NYFF52 Retrospective – 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.

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.

Read more

Tuesday, October 07

8:30pm
All About Eve

All About Eve

With its three magnificent lead characters, Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington, George Sanders’s Addison DeWitt, and Bette Davis’s Margo Channing, the aging star who is gradually edged out of the limelight by the wanton Eve under Addison’s jaded and watchful eye, the legendary All About Eve gets fresher with each passing year.

Special Student Price: $12

Read more

Wednesday, October 01

9:00pm

Thursday, October 02

6:30pm
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.

Read more

Monday, October 06

6:00pm
A Carol for Another Christmas

A Carol for Another Christmas

Mankiewicz’s only television film is a dark update of A Christmas Carol in the shadow of nuclear war, starring Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers, written by Rod Serling and sponsored by Xerox. The score is by none other than Henry Mancini.

Read more

Friday, October 10

3:00pm
Cleopatra

Cleopatra

A deeply troubled production that would stop Mankiewicz from making another movie for years, Cleopatra, is, in its restored version, a literate, beautifully made epic.

Read more

Monday, October 13

1:30pm
Dragonwyck

Dragonwyck

A visually stunning period piece set in 1844 New England, Mankiewicz’s directorial debut features Vincent Price as the aristocratic Nicholas Van Ryn, who lures his cousin Miranda (Gene Tierney) to his estate, Dragonwyck, where her infatuation with him is gradually tempered by the disturbing events that unfold.

Read more

Monday, October 06

6:15pm
Escape

Escape

In the second of four collaborations with Mankiewicz, Rex Harrison appears as a former RAF pilot who goes for a walk in Hyde Park one night, ends up being arrested and convicted of manslaughter, and escapes into the foggy Devonshire moors.

Read more

Tuesday, October 14

9:30pm
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 resulted in a truly great film.

Read more

Friday, October 03

6:00pm
Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls

Curious casting decisions (like the non-singing Marlon Brando) and the loss of key songs (like “My Time of Day” and the lovely “More I Cannot Wish You”) aside, Mankiewicz’s sole musical is true to the spirit of the Loesser/Burrows/Swerling original.

Read more

Sunday, October 05

5:30pm
The Honey Pot

The Honey Pot

This modern variation on Ben Jonson’s Volpone features Rex Harrison as a man who engineers an elaborate practical joke by inviting three women (Susan Hayward, Edie Adams, and Capucine) to visit him on his supposed deathbed. An elaborate black comedy that has aged beautifully over the years.

Read more

Tuesday, October 14

6:30pm
House of Strangers

House of Strangers

Often referred to as a film noir but really a tough and elaborate drama of revenge and regeneration, House of Strangers stars Edward G. Robinson as a domineering patriarch who has built a banking empire based on dubious business practices. When he’s brought up on criminal charges, three of his four sons refuse to come to his aid, and they wage war on the fourth, favored son.

Read more

Thursday, October 09

9:00pm
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.

Read more

Wednesday, October 08

8:45pm
The Late George Apley

The Late George Apley

One of Mankiewicz’s most sheerly enjoyable movies stars a delightful Ronald Colman as the titular George Apley, a Beacon Hill blue blood who tries and fails in small ways to revolt against the ironclad social restrictions of his little aristocratic universe.

Read more

Monday, October 06

9:00pm
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.

Read more

Tuesday, October 07

8:00pm

Friday, October 10

6:30pm
No Way Out

No Way Out

A young, electrically intense Sidney Poitier made his film debut as an intern obliged to treat a vicious and violently racist criminal (brilliantly played by Richard Widmark) in a New York hospital.

Read more

Thursday, October 09

6:15pm
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.

Read more

Thursday, October 02

1:00pm
The Quiet American

The Quiet American

Mankiewicz’s version of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel set in French Indochina changed 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).

Read more

Wednesday, October 08

6:00pm
Sleuth

Sleuth

Mankiewicz’s swan song, this adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s phenomenally successful stage play is 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.

Read more

Monday, October 06

8:00pm
Somewhere in the Night

Somewhere in the Night

Perhaps the most crazily plotted of all films noirs, Mankiewicz’s sophomore feature, starring a brooding John Hodiak as an amnesiac vet who prowls through L.A. in search of a man named Larry Cravat (and his own identity), is an atmospheric triumph, one of the best of the director’s early works.

Read more

Thursday, October 02

9:30pm
Suddenly, Last Summer

Suddenly, Last Summer

Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play, featuring the wildly conflicting emotional energies of Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor, makes for an extremely unorthodox and uniquely unsettling movie experience.

Read more

Friday, October 10

9:00pm
There Was a Crooked Man…

There Was a Crooked Man…

The only Western directed by Mankiewicz features Kirk Douglas as an outlaw in 1870s Arizona who has stolen and hidden away $500,000, Henry Fonda as the upright lawman who finds him and locks him away, and a rich array of secondary characters played by Martin Gabel, Lee Grant, Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith, Arthur O’Connell, Gene Evans, Hume Cronyn, and John Randolph.

Read more

Friday, October 03

3:15pm