One of cinemas all-time classics, All About Eve is a hugely influential, nigh-on perfect film; light and funny but also incredibly sharp, with a dry wit and barbed insults. Hugely influential and an ever prescient cautionary tale about ambition, Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s sparkling script is full of quotable dialogue, delivered impeccably by a cast at the top of their game.
Bette Davis gives her defining performance as prima donna theatre actress Margot Channing, who is approached by mousy fan Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) who has attended every single performance of Margot’s play. Feeling sorry for Eve, Margot takes her on as a personal assistant, until her constant presence begins to rub Margot up the wrong way, and it seems that Eve is less innocent than she appears.
What sets All About Eve apart from its contemporaries is the focus on female characters. Davis is on fire, giving a performance that’s both hard-as-nails and incredibly vulnerable, regal and childlike. Celeste Holm generates warmth and decency as the all-too-trusting Helen. Even the relatively minor turns from Thelma Ritter and an impossibly young Marilyn Monroe sparkle, and each of them make their characters stand out. Ritter is always a delight, (if you enjoy her role as Birdie, you should watch her in Rear Window and Pick Up On South Street) but Monroe is especially funny in her brief appearance. Both are granted more wit, intelligence and personality than most of the male characters.
When I first saw the film I was completely taken in by Baxter’s innocent turn, but on a re-watch her ambition seems apparent from the start. The way she modifies her voice depending on who she’s talking to is an incredibly effective hint – When in the presence of those who can help with her career, she employs a silky, soft voice, but in private it becomes harsh and tough. The look of contempt we see when her mask briefly slips is brilliantly feral, and betrays her ulterior motives.
The male characters are a bit wet by comparison; Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe get some great lines but their characters are utterly guileless, getting won over by Eve so easily. The only man who seems immune to Eve’s charms is George Sanders’ acid tongued Addison DeWitt, one of cinemas wittiest characterisations of the critic; a gleefully amoral character who revels in all the backstabbing. Sanders is a catty delight, and his sonorous voice makes him the perfect narrator for the film.
Mankiewicz is often criticised for his directing style – like Billy Wilder, he’s credited for his memorable dialogue but not being the most imaginative visual director. In All About Eve this is largely true too, but there are a handful of cinematic moments that bely the director’s reputation. He demonstrates a confident use of lighting and editing (including an early use of the freeze frame) and the final shot is incredibly evocative, representing the ambition of Eve and the numerous young actresses who will supplant her.
More than anything else, Mankiewicz’s film is a celebration of acting, of all kinds. There’s the obvious acting of the theatre, the brave face Margot puts on and the duplicitous acting of Eve, pretending to be someone she’s not (the initial story she tells in Margot’s changing rooms is pure performance, and shrewdly called out by Birdie – “Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end”). All About Eve is that rare thing, a film made in 1950 that feels just as fresh and witty today as it did back then.
While this release essentially replicates the previous Blu-ray release, it’s still a comprehensive package, comprised of two audio commentaries, one featuring actor Celeste Holm, Christopher Mankiewicz, and author Kenneth L. Geist; the other featuring author Sam Staggs; Episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Davis and Merrill; An interview with costume historian Larry McQueen; Numerous documentaries; Radio adaptation; Trailer; An essay by critic Terrence Rafferty and the 1946 short story on which the film is based.