Performance makes The Three Faces of Eve
by Kristin Battestella
Based upon the book by Doctors Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley, writer and director Nunnally Johnson's (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) black and white 1957 drama The Three Faces of Eve chronicles the case of what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder for Joanne Woodward's demure southern housewife Eve White. Her husband Ralph (David Wayne) can't understand her change in persona when Eve Black goes out partying, but Doctor Luther (Lee J. Cobb) believes he can reunite the dissociated identities.
The Three Faces of Eve opens with an onscreen explanation poorly equating Dissociative Identity Disorder to a thin man inside a fat person and Jekyll metaphors before a somewhat stilted play like staging and voiceovers interrupt the narrative with date, time, and treatment specifics. When the narrator breaks the exposition right down to the minute, The Three Faces of Eve becomes a case study rather than a drama, and revealing the symptoms or telling us when something bad is going to happen undercuts the suspense, intrigue, character sympathy, and viewer immersion. Without the on the nose clinical patronizing, The Three Faces of Eve is much better – headaches, anger, and arguments play out with off camera screams and violence. Conversations between doctor and patient reveal blackouts and hearing voices. Understandably, there's a certain anticipation in seeing the personalities come out, but the first manifestation is a well done, unexpected transition from married meek to flirty and feeling fine. Is this just a discontented housewife lashing out or something more? Both are unacceptable in the fifties, leading to institution stays and winking innuendo with exposed on the bed versus covering up visual suggestions. Although it's annoying when the doctor can call a name back and forth to change her personas like Multiple Personalities are merely some hypnosis party trick, it's also sad an innocent woman can be so prompted. She may seem to be no harm, but a man isn't going to take no for an answer after all these flirtations, and above all, none of these personalities wants to be hurt. Unfortunately, this illness comes between her mind and her family, leading to divorce and a daughter taken away as the case worsens with suicidal risks and a third personality. Not only does The Three Faces of Eve oddly announce a death before it happens, but I also wish the title didn't give away the third manifestation. The dual performance builds enough conflict before the new identity emerges, and the audience already wonders how these ladies can co-exist as our trouble gal struggles with no memory and a late flashback. While the recounting of creepy, dark places and a visual representation of her tormented state of mind are necessary in revealing the what went wrong repression, the sense of imminent internal collapse instead becomes a quick Hollywood ending. Rather than a conclusive healing, the trauma feels lame and the resolution artificial. Fortunately for The Three Faces of Eve, the reason why and the saccharin results aren't as important as the journey of self discovery – no matter now many selves you have.
Eve White is a meek housewife hesitant about her amnesia spells, and Oscar winner Joanne Woodward (Rachel, Rachel) immediate has us on her side when unexplained clothes, threats against her daughter, and suspicious trips make the soft spoken Mrs. White seem like somebody else. Eve is clearly scared of losing her mind, but Woodward is exceptional at the distinct personality changes – slouching, tossing her hat, and removing itchy stockings as Eve Black. She's no dreary dope like Mrs. White, hates her jerk husband, and says their daughter isn't hers. She turns up the music loud, jiggles her caboose, and says things Eve White never would, like how she married her husband just because she should. We don't hate Eve Black, but are torn with sadness just like the returning wife, who's confused and embarrassed by her alter's wild hair and unbuttoned shirt. While in the institution, she reads poetry – until Ms. Black in her short shorts wants to tell the orderly a few limericks. Living alone for treatment gives her freedom complete with a sassy nightclub performance, sultry singing, and dancing barefoot with soldiers. Ironically, being alone allows Mrs. White to stand up for herself, even if that means she has to choose between her family and her mental health. Today The Three Faces of Eve may seem tame, but that is only because of the acting conventions of the time compared to now when all the wild, bad girl personality would be shown onscreen. In that respect, however, it makes Woodward's performance all the more provocative. We see the manifestations, but they give us room to wonder about the internal workings of her trouble mind and what's going on with each individual. Eve Black says just because we don't see what she does, doesn't mean she doesn't do it. It's a wonderfully delivered line suggesting all the viewer needs to know, but Mrs. White is the one who ends up slapped and left on the motel room floor. The finale here feels like such a letdown because the fifties film restraints don't live up to Woodward's discomfort in the disturbing “Please, I don't want to.” reveal.
Lee J. Cobb's (On the Waterfront) composite Doctor Luther is initially astonished but remains sympathetic of Eve's plight. He cuts away family emotions to find the facts, asking her how she can explain the things Mr. White says she does. Luther seeks the reason and logic behind her fear but gets the pieces of the puzzle from not just one, but all three personalities. His medical partners immediately suspect she is a fake, and the men wonder if her unhappy marriage is merely making her act out and pretend to be someone else. Today we know it is simplistic to dismiss a woman as unfulfilled rather than consider a mental illness, but The Three Faces of Eve presents Doctor Luther as sincere in his reasoning with each personality. He asks Eve Black not to come out and wants to tell Mrs. White what is happening in hopes of reuniting the personas. Luther confers that neither Mrs. White or Eve Black are fit to be a wife and mother – each is fragmented and not a responsible or capable person. Where his colleagues blame the patient, he uses hypnosis to find the root of her manifestations. Luther is perplexed, but genuinely strives to help reveal and heal her terrible childhood experience. Older, frustrated husband David Wayne (How to Marry a Millionaire), however, is a working man who can't understand what's gotten into his wife. He has to come home and get tough on the phone over an expensive bill and threatens to slap his wife when he thinks she is lying. His harsh is understandable for the time – Ralph doesn't have to be likable and doesn't seem very smart but he's a stern family man keeping food on the table who will give his wife a good talking to whether she's delicate or not. We believe him when he threatens Eve for harming their daughter, yet he can't comprehend the doctor's diagnosis. Ralph has to tone down his temper, get a better job, and send Eve money, but it isn't easy for him to accept treatment that separates his family. When Eve Black is out at the clubs and the marriage finally comes to blows, Ralph's more worried about people laughing behind his back or thinking him a fool than what's best for his wife.
The crisp silver screen Cinemascope still looks sharp on a 4K television, and there are some fine fifties trucks, classic cars, vintage telephones, fedoras, and white gloves to see in The Three Faces of Eve. Fashion is simply but expertly used to contrast our competing personalities – sassy pumps, fancy sequins, and black lace slip dresses versus Peter Pan collars and demure cardigans. Leather chairs and bookshelves represent the male doctor's domain while white cabinets and cheery curtains represent the mid century woman's kitchen before the missus' place in the home is upset by swanky nights on the town, rented rooms, and the now single woman in the workplace. Look at that giant switchboard! Of the time seductions, however, remain hot and bothered. There may be separate beds in the motel room, but the man and his wife not wife sit on the same bed as she removes her stockings and convinces him to buy her something prettier than the old red velvet dress she's wearing. Although great swing tunes and singing accent the scandalous behavior, noticeable music crescendos sometimes give away the forthcoming identity switch. The most stunning moments happen when there is no music or dolly and the tears come forth. Some of the Georgia accent permeating The Three Faces of Eve isn't always reflected in the subtitles, either, which may be confusing for viewers not familiar with the diction. Up close shots and cross coverage that doesn't match the wide shots also feel slower, with firmly fifties editing and pace. Fortunately, the camera is used to great effect with intense zooms and tight two shots as the patient confides her fears. Mirrors and reflections parallel personality transitions, and the visual scale effects in the finale set off the dark place and trouble state of mind.
The Three Faces of Eve is dated in its fifties framework. The mix of case study and then sensational makes numerous mistakes about this misunderstood condition, and the real life liberties will have interested audiences seeking out Christine Sizemore's original case and her subsequent reading materials. Thanks to the disjointed narrations and loosely strung together vignettes, one almost wishes there was a re-cut of The Three Faces of Eve, for the story deserved better writing and direction not some kind of textbook format. Thankfully, Woodward's performance anchors the drama by making viewers compassionate about not one or two but three characters in conflict. These distinct personalities are all clearly broken, and Woodward keeps the suffering of each person no matter how many at the forefront. The Three Faces of Eve is always worth revisiting for a then versus now context thanks to her fine portrayal.