Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Three Faces of Eve (20th Century-Fox, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Three Faces of Eve, which I’d seen on the TCM schedule (thanks to its Academy Award-winning performance by Joanne Woodward) and thought it would be fun to watch right after having seen the second version of Sybil — Woodward, of course, had played the therapist in the first version of Sybil 19 years after playing a multiple personality herself in this film. The Three Faces of Eve was based on a book by the real-life therapists, Dr. Corbett Thigpen and Dr. Hervey Cleckley — and it was produced, written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, who’s mostly thought of as a comedy writer but also had some impressive dramatic credits on his résumé, notably John Ford’s films The Prisoner of Shark Island and The Grapes of Wrath — but not as a director.

Oddly, Johnson’s script for this film not only fictionalized the name of “Eve” (she was really Christine Costner Sizemore) but of the therapists as well — Dr. Thigpen became “Curtis Luther” (Lee J. Cobb) and Dr. Cleckley became “Francis Day” (Edwin Jerome) — and Johnson’s original choice to play Eve was, of all people, Judy Garland. Actually Judy would have been superb on the merits — her real-life mental discombobulation would have served her in the role — but the film would probably have been way too tough on her and it’s highly unlikely she could have made it through it without breaking down for real. Johnson also approached June Allyson — hard as that is to believe — but her husband, Dick Powell, told her she’d be miscast and she should turn it down. So he turned to Joanne Woodward, a young actress under long-term contract to 20th Century-Fox who had made only two previous films, and it turned out to be a tour de force for her. She won the Academy Award for this film and she thoroughly deserved it; she nails the rapidity with which “Eve” cycles through her personalities, though not surprisingly she’s strongest in the scenes in which she’s the sluttish “Eve Black,” the most liberated and amoral of the three faces (there’s also the retiring, mousy housewife “Eve White” and “Jane,” the in-control mature adult who ultimately becomes the dominant personality and, at least in this reading of the story, freezes the other two out).

It’s good that Woodward’s performance is so great because the rest of the film is pretty mediocre. Johnson’s direction is singularly uninspired; shooting in black-and-white CinemaScope (once Fox’s contract with the process’s inventor, Henri Chrétien, was modified in 1956 so that it no longer required that all CinemaScope films be in color), Johnson takes all too seriously the injunction in Fox’s handbook on how to use the process that the sheer size of the screen meant closeups were no longer necessary. Scene after scene that would benefit from closeups doesn’t get them. Though Stanley Cortez is the credited cinematographer, the photography is dull and low-contrasty, straightforward and well-lit even in scenes (like the “Eve Black” sequences) that cry out for an atmospheric, noir-ish treatment. The supporting cast is also weak; Lee J. Cobb never convinces as a therapist (and it doesn’t help that Johnson’s script offers nary a clue as to what school of psychiatry he belongs to; he avoids psychoanalysis but his therapeutic techniques, as depicted here, run all over the map), and David Wayne as Eve’s husband comes off as not only a proletarian boor but just as crazy as she is — especially in the scene in which he beats her; one finds oneself wishing they’d lock him in a mental institution!

Woodward gets to sing two songs, “Hold Me” and “I Never Knew,” while hanging out in nightclubs as “Eve Black” — and though Judy Garland would no doubt have sung them far better (which might not have been that good for the film’s dramatic credibility; one of the weaknesses of the film Pal Joey is that the title character is supposed to be a mediocre entertainer, but Frank Sinatra performs his songs at the peak of his vocal and dramatic powers), Woodward (assuming it’s her own voice —’s entry on the film doesn’t list a voice double) acquits herself surprisingly well. One of the interesting might-have-beens in connection with this film was that, before Lee J. Cobb was cast as Dr. Luther, the role was offered to Orson Welles — which not only would have reunited him and Cortez from The Magnificent Ambersons but also suggests how much more interesting this film would have been with Welles directing it as well; given his skill in getting great performances out of women (Agnes Moorehead, Dorothy Comingore and Rita Hayworth all made the best films of their careers under Welles’ direction) Welles might have got an even better reading of “Eve” out of Woodward than the fine one she actually gave, and had he and Cortez been able to get along (they hadn't on Ambersons), the atmosphere and visual stylistics they created on Ambersons would have served this story far better than Johnson’s blandness, even though the most visually oriented direction in the world couldn’t have cured the main flaw of this movie: the literally unbelievable ending.

Even if we didn’t know from Chris Sizemore’s later memoir, I’m Eve, that she really had 26 personalities, not just three, and that Dr. Thigpen was a manipulative, exploitative therapist who extracted from her absolute rights to her life story, so she not only didn’t make a dime from the book The Three Faces of Eve or this film, she actually had to sue to get the right to write her own book about herself, we’d still have a hard time believing that Eve’s problems could be solved by one climactic revelation from a single therapy session (she supposedly dissociated when she, as a child, was forced by her parents to kiss the lips of her dead grandmother “so that you’ll always remember her”) and the love of a decent man, Earl (Ken Scott), with whom she drives off at the end once that boor of a husband has divorced her.