Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
It's been called the "bitchiest" movie ever made, but 'All About Eve' doesn't rely on a showgirl's timely push down the stairs, or a ballerina's self-loathing to make the cut. While it's easy to dismiss the tear-stained story of a girl down on her luck and the marvelous rantings of Bette Davis and George Sanders as a campy melodrama about wayward women, its smart set-up and sophisticated performances elevate it to the realm of classic Hollywood cinema.
Joseph Mankiewicz writes and directs this tale of aging theater starlet, Margo (Davis), whose competition arrives in the form of a dewy-eyed, young thing with a convincing sob story to tell. Eve (Anne Baxter) shows up on a theater house's backstage doorstep -- where she's apparently spent every night of the show's run -- hoping to catch a moment with her idol, Margo. When Eve is swept up by the actress and her circle, her entry into the grand dame's exciting world of designer ball gowns, cocktail parties and watchful critics eventually betrays that she's not the innocent she claims to be.
'All About Eve's' script often dominates the screen with its dry wit and fast quips, but Milton Krasner's subdued camerawork isn't trying to compete with it in the first place. The understated photography stands in stark contrast to the movie's theatrics, but still manages to capture the shifting boundaries of alliances and betrayals. Keen blocking and framing bring this notion to life, and multiple over the shoulder shots further reinforce 'Eve's' cutthroat dynamic -- the idea that there is always someone two steps behind you, looking to take your place.
This is also realized in the way that the real theater in 'Eve' always happens behind the closed doors of hotel suites and backstage, behind the curtain. Just as slyly as Eve insinuates herself into Margo's life, Krasner's lens quietly moves alongside the dramatic action.
Eve's manipulations come full circle -- much like the movie's narrative which begins and nearly ends with the same scene -- when her grasping ambition finally wins her the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement. Our frame shows Eve giving her acceptance speech at the gala event, while Margot and her comrades watch on with disdain.
In the scene prior, infamous theater critic Addison unleashes a razor-sharp verbal assault on the actress revealing that he's uncovered her true identity and has been onto her tricks. "You're an improbable person ... " he tells her. After Eve's speech, Margot tells her to put her award trophy where her heart ought to be. No one in Margot's circle is convinced of Eve's false modesty, especially during the speech where she gives gushing thanks to those who have helped her career. Eve's real thanklessness is reaffirmed when she casually ditches an elaborate party being given in her honor, telling Addison to take her award to the event instead.
It seems more than appropriate that the wall behind Eve is decorated with two guns -- one inadvertently pointed toward her and the other toward the master of ceremonies. Addison calls Eve a "killer," because her backstabbing, feigned seductions and phony friendship has revealed the ruthless person she truly is. The guns are also a nice bit of foreshadowing, as the gun to the MC's head symbolizes her claw to the top. Eve's moving on to Hollywood and the theater is the old guard -- something she no longer needs to get ahead. The gun to her own head foretells what happens in the next scene where we see that history repeats itself, and Eve's fame has earned her a "fan" of her own.
Even though 'All About Eve's' snappy dialogue and bitchy performances take center stage in Mankiewicz's 1950 drama, the movie's framing is finely-drawn -- staged in ways similar to Eve's deception. The film's themes about female roles, sexuality and dramatic rivalry are allowed to shine thanks to Krasner's restraint. It might be a "bumpy night," but it's definitely easy on the eyes.
'All About Eve' is now available on Blu-ray.