Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 25, 2013)
Possibly more than anything before or since, 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve led to greater public awareness and understanding of multiple personality disorders. Folks in that era tended to view psychiatry as a cure for society’s ills, and the misbegotten Eve bears out that attitude.
Eve opens with an awkward introduction from narrator Alistair Cooke, as he lets us know that we’ll see a true story unfold in front of us and sets up the situations and characters. We learn that in August 1951, Eve White (Joanne Woodward) goes to see psychiatrist Dr. Luther (Lee J. Cobb) because she suffers from headaches and blackout spells. She lives with her gruff husband Ralph (David Wayne) and four-year-old daughter Bonnie (Terry Ann Ross). Sadly, they lost a baby only a few months earlier.
Dr. Luther treats Eve and she seems to improve, but in the spring of 1952, she again runs into problems. Ralph finds some gaudy clothes that he thinks Eve purchased, but she denies it even when a salesclerk verifies her activities. When Ralph reacts angrily, Eve suffers another “spell” and attempts to strangle Bonnie.
They return to Dr. Luther, and Eve tells him she sometimes hears voices that tell her to do things like leave Ralph. She shows the source of these orders when she switches personalities during the session into “Eve Black”, a bawdy, fun-loving party girl. The rest of the movie follows her treatment for multiple personalities and all the events that make her recovery difficult, including the eventual emergence of “Jane”, a third “face”.
Woodward won an Oscar for her performance(s), and she fully deserved that prize. Woodward and Woodward alone almost makes this tripe work. She occasionally comes across as a little theatrical, but she usually balances the three personalities well. Not surprisingly, Eve Black is the broadest and cartoonist of the bunch, but Woodward manages to bring humanity to her, and the other two feel like believable personalities. It’s a deft and smooth performance.
Without Woodward, this film would genuinely stink. Every era has its well-meaning films that detail various health issues, but I find those of the Forties and Fifties to seem especially stiff and condescending. I don’t doubt that the filmmakers intended to do public good with their works, and I also know that flicks like Eve helped provide better public understanding of various maladies. Granted, multiple personalities are too rare for greater awareness to really matter - it’s not like there are thousands of sufferers who need compassion - but hopefully movies of this sort give the public broader awareness of and sensitivity to general psychological issues.
Unfortunately, the film promotes understanding but fails to offer a coherent and compelling narrative. Movies of this sort often feel like little more than public service announcement. Eve barely elevates itself above the level of the sort of film we’d see in high school health classes. It tries too hard to educate and doesn’t care if it entertains or moves us.
This means that much of the time, Eve comes across as little more than a filmed case study. A chatty flick, it doesn’t understand that movies work best when they show and don’t tell. It spells out everything and doesn’t attempt to use the medium to its advantage.
A stodgy social commentary, The Three Faces of Eve gets points for a strong lead performance. Actually, all the actors do well, even though none other than Woodward gets much meat into which to sink their teeth. Unfortunately, awkward pacing and too much explicit exposition bogs down Eve and makes it a pedantic chore to watch.