment of a rowdy stage masterpiece, but the way Mankiewicz photographs Jean Simmons conveys something close to religious awe.

Though psychologically well-observed, the men of All About Eve are pale next to the women, George Sanders aside. Grand dame Margo Channing (Bette Davis), two-faced—possibly three-faced—Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), and suffering theater wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) represent a rich spectrum of chutzpah and knavery. (There’s Marilyn Monroe’s Miss Casswell and Thelma Ritter’s Birdie too, and let’s not forget Barbara Bates’s poor Phoebe, the bedazzled ingénue of the final scene.) The Barefoot Contessa is only so-so as Hollywood satire, but the film’s withering portrait of how men misapprehend women identifies it more as tragedy than satire. When Maria strips to her bathing suit on a tycoon’s yacht, Mankiewicz frames it like a magazine ad—and then cuts to the leering crowd of men staring at her stupidly. In men’s eyes she has already been reduced to the cold, dead statue she is destined to become, and which they wanted all along.

Was Mankiewicz too wordy? Crowther was wrong that All About Eve could’ve been improved with brevity—no way we’d want to lose Monroe’s “graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts,” as Addison describes her, or any of Thelma Ritter’s slouching skepticism. But that long scene between Eve and Addison in a New Haven hotel room always strikes me as weirdly elongated for its location in the story—Mankiewicz does not seem to recognize the truism about movies needing to speed up as their endings approach. Or, like Addison DeWitt, he just can’t resist all the clever talk that comes out of him. (As Addison says of his column, “it’ll make minutes fly like hours.”)

Contrast this with the big knife wielded by Mankiewicz’s boss during this period, Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck’s moviemaking instincts led him to praise one Mankiewicz screenplay but also blithely suggest lopping off an entire storyline; the script was titled A Letter to Four Wives (and the novel it was adapted from was called A Letter to Five Wives). That worked out well. Zanuck also proposed cutting third-act scenes of the affair between Eve and playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) from All About Eve, another shrewd piece of pruning.

Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton


When you look at the Mankiewicz films that falter, like the notoriously overrunning Cleopatra or The Honey Pot (67), it’s usually because of miscalculated pacing. Even in the carbonated fun of Sleuth (72), his final film, Mankiewicz allows Inspector Doppler to stay on screen much longer than makes sense. Armed with a clicker, you might not find more words in a Mankiewicz film than in a Hawks or Wilder picture. It’s just that those guys frequently made a virtue of speed itself.

The characters talk on and on in Cleopatra, although the film has its defenders and is worth debate. Its elephantine physical production mirrors how the characters in the foreground think about their ambitions. Yet they might be discussing Hollywood as much as ancient Rome, and the impossible demands made by that entity—specifically the nightmarish production of this movie, as a sensitive, intelligent man (Mankiewicz’s on-screen proxy being Richard Burton’s Antony) is crushed by forces beyond his control.

Mankiewicz may or may not have intended the parallel in that case, but one explicit autobiographical gesture is Cary Grant’s physician-professor Noah Praetorius in People Will Talk (51), perhaps the oddest movie in the filmmaker’s career. Based on a German play and produced just after the Directors Guild mess, much of the film concerns the witch hunt against the doctor by small-minded colleagues. It’s also full of philosophical asides from Grant’s character on everything from medical practice to modern methods of producing butter. Mankiewicz seems to speak through Dr. Praetorius, perhaps even in his shrugging off a mood as “just my usual twilight melancholy,” a line that typifies Mankiewicz’s propensity to overwrite. And yet one wishes he’d had more shots at that sort of directness. At the end of his life Mankiewicz sounded irritated by his Hollywood career, which clearly did not allow him full expression of his ambitions—or an escape from the prison of wit.

In assessing his career, I’m stuck with how we talk about films. I have mostly described Joseph L. Mankiewicz the director, in part because it’s hard to accurately say what might be Mankiewiczian about The Philadelphia Story or Strange Cargo or Woman of the Year, all of which were changed by his ideas as producer. Those are part of the career, too. At the end of it Mankiewicz seemed to suspect that he had not belonged in Hollywood, that he might have been great if only he’d gone legit and written plays or novels. In his best films, that irritation created some of the sauciest characters and dialogue to come out of Hollywood—the sour-sweet satisfaction of biting the hand that fed him.