Mankiewicz.  Mankiewicz was no visual master but he has four films that land in the top 100 of their respective decade and there’s a consistency in the writing and structure of his films that cannot be denied. The deep filmography (15 archiveable films) certainly helps and although it has been fading on me for years—All About Eve is still a film that I respect and lands in my top 500 of all-time. Mankiewicz won back to back screenwriter and director Academy Awards in 1949 and 1950 (A Letter To Three Wives, All About Eve) and was a major force making great films between 1947 and 1954 especially (his best six films came out during that stretch).

Best film: All About Eve

  • On the very short list for the best screenplays of all-time
  • Nominated for a record breaking (and still tied) 14 Oscar Noms (titanic and la la land the others with 14 noms)
  • Like most of Mankiewicz’s work it’s very cynical
  • Back to back (with letter to three wives in 1949) wins for Best Screenplay and Best Director for Mankiewicz
  • The cynical voice-over is very down-gazing— and like Three Wives we have multiple voice-overs and narrators- here we start with the wonderfully sardonic George Sanders
  • It isn’t repeated later (which is a shame for formal purposes) but there’s a great freeze-frame when Baxter gets the award in the opening before we break for the flashback (this is actually the editing vehicle for it after Sanders voice over explanation). This didn’t invent the freeze-frame- most credit Hitchcock for doing that with Champagne in 1928—but this is one of the first uses still (another is It’s a Wonderful Life in 46’)
  • Such a brilliant and innovative narrative- we go from Sanders voice-over to Celeste Holm’s flashback with her voice-over… then Davis’s
  • Bette Davis and Thelma Ritter as a team is a dynamic duo if I’ve ever seen one on screen—spitting fire the entire film
  • The writing by Mankiewicz is stunning. It’s witty, throwing 100+mph the entire time, cutting like a razor—very Wilder-like or Sorkin-like
  • The “fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy night” is genius- but it’s also Bette Davis’ delivery in her best work here—superb playing the aging ego, a maudlin and paranoid drunk,
  • Marilyn Monroe radiates in her scenes- 1950 wasn’t her debut but it was her coming out party with this and Asphalt Jungle as her first archiveable films
  • Edith Head Oscar for her costume- brilliant work
  • Clearly this film’s writing has influenced everything from Sorkin to Mamet to The Favourite here in 2018—it’s an elevated script—never dumbs it down- “revelation” and “megalomania”
  • Well-deserved Oscar with for George Sanders- Machiavellian, calculating—“Do they have an auditions for television. That’s all television is”— writing
  • nom for Ritter, nom for Alfred Newman who did the score- an excellent one
  • a meditation on stardom, jealously, aging—battling Divas
  • #5 screenplay of all-time according to the WGA—behind only Casablanca, The Godfather, Chinatown, Citizen Kane — “What I go after I want to go after. I don’t want it to come after me”
  • The cyclical ending is sublime with the protégé/sociopath/dreamer in front of the mirror (mirroring Baxter’s scene trying on Davis’ dress). – sadly this is only one of the handful of interesting visual shots in the film and in that way it is clearly no Citizen Kane or Godfather– Mankiewicz is no Coppola or Welles and that’s painfully clear in that the main mise-en-scene here is medium shot with 3-4 or more actors in the frame—there’s really no interesting camera movements, a few nice editing touches—it’s all screenplay and acting

total archiveable films: 15

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films:  1 (All About Eve)

top 100 films of the decade: 4 (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, A Letter To Three Wives, All About Eve, Julius Caesar)

most overrated: Mankiewicz has two films that landed on the TSPDT consensus top 1000—All About Eve and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is #826 and that’s fine spot for it. Unfortunately my choice has to be All About Eve. They have it at #124 and I’m hundreds of spots below that.

most underrated:  Julius Caesar.

  • It’s a Shakespeare adaptation of course but it’s in-line with Mankiewicz’s work- multiple characters perspective driving the narrative, dialogue on fire, and top-notch acting—not that different than All About Eve
  • The third nom in 4 years for Brando with Streetcar in 1951 and Viva Zapata! In 1952—of course he would win in 1954 for Waterfront and yet another nom in 1957 for Sayonara
  • Brando is absolutely brilliant—but he’s not alone, John Gielgud and James Mason are great- Gielgud probably comes out second best- he has a scene, about 20 minutes in just before the story with a soliloquy as he’s pacing forward… jaw = dropped
  • It’s a genius casting for Brando or/and role choice for him. It shows range and that he can do elevated material. It’s so varied from his previously nominated work including his 1951 star-making (and artistic acting-paradigm-shifting performance in Streetcar where he plays an animal)
  • The cast is filled with actors with distinct dictions—many imitators and comedians over the years would tackle Mason and Brando especially
  • The narrative moves—packs in the dialogue at a rapid pace- very exciting- excellent choice by Mankiewicz
  • Among the best dialogue of the Bard—Louis Calhern doesn’t fair quite as well- He’s a tall elegant figure though for Caesar—Deborah Kerr not so much either-
  • I love George Macready—not enough of him here
  • When James Mason plunges his dagger into Caesar his face—the acting is spectacular- that isn’t Shakespeare—that’s acting and direction
  • Brando really arrives one hour in—he’s only really mentioned before and in a scene during a parade for a few moments. Of course at the hour mark when he comes in he takes over the film
  • He’s supremely brave, emotional- he’s sweating
  • The camerawork on Brando is fantastic—Mankiewicz knows he has something special—there’s a crane that backs up and expands when Brando yells to give him space and then comes back in closer at the more intimate end of the scene
  • Mason and Brando talking to the roman mob are like two brilliant lawyers making fantastic closing statements. Dueling pianos- it’s acting transcendence and the reason this is a top 10 of the year film
  • Another great one of Brando in the foreground with the mob rioting in the background—great mise-en-scene
  • Formally- don’t love the titles coming in 83 minutes in for the first time
  • HR

gem I want to spotlight : House of Strangers

  • there’s a stunning shot in the first third of the film as we go from the current strand of time to a long flashback. The camera starts next to a portrait of Edward G. Robinson (whose character is deceased and only in the 1 hour flashback- not the 20 minute opening and ending bookends set in current time) with Richard Conte’s character turning opera on the radio. The camera tracks up the stairs, traveling out almost with the music (really elegantly done). It dissolves into a flashback of that same spot in the mansion years ago and another tracking shot of Edward G Singing that same opera in the bathtub. The rest of the film is a very good drama with fine writing and acting, buts this shot that may get it into the back end of the top 10 of 1949.
  • Parts of the film shot on location in Little Italy in New York
  • There’s an influence on The Godfather for sure. New York mob family. A bunch of brothers that are very different 4 (which including Duvall is the same). Italian patriarch. Crime. Conte would play Barzini in The Godfather.
  • Conte is superb- the best I’ve seen him. He is intelligent and arrogant. He can give a speech.
  • Edward G and Susan Hayward are ok—but their performance isn’t on the level of Conte and frankly Edward G with that flimsy Italian accent gets blown off the screen a few times (Edward G as Little Caesar in 1930 has a long history of playing Italian Americans on screen—mostly successfully) when sharing it with Conte
  • Sharp dialogue—“This isn’t Mulberry Street and you aren’t El Duce”
  • Great scene with Robinson and Conte in the 2nd street baths
  • The scene with the run on the banks is great- hard not to think of Jimmy Stewart’s scene in It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Impressive shot at the funeral for Edward G where the three brothers opposing Conte are in one shot and in the reverse shot there’s Conte with the portrait of Edward G behind him
  • Back to the portrait as the flashback ends

stylistic innovations/traits:  Hard-hitting cynical dialogue, flashbacks, terrific acting ensembles and writing are just a few of the trademarks of Mankiewicz’s films. In Ghost and Mrs. Muir Gene Tierney is described as “obstinate” and is tired of “people always telling me what to do”—maybe something in common with All About Eve. The sarcastic voice-over is very down-gazing—we have multiple voice-over narrators often (Three Wives, All About Eve, Barefoot Contessa).  In Julius yes it is Shakespeare of course multiple characters perspective driving the narrative, dialogue on fire, and top-notch acting—not that different than All About Eve. There a few key scenes in his body of work where the camerawork or visual (which he is not known for at all) excels. The soliloquy of Brando in Julius Caesar with the crane, the freeze frame (not many in 1950) paired with voice-over in All About Eve, the final shot of All About Eve. Nominated for a total of 6 best screenplay Oscars. The writing by Mankiewicz is often stunning. It’s witty, throwing 100+mph the entire time, cutting like a razor—very Wilder-like or Sorkin-like. Early adapter of the Saul Bass posters and titles—No Way Out is his first film credit (poster) I believe.

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Early adapter of the Saul Bass posters and titles—No Way Out is his first film credit (poster) I believe.

top 10

  1. All About Eve
  2. Julius Caesar
  3. A Letter To Three Wives
  4. House of Strangers
  5. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
  6. The Barefoot Contessa
  7. Cleopatra
  8. Sleuth
  9. The Quiet American
  10. Five Fingers

By year and grades

1946- Somewhere in the Night R
1947- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir R/HR
1949- A Letter To Three Wives R/HR
1949- House of Strangers R/HR
1950 – No Way Out R
1950- All About Eve MS
1952- Five Fingers
1953- Julius Caesar HR
1954- The Barefoot Contessa R/HR
1955- Guys and Dolls R
1958- The Quiet American R
1959- Suddenly Last Summer R
1963- Cleopatra R
1967- The Honey Pot R
1972- Sleuth R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives