Fox // 1950 // 138 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 7th, 2011
It's all about women -- and their men!
"What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."
Margo Channing (Bette Davis, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) is one of America's most esteemed stage actresses; a living legend who has enlivened one well-regarded production after another. Margo's biggest fan is a young woman named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter, The Ten Commandments), who has attended every matinee performance of Margo's latest play. At long last, Margo agrees to meet the young fan, and the two hit it off immediately. Eve becomes Margo's assistant, friend and understudy, and for a while life is very pleasant indeed for the both of them. Alas, the truth of the situation slowly begins to reveal itself: Eve has been using Margo as a means of creating her own stage career. By the time Margo realizes that she's not only being used but also potentially replaced, it may be too late.
It's an intriguing coincidence that the two greatest films of 1950 are both about aging actresses who enter a period of great despair upon realizing that their time has passed. The first is Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard; the second is Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve. Debating which film is superior is a bit like squabbling over which pile of gold is shinier, but there is one area in which the latter works better for me: the central performance.
To be sure, Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond is a magnificent creation, but Bette Davis' Margo Channing is both magnificent and undeniably real. Yes, she is vain and too often believes the flattery others shower her with, but she is never so consumed by her vices that she becomes blinded by them. In addition to being a preening diva, Margo is just as frequently intelligent, witty, tender and deeply human. If Margo stands a greater chance than Norma of rising from the ashes of her fading career, it is because she is ultimately sensible enough to recognize what is and what isn't. Margo's spectacular meltdown at a dinner party is so effective because there are barbs of truth sprinkled in with the vain wailing and gnashing of teeth. This character would have been so easy to turn into a cartoon, but Davis plays every note perfectly: the subtle grace notes are as masterful as the entertaining, surface-level bombast.
The film itself is largely as fine-tuned and observant as Davis' performance. Re-watching it for the first time in a few years, I was struck by how many perfect little touches exist in Mankiewicz's screenplay. Who knew Mankiewicz had a film like this in him? He had written many screenplays and directed quite a few movies before this one, and he wrote and directed quite a few more afterwards. Some of these were rather good, but none approached the pure greatness, the startling confidence and the delicious wit present in All About Eve.
Consider, for instance, the manner in which Margo's friend Birdie (Thelma Ritter, Rear Window) sees right through Eve's innocent act from the very beginning; the way the film underlines the emotional manipulation of cinema by contrasting Eve's sweetly-scored sob story with Birdie's cutting reaction. Examine the way the characters regard each other during the first act; the countless looks that speak countless volumes. See the way Eve studies Margo, the way Birdie studies Eve, the way playwright Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill, Twelve O'Clock High) patiently observes Margo and the way Margo too often doesn't really, truly observe anyone other than herself (fascinatingly enough, this is occasionally a virtue). The screenplay is particularly chatty and loaded with terrific one-liners, but the characters never say more than they need to. There is a brutal frankness at times, as when Bill tells Eve, "Don't cry. Just score it as an incomplete forward pass."
I haven't yet mentioned the great Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, Rebecca), who would easily be the best character in almost in other movie. In this one, he's simply another spectacular addition; a theatre critic whose ego is only matched by his stinging gift of analysis. Sanders is a scene-stealer at times simply because his performance is so good and his lines are so memorable, but he's also a very generous actor: he knows when to back off and allow the spotlight to shine on others. Sanders won an Oscar for his performance and deserved it, though it's a crime that Davis didn't win along with him (she was somehow defeated not by the aforementioned Swanson, but by Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday). I should also make a note of Marilyn Monroe, who makes a delightful impression in one of her early roles. It's a small part, but the actress has never been better; Monroe delivers every line with such giddy comic perfection ("Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?").
All About Eve arrives on Blu-ray sporting a crisp, clean 1080p/Full Frame transfer. There's a moderate, pleasing level of grain onhand throughout and generally excellent detail. A handful of soft moments are entirely due to the manner in which the film was shot. For the most part, blacks are rich and inky. Audio is strong as well, with Alfred Newman's signature strings coming through with surprising richness and strength. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and there's no popping or hissing. This is a dialogue-driven film without any standout audio moments, but it sounds as good as it should.
The 2003 DVD release of All About Eve offered a generous selection of special features, all of which are re-appearing on this release: An audio commentary with Celeste Holm, Christopher Mankiewicz & Kenneth Geist and a second commentary Sam Staggs, a 25-minute "AMC Backstory" featurette on the film, archival interviews with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, four Movietone newsreels and three theatrical trailers. In addition, you also get the four recently-produced featurettes from the 2008 2-disc DVD: "Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz" (26 minutes), "A Personal Journey" (26 minutes), "The Real Eve" (18 minutes) and "The Secret of Sarah Siddons" (7 minutes). The disc is housed in an attractive digibook package, though I must admit that I like Fox's approach a little less than the similar Warner Bros. releases. The Fox digibook is slimmer, offers fewer pages and houses the disc inside a somewhat flimsy cardboard slit. It looks nice on the shelf, but the Warner Bros. digibooks are a little sturdier and more substantial.
All About Eve is an intelligent, witty and sophisticated gem that never once becomes pretentious or condescending. Films this good are few and far between, and this one should be a part of every movie lover's collection. Fox's Blu-ray release does the movie justice.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Russian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Thai)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated