Stories have shapes. By that I mean the interactions between characters and themes and plots tend to fall into predictable patterns. We don't have to become apologists for Northrop Frye's monomyth to acknowledge that authors usually construct romances along a boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-wins-her-back framework or that heroic quests often feature a reluctant protagonist. And even when we can't find the technical terms to describe the way a work winds, we feel every curve and bump in its path, tracing its contours intuitively. That's how it is with the 1950 film All About Eve, a movie that sounds like a comedy, unfolds like a tragedy and wraps its ending into something like a Mobius strip.
No one knows where Eve came from or how she happened to be standing outside the dressing room of Margo Channing, one of Broadway's biggest stars. Margo is used to admirers, but not one who turns up nightly to her performances -- every performance. A chance encounter with the wife of the playwright who penned Margo's current play leads to an introduction and an amazing story: Widowed by the war, Eve first saw Margo onstage during a performance in San Francisco and admired her work so much that she followed her to theaters across the country. Margo is struck by the young girl's solicitousness and ends up hiring her as a personal assistant. But although Eve may seem all sweetness and light, a shadow lurks beneath her every action.
Although the film likely caught its original audience off guard at points, I'm probably not spoiling anything by saying Eve is gradually revealed as a parasite of the worst sort. The entertaining part for today's viewers is how director Joseph Mankiewicz reveals it. With her pixie-like beauty and retiring demeanor, Eve initially serves as a foil to the brassy, bombastic, chain-smoking Margo. Only as the movie rolls along (clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours, it's at least thirty minutes too long) and the witty dialogue gives way to more serious discussions, do we see the change in Eve. Eventually she reaches for a lighter and lets her mannerly diction fall into brusqueness. The final discovery of a starry-eyed waif waiting outside her apartment feels more fitting than surprising. The snake eats it own tail as the story starts another iteration, and what more fitting pattern for a tale about the darkness of ambition?
(Picture: CC 2008 by fdecomite)