Saturday, January 22, 2011

ALL ABOUT EVE: Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1950) Fox Home Video

By the time Joseph L. Mankiewicz premiered All About Eve (1950) he had already won a pair of back to back Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay on A Letter To Three Wives the year before; a towering achievement that was to be impressively matched by this film – perhaps his most perfectly realized screen creation.

In his day, Mankiewicz's work was often criticized as lacking cinematic staging – the perception being that his characters are too intelligent for film audiences, their dialogue and nuances more theatrical in mood and tempo. The point is valid only superficially, for the subtext in any Mankiewicz movie is far superior to any misperceived ‘lacking’ in camera prowess. Indeed, Mankiewicz was to muse years later that in his movies it was the actors – rather than the camera – that were required to act!

In this respect then, All About Eve remains the quintessentially urbane and sophisticated melodrama about show folk; a critique of that Teflon-coated smug superiority held dearly within the theatrical establishment turned on its end. The film is a microcosm for viperous social climbers and cutthroat sensationalists seething with venom and insecurity. After first choice to play grand diva Margo Channing actress Claudette Colbert injured her back, Mankiewicz turned to larger than life Bette Davis. It was a move not entirely embraced by 20th Century-Fox, whose top brass were well aware that Davis’ last few movies had pointed to a definite downturn in both her popularity and box office.

Davis was herself nearing forty and suffering from the same anxieties as her fictional character. Indeed, since her release from Warner Bros. (the studio that had groomed her for superstardom), Davis discovered that she had quietly become unemployable overnight. Thus, in the many lean years that were to follow Davis would acknowledge “…not everything I do is quality, but I chose the best from what I am offered.”

From Mankiewicz however, Davis had nothing to complain about. His screenplay delivers a revealing look at base classicism and greed behind all that publicly glitters. Mankiewicz's critique of human fallibility is bang on and with Davis in the driver’s seat he is guaranteed a star who not only completely understands the material but relishes in its execution. Reflecting years later on the resuscitation of her film career, Davis generously acknowledged Mankiewicz for his faith in her – “I owe it all to Joe. He resurrected me from the dead.”

After a brief prologue at the Sarah Siddon’s Society, exclusively narrated by sinister poisoned pen columnist, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), the rest of the film is told entirely in flashback. Margo Channing (Davis) is backstage preparing after her last performance to see lover/director, Bill Samson (Gary Merrill) off to Hollywood. Despite their considerable age difference, Bill worships the ground Margo walks on, though neither Bill’s commitment or his love are enough to convince Margo that she is perhaps making a terrible error in judgment by loving one man so completely.

Margo’s continued success on the stage is largely due to her enduring friendship/partnership with celebrated playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and her eternal friendship with Lloyd's wife, Karen (Celeste Holm). Margo's private life is almost exclusively managed by Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter); an ever-devoted maid with a sharp tongue but soft heart who will soon become the first to discover a traitor in their midst.

Into this close knit community arrives the Judas; backstabber Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) masquerading as a doe-eyed ingĂ©nue. After ingratiating herself into Margo’s hallowed company with a sob story of pure fiction, Eve systematically goes about manipulating Margo’s alliances and friendships; all the while playing the part of a respectful personal secretary. Instead, and with her eye firmly on the prize, Eve has plans to topple Margo from her throne as the first lady of the American theatre.

Eve’s ace in the hole is Addison DeWitt, whom Eve erroneously believes she can extort to her best effect as she has done with the others. Addison, however, has more than Eve’s career advancement on his mind – a prospect Eve entertains only peripherally to manoeuvre into a position of power within Margo’s circle of friends. However, Eve quickly discovers that there is nothing as venomous, nor as dangerous, as a man just as unscrupulous as she.

Behind the scenes, Davis and Baxter did not get on – a tension brought to its boiling point when both were nominated as Best Actress in the Oscar race. Neither won – leading Davis to forever consider herself robbed. In retrospect, she probably was.

Davis as Margo is – as Addison might have concluded for himself - perfection itself; a stunning tower of the ‘fire’ and ‘music’ Mankiewicz describes in his screenplay. When Davis as Margo forewarns her guests in the film’s most memorable moment to “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” her tone is fraught in shades of dark moody bitterness and wily comedic devilry – as though she despises not only her own place in the world but is also laughing at it from the inside.

If Davis always harboured a hint of resentment at losing the Oscar, she could at least take temporary comfort in the afterthought that her fleeting romance with co-star Gary Merrill – a whirlwind of ‘fire and music’ - culminated in an even more short lived marriage. Today, All About Eve remains as fresh and ever-present in a world of ruthlessness and self destruction. In a pop culture where words like ‘instant classic’ are bandied about with reckless disregard for their actual meaning, All About Eve is most deserving of that moniker on a multitude of levels. It is a perfect movie!

Fox Home Video's Blu-Ray at last rectifies the unfortunate and utterly painful DVD incarnations we've been forced to contend with all these years. Gone is that tired regurgitation of a gritty B&W image with blandly contrasted gray tones. Instead, we get a vibrant, sharp and very clean rendering on this Blu-Ray with superb preservation of the film's grain structure. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. This truly is what we should have had all along!

Once again, Fox has included two audio tracks; the original mono and a re-channelled stereo track. While I'm generally not a fan of repurposed audio from mono stems, this pseudo-stereo offering doesn't sound awful and for many, will be the preferred choice when viewing this film.

Extras are all direct imports from Fox's 2-disc DVD release from a few years ago, including two commentary tracks (the better belonging to Sam Stagg who is comprehensive in his account of the production), AMC Backstory about the making of the film and several brief shorts that were included on the Fox Studio Classic series disc. Also present are four featurettes: ‘Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ a beautiful retrospective on the director’s career, another on his personal life, a reveal of Mankiewicz’s inspiration for ‘the real Eve’ and a special featurette on the Sarah Siddons Society. (Incidentally, at the time of the film’s release, there was no Sarah Siddons Society. Mankiewicz made it up. A few short years later, the ‘Society’ was formed.)

Bottom line: This Blu-Ray comes highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

5+

VIDEO/AUDIO

4.5

EXTRAS

3

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