Film Friday: Nunnally Johnson's 'The Three Faces of Eve' starring Joanne Woodward

By Daniel S Levine,

It truly is amazing what wide variety of source material can inspire a filmmaker. A book by two psychologists might not sound like filmable material, but it did to Nunnally Johnson, one of the top writers at 20th Century Fox during the studio era. Corbett H. Thigpen, M.D. and Harvey M. Clerkley, M.D. published a book in 1957 about a South Carolina woman who struggled with multiple personalities. This case so interested Johnson that he snapped up the film rights and decided to not only write the script, but direct as well. The end result was The Three Faces of Eve, which features a towering performance from Joanne Woodward. Unfortunately, like Johnson's other directing efforts, the overall product falls short.

Woodward plays Eve White, a housewife whose husband Ralph (David Wayne) takes her to psychiatrist Dr. Luther (Lee J. Cobb) because she has complained about blackouts and headaches. During these blackouts, she acts like a completely different person – a party girl who wastes money, runs off to Atlanta and puts their young daughter in danger. Luther discovers that Eve is actually suffering from multiple personalities when he finally meets this other personality, Eve Black. But as Luther continues to try to understand what made Eve this way, he can only discover the truth by finding Eve's third personality, Jane.

The Three Faces of Eve provides the role for Woodward that really launched her career. While she had been in a few movies and even television shows before Johnson cast her, this is the movie that made her a bona-fide star. It allowed her to show a full range that a single role will rarely ever do. After all, she got to play three very distinct personalities. I'd stress that word because while Eve Black, Eve White and Jane are different people, they are different facets of the same character. Woodward never forgets that they are extreme parts of a single person. This allows the audience to buy into the idea that there can be a happy ending, in which all three come together to create a single person.

As great as Woodward is, there is a reason why she earned the film's only Oscar nomination. Johnson was never a great director and his other films – which include the melodramatic color noir Black Widow (1954) and the overlong, dreary The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) – make that clear. While his credits include the screenplays to some of the greatest achievements in Fox's history (including both John Ford's Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road), he made poor decisions in his directorial efforts.

For Eve, he made the unforgivable mistake of including a narration from journalist Alistair Cooke. This shows an incredible lack of faith in the audience to understand what Eve is going through and a lack of faith in Woodward's abilities. If you can picture the film without the condescending narration, you can surely understand Eve's pains because that's how good Woodward is in this role. For a modern example, this is like if Oliver Stone decided to hire a financial reporter to explain what Gordon Gekko is doing in Wall Street. Film is a visual medium and some writers get it (Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewcz certainly understood), but Johnson didn't.

Johnson also failed Woodward by not getting a good supporting cast for her. Yes, there's Lee J. Cobb, but he's it. David Wayne is not a strong enough actor as the husband. It may have been too small a role to get a bigger star, but surely, there must have been a good character actor to fill that slot. Possibly, if Johnson wasn't so interested in bogging down the film with a narration, he might have been able to write some better supporting roles.

On Home Video: Like A Letter To Three Wives, Fox surprisingly gave Eve the Blu-ray treatment last year. While it may seem like an odd choice, it does allow us to fully appreciate the one technical decision Johnson got right – hiring cinematographer Stanley Cortez. Cortez is best known for lensing Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter and other moody classics. He had a unique understanding for black and white visuals and his use of shadows underscore Eve's changes, working in tandem with Woodward.

As for bonus material, it's a little light. We do get a newsreel clip of Woodward accepting her Oscar and the trailer, as well as a commentary from historian Aubrey Solomon. Despite the film's short length and the lack of extras, the film is still spread out on a dual-layer disc.

It's a real shame that Woodward's fantastic performance is hidden in a film that can never be considered a real classic. The Three Faces of Eve is too naïve, much too short and weighed down by a silly narration. Woodward is what makes the film memorable, but I can't help but wish that Johnson let a more experienced director take the helm.

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