All About Eve is one of those reliable standby movies, guaranteed to offer amusing situations and intelligent drama as long as you don’t watch it too often or too critically. It is also the epitome of “writer’s cinema,” not just because the emphasis is on the dialog and acting, but because each scene is slammed home so emphatically that there’s no danger of anyone reacting in a manner that wasn’t intended. No tantalizing ambiguity of the image here: every shot, camera move, line reading and bit of decor is as neat and trim as a well honed paragraph. That craftsman-like polish is the film’s great appeal and source of pleasure, but it is also its single greatest limitation.
As a result, criticism is almost superfluous. There simply is nothing to say about the story or characters that hasn’t been programmed and anticipated. With everything else serving those literary concerns submissively, there are no surprises, no peripheral details, nothing to distract the viewer from that one level of meaning. The only exception is accidental. Marilyn Monroe’s walk-on performance as Miss Caswell, a graduate of the “Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts,” inevitably brings things to a halt, not because of her innate appeal, but because of the pleasure of seeing a major star in an early, bit part. The film slips from its well-oiled purpose for historical reasons, in other words, not because the engineering has momentarily failed.
To describe All About Eve as a machine should not imply that it is ever less than entertaining. I would be hard put, in fact, to think of many other films that engage and keep the attention as forcefully and successfully. Bette Davis, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Anne Baxter, Thelma Ritter—they’re all wonderfully in top form. (Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe are not in the same league, but they’re certainly competent actors capable of filling out their parts of the diagram.) It’s just that there’s nothing more. The richness, the danger, the passion of real art is missing in favor of a predictable pattern in which everyone remains perfectly within predefined limits.
Which also means that the film’s appeal is likely to be limited to those who can respond to its arch-theatrical setting and style. Of course, no movie appeals to everyone, but when one is as precisely designed as this one to please a superficially sophisticated viewer, no one should be surprised if others find it remote. Surely there cannot be that many people, even in 1950, obsessed with the lives of Broadway stars? When we’re told that Eve’s success has inspired nation-wide fan clubs in a few short months, it feels distinctly like a case of New Yorkers mistaking their provincial concerns for the world’s passion. In other words, if you recognize All About Eve as a highly entertaining tempest in a teapot, then it can easily feel exaggerated, incestuous and more than a touch smug.