The Three Faces of Eve Review
Eve White (Woodward), by all accounts an ordinary housewife, is brought to avuncular psychiatrist Dr Luther (Cobb) by her taciturn husband (Wayne), complaining of severe headaches and spells of amnesia. After a shocking incident in which she tries to kill her daughter, Luther deepens his probing of the young woman and witnesses her transform before his eyes into a completely different personality, a flirtatious and manipulative character who refers to herself as Eve Black. Continued treatment places further stresses on Eve White, who is mortified by the havoc caused by her sultry alter-ego every time she 'comes out'. As Luther struggles to find the key to Eve's disturbed psyche, a third personality appears, the calm and sophisticated Jane, who views the two opposing Eves as if she were their compassionate elder sister. Her appearance does little to calm the original Eve, who grows suicidal. It falls to Luther to discover the true face of Eve before her confused sense of self becomes the cause of her self-destruction.
'The Three Faces of Eve' is closely based on the actual case history of Chris Sizemore, a modest Georgia housewife and an extremely rare example of split personality disorder, painstakingly documented by Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley, the two psychiatrists who 'discovered' her in 1951. Their resulting book was picked up in galley form by Nunnally Johnson (who, with ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘The World of Henry Orient’ had proved himself a dab hand at adapting books for the screen), who wrote the screenplay and produced and directed the film. It was his idea to add an authoritative filmed introduction, delivered straight to camera, from 'distinguished journalist and commentator' Alistair Cooke, who also provides a voice over throughout the film.
'The Three Faces of Eve' is an engrossing, if somewhat dated drama that never quite fulfills its considerable promise. Partly this is because of Johnson’s refusal to exaggerate the events in the book; other than the unfeasibly happy ending (in reality, Sizemore’s symptoms continued - and even multiplied - on and off for another 20 years) the narrative closely follows the documentation of both Doctors. This admirable insistence on accuracy sometimes tips over into a somewhat self-conscious worthiness; the paternalistic introduction, which continues in a remarkably condescending voice-over throughout the film ("Now all Dr Luther had to do was explain the situation to Ralph!") certainly dates the film in this sense, but is hardly surprising given how little general knowledge there was about psychology in the 1950s. Sometimes it has unintentionally humorous results: the scene where Eve, in her sexy Eve Black persona, flirtatiously lifts her leg in front of Luther, prompting his gravel-voiced retort: "You're wasting your time with that... I'm a doctor!" is one such. The brief musical numbers, presumably inserted to appease audiences in the musical-mad 50s, are somewhat less amusing, coming across as bizarrely inappropriate
Chief among 'Eve's qualities is, of course, Joanne Woodward, who won the Oscar for best actress for the role. It's a performance of remarkable concentration, which steers clear of histrionics and instead offers an utterly compelling portrait of a woman who alternately revels in and is tormented by her condition. Woodward has the ability to appear totally unselfconscious onscreen, achieving a degree of transparency that makes her magnetic to watch. It's a capacity only available to absolute neophytes or extremely gifted actresses at the very top of their game (Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda spring to mind in the latter category). It's not as well developed here as it would become in 'The Fugitive Kind’, but this is still an exceptional performance, and quite a brave one. The role was offered to Lana Turner, Doris Day, Olivia De Havilland, Jennifer Jones and Jean Simmons (the latter being the only one from that list that I could imagine being even vaguely convincing in such a role) but all were too scared by the intensity of the material to accept it. Interestingly, Woodward revisited the theme of multiple personalities, this time on the other side of the psychiatrist's couch, when she made the fine TV drama 'Sybil' playing a therapist treating a patient with similar symptoms to Eve. This time it was Sally Field who turned in the extraordinary performance as a troubled young woman.
Woodward is given solid support by the eternally reliable Lee J Cobb, perhaps best known for two roles from the middle and end of his career respectively: Juror #3 - the last of the '12 Angry Men' to vote innocent - and Detective Kinderman in 'The Exorcist'. Here he’s a model of Hippocratic restraint, the still, steady point to ground Woodward’s display of virtuosity. The fact that he does this without ever becoming staid or dull to watch (to the contrary he injects a lot of humour into his performance) is a mark of what a great actor Cobb was.
The other jewel in ‘Eve’ is Stanley Cortez's superb cinematography, which is a constant delight. Cortez was a master of shadows, creating beautifully lit and often menacing compositions in 'Night of the Hunter' and 'The Magnificent Ambersons'. 'Eve' was the first movie he shot in 'Scope and he fills the frame with wonderful details, creating scenes of sharply defined tension, often hemming Eve in among the razor sharp lines of a room as if depicting the torment of her fractured psyche. Sometimes this technique does grow a little heavy-handed - coat stands loom like gallows - but on the whole the film, served by a great transfer, looks absolutely fantastic.
Aubrey Solomon's commentary is extremely informative if a little dry. His knowledge of Fox films is doubtless without peer but the commentary often lapses into long pauses, only broken by descriptions of how a particular scene differs from how it was originally written in the screenplay. There is some interesting stuff here, however. One point that the commentary cleared up was about the speed of transition between one personality and the next that Woodward undergoes. In the film this happens extremely quickly, the Doctor having only to ask Eve for a new personality by name in order for it to flicker into her consciousness. I took this for convenient Hollywood scriptwriting, but apparently it's completely true; the two doctors kept copious notes and even shot footage of their sessions with Sizemore, upon which Woodward based her performance.
The special features are rounded off with the Theatrical Trailer and some quaint 'Movietone News Footage of the 1957 Academy Awards showing a tearful Joanne Woodward accepting her award.
I'm extremely impressed, even blown away, by how good 'The Three Faces of Eve' looks on DVD. There's some extremely minor dirt and dust but basically this is a gorgeous, pin-sharp print, that belies the fact the film is nearly 50 years old. Beautiful.
As with most of the other titles in the 'Studio Classics' range, a stereo track and a monaural audio track are provided.
From the distance of nearly half a century 'The Three Faces of Eve' stands up very well, an admirably understated and serious-minded treatment of a true story in a decade that cherished hysterical melodrama. The transfer by Fox is a joy to behold, making it an excellent addition to their Studio Classics range.