Joseph L. Mankiewicz: The Essential Iconoclast

“I am essentially an iconoclast,” said Joseph L. Mankiewicz to critic Michel Ciment in 1973, “and I take pleasure in observing the way in which humanity constantly abuses itself.” The observations of “the most intelligent man in contemporary cinema,” to quote Jean-Luc Godard in 1958, led to 20 of the sharpest, toughest, wittiest, and most intricate films to come out of Hollywood at its peak. Mankiewicz began writing films at the end of the silent era and producing them for MGM in the mid-1930s, but he is now remembered for the extraordinary movies he wrote and directed between 1946 and 1972. He considered his first five efforts as apprentice work (this includes the haunting The Ghost and Mrs. Muir—not bad for apprentice work), and the 1949 A Letter to Three Wives as the first true Mankiewicz film. It also happens to be one of the high points of the 1940s, an astonishingly rich and beautifully constructed movie that sparkles like a 40-carat diamond. Like the other writer-directors who blazed the path before him (Preston Sturges, John Huston, Billy Wilder), Mankiewicz put talk in the foreground: he is known for the sheer genius of his dialogue, and rightfully so. But he was also a master of structure—as Kevin Jackson observed of one of Mankiewicz’s most beloved films: “All About Eve is so easy to follow that, on first viewing, you hardly notice how complex its unfolding can be.” Nor do you notice how penetrating a character study that film is until it hits you right between the eyes. Why pay tribute to Joseph L. Mankiewicz now? Because High Hollywood is receding into the historical distance, and its greatest films, many of which are signed by Mankiewicz—that includes the above-mentioned titles, in addition to 5 Fingers, Julius Caesar, The Barefoot Contessa, and Guys and Dolls—should be seen and reseen within the rapidly changing context of movies. Because those films, each and every one immaculately crafted, should be seen on a big screen. Because, to put it simply, Joseph L. Mankiewicz matters—to cinema, and to you.

In This Series

The Barefoot Contessa

The Barefoot Contessa

Mankiewicz’s pitiless take on the dissolute, dispiriting world of international filmmaking features three of Mankiewicz’s most memorable characters: Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), the Spanish dancer lured into the not-so-magical world of movies, Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), the director who bears witness to the tragic progression of Maria’s life, and Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien), the sweating, motor-mouthed publicist.

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5 Fingers

5 Fingers

In the film that Manny Farber ranked as one of the best of 1952, the scenes between James Mason as Diello, a spy working as a valet to the British Ambassador who supplies a wealth of information to the German high command, and Danielle Darrieux as the object of his devotion are among the most scintillating in Mankiewicz’s entire body of work, sparking with sexual and class tensions.

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Rex Harrison gives the first of four performances for Mankiewicz as the ghost of a sea captain who appears before Tierney’s young widow and dictates his “memoirs” to her; and George Sanders is the children’s author who temporarily steals Mrs. Muir’s heart in this convergence of remarkable talents that results in a truly great film.

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Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

Mankiewicz’s first post-Fox film was this stark yet dynamic version of Shakespeare’s tragedy starring a mixture of English and American actors, most notably Marlon Brando as Marc Antony—a casting choice that was greeted with dismay, though his performance had the public and press eating their words.

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A Letter to Three Wives

A Letter to Three Wives

Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern, and Linda Darnell play the three wives who receive a letter from their mutual enemy Addie Ross (an unseen Celeste Holm) informing them that she will run away with one of their husbands in this intricately structured comic melodrama with a satirical eye on suburban striving.

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People Will Talk

People Will Talk

One of Mankiewicz’s personal favorites among his films, this story of an unconventional physician (Cary Grant) who takes a personal approach to each of his patients was also one of the director’s most autobiographical films.

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The Quiet American

The Quiet American

Mankiewicz’s version of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel set in French Indochina modified the writer’s young American character Alden Pyle from an undercover CIA agent to an economist working for an NGO who engages in a spiritual battle with a wizened British reporter (Michael Redgrave).

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Sleuth

Sleuth

Mankiewicz’s swan song is this adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s phenomenally successful stage play, a delightful, epic pas de deux between two great actors (Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine) whose wildly varying temperaments and approaches to their craft are mirrored and echoed by the class distinctions embodied by their characters as they engage in an elaborate game of cat and mouse.

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