Although The Three Faces of Eve was released in 1957, it might have been made during the 1940s. Unfolding with the stolid inevitability of a classic Hollywood melodrama, it’s saved from the ashcan of movie history by Joanne Woodward. As Eve, a young woman whose life unravels following her diagnosis with multiple personality disorder, Woodward is spectacular.
One of the most gratifying social triumphs of the 20th century was the recognition of mental illness. That isn’t to say that tolerance for those so afflicted is anywhere near complete today, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know someone who’s taken an anti-depressant like Prozac or Paxil. There’s still a stigma attached, but more people now understand that depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are diseases that can be treated (if not cured). Movies like The Three Faces of Eve contributed, in a significant way, to the gradual infiltration of such open-mindedness throughout society.
Eve suffers from a severe dissociative disorder caused by horrible childhood trauma. As the film illustrates, inescapable trauma can cause the brain to partition experiences, in order to escape pain, however temporarily. These partitions can account for unpredictably violent behavior, memory loss, decreased faculties, and in extreme cases, the creation of multiple alternative personalities. Most cases of MPD stem from childhood abuse, sexual and physical.
Eve’s disease appears to be clinically accurate, the filmmakers going so far as to cast Alistair Cooke as the narrator. Such journalistic ambition and sobriety seem odd now, considering the sensationalism of most current semi-fictional entertainment. But it would be a mistake to interpret Eve‘s seriousness as naïvete: the film includes several compromises made in the interest of a more easily digestible storyline.
Primary among those changes is the manner in which Eve switches between personalities. In reality, MPDs can switch between disparate personalities in the blink of an eye, with no warning. Woodward studied the case files of Eve White before filming began, and came to the set prepared to deliver as rigorously factual a portrayal of the disease as possible. But the studio intervened, claiming the audience would be confused unless they had a way of knowing when Eve switched between personalities. So, despite Woodward’s protest, Eve puts her head down and seems to pass into a kind of trance in the moments when her mind passes from one personality to another.
Still, despite these factual glosses, Woodward’s performance is a triumph of naturalistic acting in the midst of seemingly incongruous melodrama. Eve White is an unhappy young housewife whose bifurcated personality leads her to Dr. Luther (Lee J. Cobb). The emergence of the reckless and hedonistic Eve Black personality wreaks havoc on Eve’s life, destroying her marriage to the uncaring Ralph (David Wayne) and eventually driving her to near suicide. Eventually, a third personality emerges: Jane, a levelheaded, humble counterpoint to the meek Eve White and the headstrong, self-destructive Eve Black. Woodward plays these three disparate personalities as three distinctive roles, with individuated body language and startlingly dissimilar elocution.
While the division of personality caused by primal trauma can be healed through the process of confronting and exhuming the painful past, the film presents Eve’s successful treatment in an unrealistically pat conclusion. And, based on a more modern understanding of the psychological mechanism at work in MPD, I suspect the trauma at the root of the real Eve White’s illness was more severe than the one presented here. But regardless of these inaccuracies, the movie remains a valuable historical document, a record of a culture’s gradual enlightenment, as well as a notable highlight in the annals of film acting.