firstname.lastname@example.org Table of Contents Reading #1. Brian Dauth, “Joseph L. Mankiewicz,” Senses of Cinema, April 2005
Reading #2. Philip Kemp, “Joseph Mankiewicz,” World Film Directors:
Volume I––1890-1945, John Wakeman, ed. (H.W. Wilson Company, 1987)
Reading #3. Gore Vidal, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Case,” The New York Review of Books, 1 May 1980
Reading #4. Donald Lyons, “All About Cicero,” Film Comment, September-October 1990
Reading #1. JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZ by Brian Dauth
b. February 11, 1909, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA
d. February 5, 1993, Bedford, New York, USA
I’ve been in on the beginning, the rise, peak, collapse and end of the talking picture – Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Mention Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s name to filmgoers and they might recall All About Eve, Bette Davis, and a line about seatbelts and a bumpy night. Mention his name to film critics and you might encounter scoffing, tempered with grudging respect for his ability to turn a phrase. Mankiewicz’s verbal facility will then be pointed to as evidence that he possessed gifts more suited to the stage than the screen.
This essay has two main purposes: (a) to augment the limited information many people have about Mankiewicz’s artistry so they might watch his films with greater insight and pleasure; and (b) to serve as a corrective to the generally uninformed critical response his work has received up until now. For me, Mankiewicz is one of the giants of twentieth century moviemaking who consistently displayed cinematic mastery, whether he was crafting dialogue, directing actors, or composing shots. The complexity of his work is astounding, and his movies remain fresh and vital.
Mankiewicz’s théatre du filmé. Despite an oeuvre comprising only 20 feature films, Joseph L. Mankiewicz explored a number of genres and styles in his work: gothic (Dragonwyck, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Suddenly, Last Summer); film noir (Somewhere in the Night); musical comedy (Guys and Dolls); Shavian comedy (All About Eve, People Will Talk); Shakespearean tragedy (Julius Caesar); espionage (5 Fingers); the Western (There Was a Crooked Man…); race drama (No Way Out); mystery (The Honey Pot); Roman epic (Cleopatra); thriller (Sleuth); family melodrama (House of Strangers). Moreover, he often combined genres within a single film. House of Strangers (1949) and All About Eve (1950) have a film noir ambience (both films are concerned with ambition and its consequences), while There Was a Crooked Man . . . (1970) combines a Western with a prison drama.
No matter the work, however, the one genre shared by all his films is what French critics termed théatre du filmé. In a long and important interview in Cahiers du cinéma, Mankiewicz said of his own film making style:
I do not speak of the geniuses who go about, camera in hand, and bring you a semblance of film that offers you a semblance of knowledge. I speak to you of people who make films about something. Of those who approach human beings analytically, whether they do so in depth or superficially. (1)
Théatre du filmé was the genre he created and perfected in order to “approach human beings analytically . . . in depth.” This genre pays equal attention to the verbal, the visual, and the human, carefully crafting and interweaving all three elements in order to achieve maximum effect––both expressively and analytically. Most importantly, théatre du filmé is a self-conscious genre populated by self-conscious characters. Mankiewicz overlaid this personal genre on top of conventional genres popular at the time of filming. In this fashion, he arrived at his unique style of filmmaking: Mankiewicz movies do not look, sound, or speak like those of any other director.
Mankiewicz’s invention of this new genre has not always met with critical approval. In an article in Senses of Cinema in 2003, Tag Gallagher wrote:
Mankiewicz’s ideal film, whether as director or producer, was something I shall call a “photoplay” – a type of cinema that was less a “movie” than a filmed play, less a storyworld with characters than a document of actors acting the sort of acting for which self-conscious dialogue . . . and self-conscious mime are inevitable and endless. (2)
Mistaking Mankiewicz’s théatre du filmé movies for filmed plays is the most common error critics make. Mankiewicz needed to invent the genre of théatre du filmé in order for his type of storytelling to work. Movies emphasizing characters’ autonomy require reflexive, self-aware performances from actors. Mankiewicz wants the audience to focus on the choices his characters make, and how these decisions determine everything that follows.
Gallagher praises the approach of Wyler and Lubitsch who, when working with Margaret Sullavan, “subjugated her presence to their movies’ storyworlds.” (3) While this may be a valid approach for Wyler and Lubitsch, it would never work for Mankiewicz since he is interested in exploring his characters’ free will and how it determines narrative, rather than in subjugating them to a preplanned storyline. From the Cahiers interview again: “I try not to distort the life or the conduct of human beings by conferring on them, by means of technique, a preconceived form.” (4) Mankiewicz’s théatre du filmé approach may not be to Gallagher’s taste, but that doesn’t make it an inferior or invalid way of making movies.
For this new genre of théatre du filmé, Mankiewicz adopted a narrative approach Gilles Deleuze describes as “neither straight line nor circle which completes itself,” (5) but instead is comprised of “perpetual forks like so many breaks in causality.” (6) He adds that Mankiewicz movies demand flashbacks so that these forks––pivots––can be exposed, since “forking points are very often so imperceptible that they cannot be revealed until after their occurrence, to an attentive memory.” (7)
This concept of pivot moments underlies the structure of all Mankiewicz films. He builds his movies out of scenes that foreground characters making those decisions that will determine the actions that follow, where more choices will be presented and new decisions made. Autonomy is a paramount virtue in Mankiewicz’s world, and he investigates both its possibilities and its limitations. As a result, his films contain an abundance of dialogue as characters face up to, wrestle with, and finally choose among the options confronting them.
In his Cahiers du cinéma article on The Quiet American (1958), Eric Rohmer wrote: “From the moment that human will is established as a major part of the intrigue, the heroes must no longer be the vegetables destined by unchangeable coordinates that they are in the [Graham Greene] novel: Outbursts, changes, become natural to them.” (8) While Rohmer is referring to one specific film, his analysis of Mankiewicz’s approach applies to all of his characters. The cold, implacable hand of fate does not guide Mankiewicz’s men and women. As Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas) says at the end of A Letter to Three Wives (1949): “A man can change his mind, can’t he?” He certainly can, and Mankiewicz’s films faithfully report (just as Addison DeWitt’s newspaper columns do) each and every turn of the wheel.
Whether it is a backstage dressing room (All About Eve) or a suburban living room (A Letter to Three Wives), a mystery writer’s mansion (Sleuth ) or an Egyptian throne room (Cleopatra ), Mankiewicz movies are movies of interiors. For his films, which focus so intently on the inner lives of his characters, Mankiewicz developed a mise en scène that emphasizes and complements this interiority. Despite his success in developing this personal mise en scène, Mankiewicz has had no end of trouble with the critical establishment who believe his work devoid of a personal visual signature.
Since the first movies were made, filmmakers have taken advantage of the medium’s ability to capture the beauty of landscapes, and used the outdoors as both backdrop and character in their work. Mankiewicz with his théatre du filmé style, however, approaches film differently. While he may not have been interested in composing lyrical landscape shots, Mankiewicz did create sharply delineated, multilayered interior shots. It was serendipitous that he began his directing career at Twentieth Century-Fox where the house style––crisp, hard-edged photography––was well suited to his approach and intentions.
Mankiewicz creates a series of spaces to contain his characters as they navigate the pivots of their narratives. Although it does not take place on a dusty Western street or war-ravaged battlefield, Addison’s (George Saunders) confrontation with Eve (Anne Baxter) is one of the most dramatic showdowns in all cinema. It just happens to occur in a hotel room in New Haven, Connecticut. Part of Mankiewicz’s genius is his ability to stage such scenes in ordinary, non-mythic places. By setting his confrontations in spaces that are commonplace––living rooms, gardens, hotel rooms, theatres––Mankiewicz illuminates the tensions and conflicts that occur on a regular basis in these familiar spaces. His deliberate choice to eschew pictoralism and lyrical camera work should never be construed as visual indifference or, worse, inability.
Mankiewicz reached a personal peak of interiority with Guys and Dolls (1955). Instead of awkwardly combining location filming with studio-shot sequences, Mankiewicz set his film in a studio re-imagined Times Square: dozens of markers, signifiers, symbols and artifacts are re-arranged and re-named to create a simulacrum of New York. Neither a generic urban set nor a meticulous recreation, the world of the film is a heightened rendering of a few city blocks.
Mankiewicz opens the movie with an overture during which the camera (led along by Michael Kidd’s choreography) explores this reconfigured world. Having thus provided a geographic orientation, Mankiewicz can start the film proper, and when three gamblers begin to converse in song, it seems a most natural occurrence in this version of New York. By setting Guys and Dolls in what is essentially one large interior with several subdivisions, Mankiewicz is able to play with the presentation of songs. Some are delivered in straightforward Broadway fashion such as “Pet Me Poppa” and “Take Back Your Mink”, both performed by Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) and her all-girl chorus on stage at The Hot Box. On the other hand, “Luck Be a Lady” is transformed by Mankiewicz (in tandem with Marlon Brando) from a belted ballad into Sky Masterson’s private passionate prayer that luck be on his side for this most important roll of his life. In this scene, Mankiewicz portrays two realities simultaneously, one layered on top of the other: (a) the inner hopes and fears of Masterson as he covers bets and prepares to roll the dice; and (b) the frenetic action of the gamblers as they put up their souls against Sky’s money. Scenes such as this are standard in Mankiewicz’s work. Forsaking landscapes and lyricism, Mankiewicz developed a cinema of layered interiors that delineated and probed inner psychological space rather outdoor physical space.
Mankiewicz and Women. From the first scene of his first film as a writer-director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz has been concerned with women and their realistic, three-dimensional representation on screen. When Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) in Dragonwyck (1946) urges her mother to open a just-arrived letter instead of waiting for her husband (“It’s for you. You’ve got the right.”), Mankiewicz sets out on a quest to reshape the conventional portrayal of women in Hollywood movies. Mankiewicz women are autonomous, self-reliant, intelligent decision-makers who will not be bound by the conventions and strictures of their times and circumstances. Mankiewicz’s women are defiant and confident, seeking control over their lives and accepting the consequences of their actions. Mankiewicz set out to challenge the prevailing portrayal of women in cinema, and capture on celluloid the complexity he believed comprised their reality.
Mankiewicz ends Dragonwyck with another scene that runs counter to the Hollywood conventions of the time. Having survived her husband’s drug addiction and attempts to kill her, Miranda is set to leave Dragonwyck. Dr. Turner (Glenn Langan), her ally throughout the film, asks if next week might be too soon to call on her. Without answering, Miranda drives off, leaving Turner to gaze after her with desire, an inversion of the typical situation where the woman is left looking after a retreating man. Mankiewicz’s Miranda is not the typical Hollywood heroine, eager to jump into the embrace of the nearest heroic male rescuer.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) is also the story of a woman taking control of her life. The film opens inmedias res (a favourite Mankiewicz technique) with Lucy Muir (Tierney again) announcing to her shocked in-laws: “And now my mind is made up.” She has decided that with her husband dead for over a year, she wants to lead her own life and not live under their roof any longer. Her mother-in-law and sister-in-law argue that it is not the proper thing for a woman to do, but Mrs Muir insists and leaves, ending up in Whitecliff-by-the-Sea and Gull Cottage, which happens to be haunted by the ghost of Captain Gregg (Rex Harrison), its former owner.
Mrs Muir and Captain Gregg’s ghost fall in love, and he dictates his memoirs to her so that she might publish them and use the profits to stay on at Gull Cottage. At the midpoint of the film, the ghost departs, leaving his beloved Lucy to the world of the living so that she might know human love again. Mrs Muir has a serious flirtation with a writer of children’s books, but when she goes up to London to surprise him at his home, she discovers not only that he is married, but also that theirs is not the first affair he has had. The rest of the film chronicles Mrs Muir growing older and her long love affair with Gull Cottage and the English seaside. After she dies, Captain Gregg’s ghost re-appears, and he and the ghost of Mrs Muir walk arm-in-arm out of Gull Cottage and into a life of eternal love and romance.
Once again Mankiewicz defies the conventional depiction of women and, specifically, women in love. Mrs Muir is in charge of her life and her decisions. She is not unfulfilled without a man; at the start of the film she says that she wants to have her own life, having already had a life with her husband, then one with her in-laws subsequent to his death, but never one of her own. Also, it is the hero who makes sacrifices for love and not the heroine.
Two of Mankiewicz’s most famous treatments of women and their lives are his back-to-back Oscar-winning films, A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. Not only are the films concerned with life as experienced from a female point of view, both films turn narrative control over to women. (9) In Letter, the framing narrative is supplied by Addie Ross who has left town, and, in a letter, told her three best friends that she has taken one of their husbands along with her. The body of the film is comprised of each wife’s flashback in which she recalls incidents that might hold clues as to whether it is her husband who has chosen to run off with Addie.
All About Eve (1950) begins with Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) recalling the night she decided to bring Eve Harrington back to see Margo Channing (Bette Davis). This choice on Karen’s part sets in motion the action of the film. At the end of this sequence Karen says in voice over: “Funny, the things you remember––and the things you don’t.” Mankiewicz believes that it is these pivot moments that people recall, moments of choice that shape the future direction of their lives.
The rest of the film is a series of remembered scenes during which crucial decisions are made: (a) Margo’s bringing Eve home; (b) Margo extracting from Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff) a promise to give Eve a job in his office; (c) Karen promising Eve she will speak to Max about hiring her as Margo’s new understudy; (d) Karen deciding to play a trick on Margo that allows Eve to go on stage in her place; (e) Margo deciding not to star in Lloyd Richard’s (Hugh Marlow) new play; (f) Addison DeWitt’s decision to put the screws to Eve and consolidate his power over her. Once Mankiewicz returns to the present tense, he ends All About Eve with a final choice––appropriately enough, one made by Eve herself: she decides to let Phoebe (Barbara Bates) spend the night. True to his belief that choices have consequences, Mankiewicz ends his film with a shot of Phoebe standing before a three-mirrored cheval bowing to imagined adoring fans. This image is reflected and replicated into the receding distance (and the far future as well). By allowing Phoebe to stay, Eve––the mother of us all––has initiated the process whereby our world will eventually be populated (overrun?) by an army of Phoebes, all seeking their own award-winning moment (a prediction Mankiewicz made more than 50 years ago that has proven prescient in terms of twenty-first century reality).
Cleopatra may be Mankiewicz’s boldest creation in female-centered cinema. Tackling the epic, a genre not noted for complex and assertive female characters, he crafts a film centered around a woman and her power. From her first entrance, hidden in a rug and carried over the shoulder of her servant, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) takes command. She engineers her coronation as Queen of Egypt, and urges Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) to fulfill Alexander’s dream of a united and peaceful world. At the end, she denies Octavian (Roddy McDowell) his victory by killing herself and having her servants lay her out in all her royal finery, controlling her image until the last, never becoming the puppet or trophy of anyone, especially a man.
While I could discuss in detail numerous scenes, one deserves special mention: Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome, a grand exception to Mankiewicz’s usual style of visual interiority. As far as screen spectacle is concerned, it measures up with the greatest and demonstrates what a versatile artist Mankiewicz is. The sequence begins with the following exchange between Sosigenes (Hume Cronyn) and Julius Caesar:
SOSIGENES: According to reports the reception in the streets has been extraordinary. The Queen has given instructions for the procession to move as slowly as the people wish, for their full enjoyment.
JULIUS CAESAR: One might almost believe that Cleopatra set out to capture the citizens of Rome. SOSIGENES: One would have every reason for believing exactly that.
At the end of this eight-minute sequence, Cleopatra descends from the giant sphinx she has entered on, approaches Caesar, and bows deeply as the citizens erupt in cheers. Cleopatra then looks Caesar in the eye and winks. Cleopatra is aware that she has given a rapturously received performance, but remains in control, un-seduced by the adoration. Even when he worked on the grand scale of the epic, Mankiewicz’s théatre du filmé approach found expression.
Mankiewicz’s last film centering on women is The Honey Pot (1967). (10) Though not a success, it does contain a telling moment at the end when, with all mysteries unraveled, Inspector Rizzi (Adolfo Celi) declares: “I salute the Anglo-Saxon woman.” (11) One could expand this statement and assert that much of Mankiewicz’s cinema is a tribute, not only to Anglo-Saxon women, but to all women and their lives as actually lived, not as imagined by the Hollywood machine.
Mankiewicz and Men. While Mankiewicz has always been noted for his treatment of women, his depictions of men are equally astute and penetrating. Paralleling his cinematic chronicles of women are films focusing on men and their behaviors.
In House of Strangers Mankiewicz portrays the ambitions of Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) and his four sons. Gino Monetti is an Italian immigrant who has made good as a banker. He is also a strict and controlling father who expects absolute obedience from his sons despite the abuse he inflicts on them. When Gino runs afoul of banking regulations and loses control of the bank he founded, three of his sons take over and exclude him not only from the business he built, but from their lives as well. The fourth son, Max (Richard Conte), is sent to prison for trying to bribe a juror in the hope of obtaining his father’s acquittal. The film begins with the release of Max from prison after serving a sentence of seven years. Now free, he wants revenge against his brothers for the years he spent behind bars. The brothers, who have their own plans, agree to meet Max at the old family house. Max arrives early, and in flashback remembers the events that have led to this moment.
Max’s flashback represents one of Mankiewicz’s most remarkable uses of mindscreen. Mankiewicz not only supplies the audience with the plot information it needs, but also presents the emotional texture of the events as experienced by Max. The scenes between Max and his girlfriend Irene (Susan Hayward) have the high gloss of sophisticated comedy, while the scenes with his family are done in the exaggerated style of the Italian operas Gino loves so much. Through language Mankiewicz differentiates between the two worlds that Max inhabited before going to prison: the patriarchal world of his father and the more equal and modern world he shared with Irene: two different worlds; two different value systems; two different modes of speech.
Max’s flashback also dramatizes events that occurred while he was in prison that he could only have heard about. In one such scene, Irene goes to Max’s father and pleads with him to stop writing Max hate-filled letters in an attempt to turn him into an instrument of revenge. In Max’s reconstruction of the scene, Gino rises from his desk, walks to the doorway, and orders Irene to leave his house. This scene is not only a depiction of an event, but also a symbolic representation of the inner conflict Max is experiencing as he remembers the past. Irene represents Max’s compassionate nature that wants no part of his father’s revenge, while Gino embodies Max’s patriarchal heritage that demands that Max seek vengeance. Gino’s dismissal of Irene is both a narrative fact and a metaphor for Max’s attempt to silence his compassion so that he can go forward and avenge his father. Since Mankiewicz makes the audience privy to this inner struggle, Max’s forgiveness of his brothers at the end appears genuine, rather than seeming a plot twist contrived by the writer-director.
In Julius Caesar (1953) we find ourselves a long way from Karen Richard’s statement in All About Eve that men will do as they are told. In fact, it is Caesar’s (Louis Calhern) and Brutus’ (John Hoyt) choosing to ignore the warnings of Portia (Deborah Kerr) and Calpurnia (Greer Garson) (brilliantly visualized by Mankiewicz) that helps bring about the ensuing tragedy. Mankiewicz’s conspirators are men who try to manipulate the masses through speech that denigrates their enemies even as it compliments the speakers. Cassius (John Gielgud) is not even above manipulating the written word in order to bring Brutus over to his side. Deceptive and forged speech can be used on and against anyone in pursuit of a goal. As the film unfolds, one feels that Mankiewicz is drawing a parallel between the actions of the conspirators and the contemporaneous reality of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Red Scare, and the blacklist. (12) For Mankiewicz, Brutus’s tragedy lies partly in his being swayed by the verbal and written seductions of Cassius, and partly in his failure to listen to Antony’s (Marlon Brando) funeral oration and respond immediately. (Quick and decisive action on the part of Mankiewicz and his allies defeated the coup that Cecil B. DeMille launched against Mankiewicz when he was president of the Directors’ Guild of America.)
Though on the surface Mankiewicz’s next film, The Barefoot Contessa (1954), is the story of one woman’s rise and fall as an actress, it can more interestingly and rewardingly be viewed as a chronicle of men and how they perceive, respond to, and interact with women. In contrast with A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa is narrated by men only: Harry Dawes, Oscar Muldoon, and Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini. We are not permitted to enter into the mind of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). She is not only the subject of these male narratives, but the object of men’s desires and machinations as well. Maria’s attempts to be the author of her own story, defying the narratives of men, eventually leads to a final, fatal conflict: when she chooses to deviate (pivot) from the script authored by her husband the Count (Rossano Brazzi), he murders her. At the end of the film, Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), who has been Maria’s protector, champion, and confidante, can only comment impotently that with the funeral over and the weather clear, he can get in some good work on the new film he is shooting. This sense of despair would grow and have its final flowering 18 years later in Mankiewicz’s last film.
While Sleuth would turn out to be Mankiewicz’s swansong, I doubt he had any idea it would be when filming began. After the disastrous reception of Cleopatra and the mostly negative response to The Honey Pot, Mankiewicz had given up writing scripts, deciding instead to film the work of others (though it is clear that he had a hand in shaping the screenplays of his last two films). While There Was a Crooked Man . . . was at best a qualified success, (13) Anthony Shaffer’s stage hit Sleuth provided Mankiewicz with the perfect vehicle to explore many of his lifelong concerns: the nature of men; class relations; life and film understood in terms of theatre and spectacle; the battle of wits; and the importance of pivot moments in people’s lives. On one subject, however, Sleuth is silent: women. Sleuth unfolds completely in the world of men, and a dark world it is.
Sleuth is set at Cloak Manor, the home of mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier). He has invited Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), his wife’s lover, over for what starts off as a conversation about Milo’s financial ability to satisfy her tastes, but is in actuality an elaborately staged game of humiliation with Andrew as author and Milo as victim. The “first act” ends with Milo dead on the staircase in Andrew’s mansion. The “second act” chronicles Milo’s revenge. Milo (who was not killed) returns disguised as Inspector Doppler to question Andrew about the murder of Milo Tindle. After thoroughly unnerving Andrew, Milo reveals his charade and begins a second game: he says he has committed a real murder and left clues around Cloak Manor identifying Andrew as the killer. Andrew has 15 minutes to find them before the real police arrive to investigate. Andrew finds the incriminating objects and is preparing to meet the police when Milo reveals that this has been only another charade. The movie ends with Andrew shooting and killing Milo (for real) in an attempted replay of the first game. Unfortunately, the police are coming up the driveway as Andrew shoots Milo. Ensnared by his own game, Andrew stands helplessly in the centre of his living room as the curtain falls––literally! Mankiewicz’s last shot is of a curtain descending on a diorama of this final image.
As Bernard Dick pointed out in his study of Mankiewicz, (14) Sleuth is yet another battle between commoner (Milo Tindle) and aristocrat (Andrew Wyke). Class relations and conflicts were a longstanding interest of Mankiewicz’s––uncommon for a Hollywood director of his time and stature. A Letter to Three Wives engages in class analysis as it focuses on three women, their marriages, and the repercussions class issues have on their lives. Deborah (Jeanne Crain) is a poor farm girl who weds the son of one of the town’s leading families, Bradbury Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn). They met oversees during World War Two, where, according to Debra, she was “Pretty cute in that uniform. That uniform––it is the great leveller. You couldn’t tell me from Vassar, Smith or Long Island.” Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), described as “on (her) way up, that is if Rita has her way. And that’s the only way she’ll have any part of, thank you,” is married to George (Kirk Douglas), a schoolteacher. She supplements his modest income and pays for the better life she desires by writing radio soap operas. The third wife, Laura Mae (Linda Darnell), is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks (a fact revealed with great visual wit) who sets her cap for Porter Hollingsway, a chain store magnate. Each of the three stories reflects and comments on class conflicts and ambitions in mid-twentieth century America.
In Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) is a poor relation invited by her cousin Sebastian to join him on his travels where she will act (unbeknownst to her) as bait for the young boys he desires. After witnessing Sebastian’s death and cannibalization by the young men he craves, Catherine has a mental breakdown. Sebastian’s mother tries to blackmail Catherine’s mother into allowing her daughter to be lobotomized so the true story will never be told. In adapting this play, Mankiewicz superimposed his concerns with class relations on Tennessee Williams’ gothic horror story. He muted the play’s tone of homophobic self-disgust, refocusing the work on the battle between two strong women––a rich and powerful aristocrat and the commoner who threatens her authority and privilege. The resulting film is more than an adaptation; it is a refinement of and improvement on the original play.
In Suddenly, Last Summer, the commoner threatens the aristocrat with a story that must be repressed in order to maintain the status quo. In Sleuth, the commoner invades the aristocrat’s world and takes up residence there (in the deliciously named Laundry Cottage). Milo is more than an adulterer sleeping with Andrew’s wife. He is an emissary from the nouveau riche who, along with others of his class, is challenging aristocratic privilege as defined and defended by the British class system. Milo’s class aspirations and impertinence are a much greater danger to Andrew than the seducing of his wife.
Being the democratic auteur that he is, Mankiewicz arms both men equally with bons mots and wit, but Sleuth is more than just a battle of wits between class adversaries. It is also a profound tragedy, and one that, like so much in Mankiewicz’s world, is caused by the choices characters make. For Milo, that choice is to refuse Andrew’s offer of a truce. After being bested by Milo in the second game, Andrew suggests that they team up: “We know what it is to play a game, you and I. That’s so rare, two people brought together, equally matched. Having the courage, and the talents, to make of life a continuing charade of bright fancy, happy invention.”
Milo rejects Andrew’s offer and insists on another game, since being even is not satisfaction enough for him–––he must defeat Andrew decisively. For his part, having lost to Milo twice, Andrew cannot allow him to leave Cloak Manor alive to spread the story of what has happened (echoes of Suddenly, Last Summer). He chooses to replay the first game again, this time with live ammunition. Like most Mankiewicz men, Andrew and Milo cannot resist the lure of the game. Max Monetti in House of Strangers is one of the few willing to walk away and give up everything (as he must if he is to survive). (15) By contrast, women seem to be better able to pivot away from tragedy––Lora Mae in A Letter to Three Wives choosing not to hear her husband Porter’s confession that he was the one who ran off with Addie Ross––and, thereby, detour from a collision course with disaster.