No doubt about it, All About Eve is one of the greatest movies of all time, and Criterion gives writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's razor-sharp portrait of the New York theater world the red-carpet treatment it so richly deserves. The two-disc set features a video transfer that's only marginally better than the previous 2011 digibook release, but the original mono soundtrack is presented in a lossless format for the first time and a slew of both fresh and previously released supplemental material provides plenty of context and perspective on the film and its cast. A hefty booklet and upgraded packaging make this presentation of one of Hollywood's most incisive, sophisticated, witty, and literate films a must-own release.
Shakespeare once wrote, “The play’s the thing,” and boy, was he right! All About Eve won a slew of Oscars back in 1951 (six, to be exact) and still shares the record for most Academy Award nominations (14), but one element of this Best Picture winner rises above its other impeccable components. The script by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz remains one of the finest, most literate, wittiest, and most exquisitely constructed screenplays in cinema history. Countless symphonies are less lyrical and even the most acclaimed cuisine lacks the spice and subtle flavorings of Mankiewicz’s brilliantly concocted dramatic brew. Casablanca may have more quotable lines per capita, but All About Eve sets the gold standard for screenplay excellence. “Perfect” is really the best word to describe it.
Told from multiple viewpoints, All About Eve chronicles the devious manipulations of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an ambitious, unknown aspiring actress who fiercely craves the same level of fame, fortune, and acclaim her self-professed idol, the flamboyant dramatic diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis), enjoys. Eve adopts a pitiable persona to win Margo’s sympathy and infiltrate her inner circle, and once she gains the Broadway star’s trust, she systematically plots to usurp her career and off-stage life. Cat fights, backstage backstabbing, and neuroses fuel the tale, and Mankiewicz laces it all with sublime sophistication and mellifluous grace.
Captivating characters abound. In addition to Margo and Eve, there's the poison-pen critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), whose disdainful musings drip with poetic venom; sexy starlet Claudia Caswell, a “graduate of the Copacabana school of dramatic art,” played with doe-eyed ditziness by a young - and at the time relatively unknown - Marilyn Monroe; and Thelma Ritter's priceless Bronx maid, Birdie, the least educated but most street-smart character in the film (she sees through Eve in a New York minute). Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, and Barbara Bates also contribute memorable work in one of the most memorable movies of all time.
All About Eve is a film I could watch on an almost endless loop. It's that good. Mankiewicz's direction is stellar, but his script is music to the ears of anyone who appreciates top-quality writing. As Addison succinctly says to Eve at one point in the film, "There never was and there never will be another like you." If ever a sentence could sum up All About Eve, that would be it.
For a more complete assessment of this movie masterpiece, check out my review of the 2011 Blu-ray digibook edition.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Criterion edition of All About Eve arrives packaged in a cardboard, fold-out digipack inside a slipcase with a matte finish. Inside are two Blu-ray discs - one contains the film and two audio commentaries, the other houses the rest of the supplemental material. There's also a 48-page booklet that features an essay by Terrence Rafferty; The Wisdom of Eve, the original short story upon which All About Eve is based; several rare photos; a cast and crew listing; and transfer notes. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, "The digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox. A 35 mm composite fine-grain, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, was scanned in 4K resolution and restored." Though this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks strikingly similar to the one used for Fox's 2011 Blu-ray release, it appears - to my eyes anyway - just a tad sharper and more vibrant. When compared to the Criterion picture, some scenes on the 2011 Blu-ray look slightly diffused and dull, while others appear identical to this rendering. The burlap background upon which the opening credits are superimposed seems a hair crisper here, as do some of the close-ups and two-shots. Though Milton Krasner received an Oscar nomination for his cinematography, I've always found some focus issues plaguing this film, especially at the edges of the frame, so while this transfer looks very film-like - thanks to a consistent natural grain structure - it's hard not to notice the variances.
Rich, deep black levels enhance the elegance of Davis’ iconic black party-scene dress, crisp whites never bloom, and nicely varied grays heighten the sense of depth. Like the 2011 transfer, patterns are rock solid, shadow delineation is fine, and background elements are easy to discern. Close-ups look a bit sharper here, and for Davis, they’re fairly unforgiving, highlighting her puffy eyes and facial lines. Best of all, no nicks, marks, scratches, or other age-related imperfections mar the presentation.
Does this transfer warrant an upgrade if you already own the 2011 digibook edition? Even though the enhancements are minor, I say yes. All About Eve is one of the all-time great movies, so even if a transfer only marginally bests its predecessor, a film of this ilk deserves to be seen in its finest possible state. The Criterion edition may only win this battle by a nose, but it’s a win nonetheless.
Those pondering an upgrade must also assess the audio question. This Criterion release chucks both the newly fashioned DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and the film's original lossy mono track included on the 2011 All About Eve Blu-ray release in favor of a lossless LPCM mono track "restored from a raw capture of the optical track from the same 35 mm fine-grain" used for Criterion's video transfer. In addition, "a quarter-inch magnetic recording was used for the main- and end-title sequences." Purists will certainly applaud this high-quality effort, which preserves the original monaural soundtrack and presents it in the best possible quality.
Fidelity is quite good, a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Alfred Newman's majestic, Oscar-nominated music score without a hint of distortion, and most important of all, every morsel of the delectable dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. All About Eve isn't a very active film from an audio standpoint, but it did win the Oscar for Best Sound, and this track respects that honor. Any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been meticulously erased, and as a result, pure silences remain intact and delicate subtleties like restaurant background noise and cityscape atmospherics fully resonate.
Almost all the supplements from the 2011 Blu-ray have been ported over to this Criterion release. What's missing is a brief vintage promotional interview with Anne Baxter, four vintage Fox Movietone News clips covering All About Eve's premiere and awards recognition, and the film's original theatrical trailer. Criterion also supplies a wealth of new and archival extras that further enhance one of Hollywood's all-time best motion pictures. Aside from the two audio commentaries, all the special features reside on a second Blu-ray disc.
Featurette: "Larry McQueen on the Costumes in All About Eve" (HD, 18 minutes) - In this absorbing featurette, costume historian Larry McQueen provides background information on Charles Le Maire, the head of the Fox costume department, and explains how Paramount designer Edith Head became involved in the film. He also discusses the movie's pervasive use of fur, shares the story behind the design of Davis' iconic black party dress, and declares whom he believes gets the nicest wardrobe in the picture.
Vintage Documentary: "All About Mankiewicz" (HD, 107 minutes) - This feature-length - and somewhat tedious - 1983 profile of the Oscar-winning writer-director relies exclusively on extensive interviews with Mankiewicz conducted by French documentarian Michel Ciment. No film clips, only stills illustrate the movies Mankiewicz examines, but the lengthy discussions don't focus as much as one might like on Mankiewicz's art. The director talks about how he broke into movies, his early days in Hollywood, his tenure as a producer at MGM, his obsession with psychoanalysis, and how he finds female characters more complex and interesting than male characters. He also shares anecdotes about Marlon Brando, Josef von Sternberg, W.C. Fields, and Fritz Lang, among others. Though often insightful, the documentary's lack of film clips lends the production a static quality that grows tiresome over time, especially as Mankiewicz lengthily pontificates on a variety of topics.
Vintage TV Interviews with Dick Cavett (HD, 49 minutes) - In the first segment, Bette Davis appears on the 1969 New Year's Eve episode of Cavett's ABC-TV late-night talk show and discusses such varied topics as Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Gone with the Wind, and her deep respect for her fans. In the second segment, Gary Merrill appears on a 1980 episode of Cavett's more intimate PBS program and chats amiably about his first meeting with Davis, their marriage and personality differences, Davis' persona, and his political activism.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (60 minutes) - On October 1, 1951, the popular Lux Radio Theater series broadcast a truncated one-hour radio adaptation of All About Eve with Davis, Baxter, and Merrill reprising their film roles. Reginald Gardner steps in for George Sanders and does a capable job. Although the actors tend to rush through the dialogue so the story can be crammed into the compressed timeframe (sadly, Davis’ classic “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” line has been cut) and the ending is slightly different, this is still a faithful and entertaining adaptation.
PREVIOUSLY RELEASED EXTRAS
Audio Commentaries – Two commentaries take different tacks in their respective examinations of the film. The first features Mankiewicz's son Chris, biographer Kenneth L. Geist, and actress Celeste Holm (all recorded separately), and focuses more on Mankiewicz himself than All About Eve. Chris Mankiewicz talks frankly about his dad's lack of invention as a director, and how he was more concerned with characters than style and technique. He reveres his father's talent, courage, and intellect, but also describes him as "a cold man," and speaks with candor about their dysfunctional family, his father's myriad infidelities, his mother's depression and alcoholism, and how the famous party scene in All About Eve mirrored similar drunken soirees in his own home. (It's his probing, analytical remarks that really fuel this track and make it a worthwhile listen.) Geist discusses how Citizen Kane influenced Mankiewicz, and touches upon the rivalry between Joe and his troubled but extremely talented brother Herman. He also relates a touching story about an encounter he had with Marilyn Monroe in Lee Strasberg's acting class shortly before the actress's death, and points out the hints of lesbianism in the film. Holm, in a very shaky voice, interjects comments now and then, but most aren't terribly substantive. She praises Mankiewicz effusively, but calls Davis "irascible." (Their disdain for each other is well known.)
The second commentary is by Sam Staggs, who wrote a behind-the-scenes book about All About Eve. This track focuses much more on the film itself, and Staggs covers everything from casting, locations, costumes, and character/plot analysis to the relationships between the cast members, censorship issues, and some choice bits of backstage gossip. Surprisingly, this is the weaker commentary of the two. You'd think that someone who wrote a whole book about a single movie would never be at a loss for something to say, but there are plenty of gaps in this discussion, many of his observations don't ring true, and much of the information isn't very revelatory.
Featurette: "Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz" (SD, 26 minutes) – This long overdue tribute to the acclaimed writer-director from 2007 is both informative and insightful, but just not comprehensive enough for my taste. At least twice as much time could have (and should have) been devoted to Mankiewicz's enduring film canon so we could fully appreciate the breadth and impact of his work. As a primer, though, this piece certainly suffices. Mankiewicz's two sons, Tom and Chris, along with a host of other critics, talk about how Mankiewicz always considered himself a writer first, and how social standing and class structure influenced his films. They also discuss his fascination with ambition and the inherent power imbalance between men and women, how he used the mechanics of plays and relied on characters to carry his scripts, his stormy relationship with Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, the debacle that became the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton Cleopatra and his faith in and respect for the audience's intelligence. Most of this examination focuses on All About Eve but clips from Dragonwyck, Five Fingers, A Letter to Three Wives, and Cleopatra, among other films, are also included.
Featurette: "Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey" (SD, 26 minutes) – A worthy companion piece to the above featurette, this absorbing 2007 profile looks at the man behind the movies, covering his German-Jewish heritage, overbearing father, and difficult relationship with his alcoholic brother Herman (who co-wrote Citizen Kane). We also learn about how Mankiewicz stood up to the movie establishment (and, most notably, industry giant Cecil B. DeMille) during the McCarthy era, his fascination with psychiatry, and his stormy first marriage to German actress Rosa Stradner, who eventually committed suicide. Mankiewicz's sons touchingly relate painful details about their parents' relationship, which puts a melancholy, slightly dark spin on the life of this gifted filmmaker.
Featurette: "The Real Eve" (SD, 18 minutes) – All About Eve was based on a short story by Mary Orr that appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine in the mid-1940s. A true-life event, however, involving German actress Elisabeth Bergner and a rather obsessive fan named Martina Lawrence, who weaseled her way into Bergner's good graces, inspired the piece, and this enthralling 2007 featurette chronicles the entire episode. Of special interest is a taped meeting between Orr and Lawrence that occurred decades later, excerpts from which are included here. It's riveting stuff; a bare-clawed cat fight between two old broads that's essential viewing for any fan of this film.
Featurette: "The Secret of Sarah Siddons" (SD, 7 minutes) – A look at the Chicago-based Sarah Siddons Society, which came into being as a result of All About Eve and honors the work of fine actresses of stage and screen. Named in honor of "the first great diva of the English stage," who dazzled 18th-century audiences with her magnetism and commitment, the society was a fictional entity in the film, but now has amassed a substantial reputation in the theatrical realm.
Featurette: "Hollywood Backstories: All About Eve" (HD, 24 minutes) – This 2001 installment of the now-defunct AMC series takes a breezy look at the film's production, covering casting, Davis' love affair with co-star Gary Merrill (whom she would marry following filming), the frosty off-screen relationship between Davis and Celeste Holm, and the wheelings and dealings behind that year's Oscar nominations. Vintage interviews with Davis, Baxter, and Mankiewicz, along with comments from Holm, Tom Mankiewicz, historian Rudy Behlmer, and Davis biographer Roy Moseley enhance this slick featurette.
Vintage Promotional Interview (HD, 1 minute) – A heavily scripted interview between Davis and Newsweek Leonard Slater features Davis passing off lines from the script as her own.
The Criterion edition of All About Eve arrives just in time for the holidays, and oh what a delicious stocking stuffer this classic Best Picture-winner would make! Though the video transfer is only marginally better than the one on the 2011 digibook Blu-ray, this two-disc Criterion release does feature the original mono soundtrack in a lossless format for the very first time, as well as several fresh extras, a hefty booklet, and classy packaging. Most of the supplements from the previous release have been ported over, too, which makes this Criterion edition both comprehensive and definitive. Until we get a 4K UHD rendering of this timeless, electrifying classic, this is the best all-around version of All About Eve we're likely to see. Must Own.