Nunnally Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957) seems an odd duck for the Cinemascope treatment; its narrative neither enhanced nor compensated by the expansive 2.35.1 aspect ratio; the Fox and Cinemascope logos looking starkly out of place in black and white. Fox’s patented widescreen process may not have been the most capable (the warping of vertical lines to the extreme right and left of center, and the infamous ‘mumps’ syndrome two of its biggest drawbacks), but it remained the most popular throughout the 1950’s, readily licensed to rival studios. After 1954, all movies made at 2oth Century-Fox became Cinemascope movies as well. One can choose to regard this as either a plus or a minus. In fact, not every movie needed the massive frame to tell its story. But Fox needed to illustrate the superiority of the motion picture format. Hence, if ‘bigger’ equated to ‘better’ then Cinemascope was undeniably at the forefront of a motion picture revolution.
In hindsight, The Three Faces of Eve is thoroughly in keeping with the edict for telling stories committed to expanding the social conscience and moral character of the nation. Darryl F. Zanuck may not have been Fox’s driving force by 1957, but his imprint is arguably all over this production. The studio had, in fact, explored the plight of the mentally disturbed ten years earlier with Zanuck’s personally supervised production of Anatole Litvak’s Oscar-winning The Snake Pit (1948). Until The Snake Pit, mental disease was considered taboo subject matter for the movies. Yet, The Snake Pit changed both audience and Hollywood’s perceptions about the mentally ill. In fact, the film’s critical and financial success ensured that other like-minded movies, intelligently scripted, would follow, including The Three Faces of Eve; the first movie to openly address multiple personality disorder.
But in retrospect, The Three Faces of Eve seems to be encumbered by Nunnally Johnson’s rather heavy-handed direction and an inherent rigidity to its source material; a treatise written by psychiatrists Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley. The film is rather awkwardly prefaced by no less an authoritative personality than Alfred Alistair Cooke; the famed British/American journalist, television personality and radio broadcaster; Johnson adding credibility to the screen credit reading ‘based on’ and ensuring that audiences knew the story about to unfold was arguably ‘true’ to the circumstances of one Chris Costner Sizemore – rechristened for obvious reasons in the movie as Eve White.
Purely from an acting standpoint, The Three Faces of Eve is on very solid ground. Joanne Woodward’s enactment of the common Southern frump plagued by reoccurring voices in her head and the manifestation of three distinct personalities trapped from within is often chilling and ultimately dramatically satisfying. Woodward genuinely commands the screen. And a good thing it is too, for nothing else in the movie can sell its wares quite so convincingly. Lee J. Cobb is exquisite as the attentive Dr. Curtis Luther, and David Wayne – as Eve’s befuddled but rather thuggish husband, Ralph – provides uncharacteristically strong support (Wayne’s repertoire usually relegated to a series of ‘feel good’ Johnnies or ingratiating, but bumbling buffoons). Still, the show clearly belongs to Woodward and the three women she readily conjures to life with terrifying transitional clarity.
The chief problem herein is that for large portions of the narrative Stanley Cortez’ cinematography is so static, so uninspired, so content to remain focused in medium long shot or even long shot, relying almost exclusively on the actors within his frame to occupy its space in interesting ways, that the cumulative effect is akin to observing a moving tableau; stage bound and, at least from a purely cinematic critique, frightfully anesthetizing. The camera is never involved in the story; the principles rarely photographed in close up, the lay of the land filling the Cinemascope aperture with stagnant compositions that concentrate on establishing distinct fore, middle and backgrounds without allowing the audience beyond its well-established proscenium.
The debut of Cinemascope often had this stifling effect on directors; Vincente Minnelli’s famed comment (that the elongated shape was only fit for photographing funeral processions and snakes) rather evocative in summarizing the approach Johnson and Cortez have taken in staging virtually all of The Three Faces of Eve. Action moves on a horizontal plain, the actors either walking left to right or vice/versa. Tracking and dolly shots are nonexistent. I may seem to be dwelling on this point, but watching The Three Faces of Eve made me acutely aware that something was remiss. You get the distinct sense that Johnson and Cortez would have been much contented exploring their story in the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1. It’s just that obvious.
Once again, the plus is Joanne Woodward – both Oscar-worthy and winning the coveted Best Actress statuette. Woodward is utterly magnetic within each of Eve’s turmoil-stricken mechanics of survival; her alter egos (Eve Black and Jane) are made distinctively whole with shocking clairvoyance. The balancing act in Woodward’s portrait cannot be overstated. She is exceptional in the part, and her penultimate success with it instantly catapulted the relative unknown to prominence – although, arguably (and curiously in hindsight) not into super stardom. For whatever reason, Woodward is largely remembered today as the other half in a marriage to megastar/philanthropist, Paul Newman. But Woodward most definitely deserves her place among the greats for The Three Faces of Eve – a breakout with plenty of opportunity for the actress to exercise her formidable acting chops.
The trick of it is Woodward never appears to be grandstanding; her carefully placed nuances always genuine and mesmerizing. She commands our attention seemingly because she isn’t trying to, or rather – is – but in an unaffected naturalist approach to the material. There is a counterbalance to Woodward’s Eves – White or Black – the former, rather tragically humbled by her ogre of a husband, the latter deviously seeking escape from that self-imposed marital rigidity. It could have so easily become rank parody or, at the very least, obvious. Woodward is neither. The rest of the cast are just window-dressing for what is essentially a ‘one woman’ (well…alright…three in one) show.
Our rather turgid introduction to the source material is read with leaden severity by Alistair Cooke, casually leaning against empty theater seats with a blank movie screen behind him. It’s a very odd prologue indeed; for Cooke is neither a movie personality nor an authoritative source on psychoanalysis. He was, however, under contract to 2oth Century-Fox. Cooke stresses the facts, suggesting that only the slightest alterations have been made to accommodate the artistic requirements of cinema. Yet we are only superficially informed of the particulars of Eve’s case before the screen fades into an idyllic small town; the bulk of the specifics regarding Eve’s struggle left for kindly Dr. Curtis Luther (Lee J. Cobb) to piece together and then deconstruct.
We are introduced to the Whites. Ralph (David Wayne) has brought his wife Eve (Joanne Woodward) to Dr. Luther mostly to satisfy his own dissatisfaction with her seemingly dysfunctional lying. Ralph’s withered grasp on Eve’s condition is so pedestrian he really does come across as an uncompromising clod. Our hearts and sympathies are therefore with Eve. We regress in flashback to an incident where Ralph discovers their young daughter, Bonnie (Terry Ann Ross) clomping about the house in a pair of decidedly ritzy high heel shoes.
Asked to explain herself, Bonnie tells Ralph that ‘mommy’ said she could wear her shoes. Ralph makes a B-line for the bedroom where he discovers several large boxes from a local retailer containing various flashy frocks. Confronting Eve with a belligerent ‘snap to it’ edict to explain herself, Eve denies knowing anything about the purchases. In fact, she tells Ralph she thought he was just ‘being sweet’. To get to the bottom of things, Ralph telephones acquaintance, Effie Blanford (Mary Field) a salesgirl at the store who gloats about how wonderful Eve looked in the dresses she tried on and bought earlier in the day. Ralph is incensed, partly over the exorbitant $200 price tag attached to the fashionable clothes, but moreover because he feels Eve has deliberately deceived him and is now compounding the insult by considering him too much the fool to follow up on her deceptions.
Ralph confronts Eve and she descends into a minor hysteria from which her first alter ego – Eve Black – quickly manifests. As Ralph begins to pack the dresses for their return to the store he hears Bonnie’s blood-curdling screams in the next room and emerges to discover Eve wrapping the cords of a Venetian blind around their daughter’s neck. Racing to Bonnie’s rescue, Ralph casts Eve to the floor; the shock bringing Eve back to herself as Ralph threatens to kill her if she moves from the spot where she lays.
We regress to Dr. Luther’s office with Ralph challenging Eve to explain herself and/or deny that she intended to harm their child. Dr. Luther comforts Ralph, but ushers him from the office to question Eve alone. He quickly discovers Eve has been prone to frequent headaches and lapses of memory – what she calls ‘blackouts’ with no recollection of her actions. Dr. Luther presses the point and Eve confides in him. Ralph may wish to have her legally declared mad and committed so that he can gain sole custody of Bonnie. But Eve also sincerely fears that she is losing her mind. She tells Dr. Luther she hears voices – then further confesses that the voices seem to belong to her, or at least parts of her consciousness that remain separate and apart from her own sense of self.
Dr. Luther comforts again, explaining that if Eve were going mad she would have rather embraced this inner spiral out of control as a pleasurable experience. Before long, Eve Black emerges to take Eve White’s place; slipping out of her nylon stockings and turning up the radio. As Eve suddenly expresses a rather laissez faire attitude toward both her marriage and Eve White, Dr. Luther realizes he is no longer dealing with the same woman. He hurries to an adjoining room to consult with his colleague, Dr. Francis Day (Edwin Jerome), leaving Eve alone for just a moment or two. The psychiatrists quickly deduce that although Eve Black seems to know virtually everything about her alter ego, Eve White is completely unaware Eve Black even exists.
Regrettably, The Three Faces of Eve devolves from this rather facile non sequitur into an even more lumbering exposé reporting to be gleaned from the conflicted mind of a schizophrenic. Yet one can sense the artistic struggle within Nunnally Johnson as both the film’s director and writer as he flirts with the more salacious aspects of Eve Black’s adulterous scandals (picking up a rather brutish sailor played by Joe Rudan in a seedy bar, meeting Ralph at a disreputable motel only to be physically assaulted by him, Ralph abandoning Eve and Bonnie in a flurry of rage, self-pity and abject disgust). Johnson’s initial approach to the story is leaden, academic and highbrow. But he is also unable to resist an inkling to indulge the tawdry (after all – it sells tickets). The insurmountable regret is that in the final analysis, The Three Faces of Eve is neither a clinical evaluation of Eve White’s crumbling mental state, nor a Hollywood-ized version of mental disease appropriated for its pure entertainment value. Instead, it remains a mutt; its artistry polarized and tugging against the middle; the movie becoming little more than a weak absorption never fully expressed beyond these preliminary stages.
Dr. Luther’s regression hypnotherapy leads to the inevitable Freudian conclusion (that Eve White’s split personality stems from a traumatic watershed that happened in her youth; in this case, the death of Eve’s beloved grandmother, who died when Eve (played in flashback by eight year old Mimi Gibson) was only six years old. Eve’s parents (Nancy Kulp and Douglas Spencer) tried to get the terrorized girl to kiss the body lying in its casket. Instead, this fright led to Eve’s mental implosion, the manifestations of Eve Black and the more astute and clear-eyed Jane helping Eve White to cope with and release her anxieties; albeit in some very unhealthy ways.
Nunnally Johnson baits the audience with his ‘surprise’ ending. Having exorcised her inner demons and made sense of it all…well…sort of, Dr. Luther asks to speak to Eve and is amazed when only Jane – the most sensible of the trio – responds. Realizing that the three personalities have become one, Dr. Luther pronounces Even/Jane cured. She departs his clinic with renewed optimism on the arm of a young man, Earl (Ken Scott) who promises to be more understanding and compassionate than Ralph ever was. Eve is also reunited with Bonnie, this new family unit departing for a much more promising future. This ending is a bit too simplistic, moreover clichéd than anything else in its proverbial – though mismanaged – attempt at establishing a ‘feel good’; desperate to suggest some sort of clarity has emerged from the convoluted mire that was, and in fact, remains Eve’s precarious mental state.
If nothing else, The Three Faces of Eve is an intriguing character study; one turned down by virtually every top-flight actress in the industry. Given what we know about multiple personality disorders (MPD) today the film’s methodology is fundamentally flawed. Yet, this should not negate the potency in either Joanne Woodward’s performance or the sincerity with which the movie’s premise was assembled by Nunnally Johnson. In fact, Johnson remains exceptionally faithful – if ever-so-slightly hazy of the particulars of this case, providing a partly factual blueprint of the process used to help restore the real Chris Costner Sizemore from her own mental conflicts.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Joanne Woodward walked away with the Oscar; a prediction made by Orson Welles who was first approached to play the benevolent Dr. Luther. Woodward’s iconoclastic performance remains the template by which all other movies attempting to illustrate the perplexities of schizophrenia draw inspiration. Moreover, in choosing Thigpen and Cleckley’s ‘A Case of Multiple Personality’ as his subject matter, Nunnally Johnson was tapping into the public’s then beguilement with anomalies of the mind; the probing begun in Shirley Jackson’s novel ‘The Bird’s Nest’ (made into Lizzie the same year as The Three Faces of Eve). In preparing for the role, Woodward carefully studied the regression therapy tapes made of Sizemore’s startling transformations; Johnson encouraging his star to slow down the shifts between personalities because he felt audiences unaccustomed to MPD would find them otherwise unconvincing…or even, comical.
For all its claims of fidelity to the source material it is important to remember that the real Sizemore was never ‘cured’ of her multiple personalities. She had, in fact, twenty-two living inside of her (not three) and these continued to manifest themselves, albeit with less frequency throughout the rest of her days. Johnson had hoped to have Sizemore appear in the movie as her own commentator – a suggestion shot down by Thigpen and Cleckley. In fact, Sizemore did not see the movie until 1974, admitting that it highly fictionalized her bouts with schizophrenia. If anything, The Three Faces of Eve inspired Sizemore to set the record straight by writing her own autobiographical accounts of the disease; 1977’s I'm Eve and 1989’s A Mind of My Own.
Viewed today, The Three Faces of Eve remains a respectful if slightly dull movie; factually flawed but ultimately capturing the essential components of a very real and crippling mental disorder. At 91 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. But it remains essentially compelling because of Woodward’s performance. The rest doesn’t mean much or play half as well. In the months leading to her Oscar win, Woodward, who would establish her own sense of conflicted love/hate outspokenness in her condemnations of Hollywood. But even before The Three Faces of Eve had its premiere she was rather critical of both the movie and her performance in it, telling one reporter, “If I had an infinite amount of respect for the people who think I gave the greatest performance, then it would matter to me.”
Fox Home Video’s 1080p rendering of The Three Faces of Eve is pretty sweet. The Blu-ray exhibits a very smooth, very crisp hi-def B&W transfer. The minimal appearance of film grain suggests that some DNR has been applied. Thankfully, the image isn’t waxy and retains fine details and a smattering of indigenous grain. Contrast levels are exquisite. Blacks are velvety and rich. Whites are pristine. Age-related artifacts are absent for a presentation that will surely not disappoint. Given Cinemascope’s 6 track capabilities, it is a curiosity that The Three Faces of Eve is released in standard mono. The DTS mono mix is solid. Fox’s DVD contained a pseudo-stereo edit as well but this hasn’t made the transition to Blu-ray. Extras are fairly limited and all imports from Fox’s DVD, including Aubrey Solomon’s audio commentary and a scant Oscar presentation Movietones short. Solomon speaks with integrity and a wealth of knowledge; truly a worth-while listen. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)