Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Theatre of Treachery
This article contains spoilers.
The work of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz may at first appear wildly disparate, ranging as it does from a ghost story (The Ghost and Mrs Muir, 1947), to a satire of the show-business world (All about Eve, 1950), a Shakespeare adaptation (Julius Caesar, 1953), a four-hour historical epic (Cleopatra, 1963), a murder mystery (The Honey Pot, 1967) and an ironic Western (There Was a Crooked Man, 1970). But there is one clear thread that runs through all these films: they are all concerned with the human heart’s seemingly infinite capacity for perfidy and betrayal.
In Mankiewicz’s most famous opus, All about Eve, the ambitious young woman of the title will stop at nothing to get what she wants: become a famous actress. She ingratiates herself into reigning stage star Margo Channing’s circle of friends, playing the sweet and humble ingÃ©nue, but in fact ruthlessly manipulating the women and seducing the men to achieve her goal. It gradually becomes obvious that everything about Eve is an act: her modesty, her gratitude, the story of her past â€“ even her name is not real. We will know ‘all about Eve’, the narrating voice of cynical theatre critic Addison DeWitt promises in the opening scenes, as she prepares to receive an award at a ceremony. And slowly the film reveals the truth about the young star we see feted at the beginning: Eve is a construct, her identity nothing but a performance.
The young woman who calls herself Eve is frighteningly driven, and yet Mankiewicz is too keen an observer of human nature not to acknowledge that her treacherous machinations would not succeed if it weren’t for the frailties, weaknesses and blindness of others. Eve’s youthful charms make Margo jealously paranoid; her seduction of middle-aged writer Lloyd Richards, who falls for her apparent innocence and fake tears, is predictable, and his wife Karen, who at that point sees through Eve, is unable to stop the inevitable. ‘How could I compete?’ Karen asks one night, before Lloyd rushes off to the bedside of his supposedly nervous young star. ‘Everything Lloyd loved about me he’d gotten used to long ago’. Mad with insecurity about her age, Margo almost causes what she fears most to happen: that Bill should leave her. As for Karen, she only becomes aware of Eve’s true nature after she’s let the young arriviste manipulate her into betraying her best friend, simply because she thinks the latter needs to be taught a lesson.
Eve is also not the only one to act out her life, and this could be said about everyone else in the story â€“ it is only a matter of degree. In All about Eve, all is theatre, and the unreal is more real than reality. It is one of the key themes of the film, and one that recurs throughout Mankiewicz’s work, most clearly in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Honey Pot and Sleuth (1972). The dialogue in All about Eve makes the parallels between life and theatre abundantly clear; so does Bette Davis’s magnificently flamboyant and volatile performance as Margo. During the star’s stormy birthday party, Karen explains: ‘Margo compensates for underplaying on stage by overplaying in reality’. After an argument, Margo goes off to bed, followed by her boyfriend, director Bill Simpson. ‘Too bad, we’re going to miss the third act, they’re going to play it off stage,’ says DeWitt, watching them disappear upstairs. Later, a row between Margo and Bill is played on the theatre stage. And Eve becomes Margo’s understudy, not just on the stage, but in life too, insinuating herself into the most private aspects of Margo’s life, including her relationship to Bill. But she is not interested in the person that Bill is, or later in Lloyd; she is only interested in them as a director and a writer respectively, both highly respected and successful. Her whole life is theatre. And that is where the line is drawn: no matter how dramatic the rows and reconciliations, there is real love between Margo and Bill. Eve’s only love is theatre.
Eve may be ‘an improbable person’ in DeWitt’s words, but there are many more like her. At the end, Eve finds a young girl in her hotel room, who calls herself Phoebe and dreams of being a star like her. As the actress rests, Phoebe puts on Eve’s coat in her bedroom, holds the award Eve has just won, and admires herself in the mirror, her image reflected to infinity by the multiple mirrors. Eve represents the eternal drive to fill the emptiness inside with applause (like ‘waves of love’, she says), to create one’s self from the reflection in spectators’ eyes, and new Eves will always come, eager to carve out their place in the limelight, no matter what it takes.
Despite the pain inflicted on the other characters by Eve’s deceitfulness, it also has positive consequences. Her perfidy is a catalyst that forces Margo to face reality and make difficult decisions about Bill and her future that ultimately lead to happiness. This nuanced take on betrayal also underpins A Letter to Three Wives (1949), Mankiewicz’s previous, and equally successful and Oscar-winning, film. It centres on three well-to-do women on their way to a picnic on an island, who receive a letter in which the town’s temptress reveals that she has left with one of their husbands. Stuck on the island for the day without any means of finding out which husband has left, they think back on their respective relationships. The threat of infidelity forces them to reassess their marriages, realise what is important to them, acknowledge their problems and try and fix them when they eventually return. In this instance, the possibility of betrayal leads to a happy ending.
In the earlier The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), Mankiewicz was not as optimistic, and the only trusting relationship the heroine of the title can enjoy is with a dead man. Recently widowed, Mrs Muir, played by the angelic-looking Gene Tierney, buys a house by the sea that is haunted by its previous owner, a rugged sea captain played by Rex Harrison. A lovely relationship develops between them, until Mrs Muir is wooed by caddish writer Miles Fairley, and the Captain disappears to allow her to form bonds with the living. Mrs Muir assumes that Fairley intends to marry her and is devastated when she inadvertently finds out that he is in fact already a married man, and that it is not the first time he has behaved in such a way. Giving up on ‘companionship, laughter, love’ after this heartbreaking betrayal, she spends the rest of her life alone in the cottage. But when she dies, the Captain re-appears to take her away. They walk together through the door and into the mist towards the sea in a poignant, bittersweet ending: Mrs Muir could not find companionship among the living because they either tried to control or deceive her, and only with death does she find the love that she craved.
In 1953, Mankiewicz’s interest in treachery took a historical (and literary) bend. With his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, James Mason as Brutus and Louis Calhern as Caesar, the director tackled one of the most famous betrayals in Western history. Shot in oppressive, austere black and white, it depicts the bloody consequences of the lust for power in stylised sets, stripped down visuals and charged camera angles. Mankiewicz would return to these historical events with Cleopatra ten years later. In this famous four-hour-long, money-guzzling Hollywood epic, Elizabeth Taylor is the imperious Egyptian queen whose relationships to, first Caesar, and after his death, Mark Antony (Richard Burton), are as politically as personally passionate. The whole story hinges on the multiple betrayals perpetrated by lovers, spouses, enemies, rivals, soldiers and servants: treachery is the motor of this most eventful of historical periods. An early comment made by Caesar as the wily Cleopatra watches him in secret, through hidden holes in the wall, sets the tone from the beginning. Asked by his generals if he intends to trust Cleopatra, he replies: ‘Trust, not for a minute. Trust. The word has always made me apprehensive. Like wine, whenever I’ve tried it the after-effects have not been good. I’ve given up wine. And trusting.’ This, of course, does not save him from the murderous treachery of his political rivals.
Cleopatra nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and derailed Mankiewicz’s career, and when he returned to the directorial chair in 1967, it was with a more humorously disillusioned view of human nature, which his last three feature films all share. In The Honey Pot, the rich Mr Fox invites three former lovers to his palace in Venice, feigning a deadly illness and telling each that he will bequeath his wealth to them. All three lovers are disloyal and greedy, and this set-up is the start of a web of intrigue and manipulation that starts in comic mode and ends in murder. Both There Was a Crooked Man and Sleuth pitch two men representing very different world views and morals against each other in a deadly battle of wits. In the former, Kirk Douglas is the unscrupulous outlaw trying to escape from the prison run by Henry Fonda’s upright warden, so he can recover the stolen money he hid in the desert. In Sleuth, Laurence Olivier is the ageing upper-class gentleman playing dangerous games with his wife’s young working-class lover (Michael Caine).
All three films have an interest in gambling and game-playing (highly theatrical games in the case of The Honey Pot and Sleuth) and reconnect treachery to the French origin of the word, ‘tricheur’, a cheat. At the beginning of The Honey Pot, when Fox, as part of the elaborate charade he plans to stage for his former lovers, interviews part-time gambler and would-be actor McFly to be his ‘stage manager’, he asks: ‘McFly, wouldn’t you say that â€œmaking itâ€, as you put it, in both Las Vegas and Hollywood, had much in common as gambling ventures?’ Here again, life is theatre, and surviving in theatre is not much different from gambling successfully. Wealth is a faÃ§ade maintained by characters hoping that this illusion will get them the real thing. And the many secret doors and passages are in keeping with the tricks and sleights of hands they perform. Sleuth marks the culmination of this theme. Olivier’s Andrew Wyke plays cruel, humiliating games with Caine’s Milo Tindle in a mansion crammed with strange toys, including an all-white puzzle and an ancient board game. When Milo seeks revenge, the game turns into a vicious, unpredictable power struggle, alternately dominated by each adversary as they reveal the aces up their sleeves.
But the immoral tricheurs in these films are not the ones who win the jackpot. In There Was a Crooked Man, Kirk Douglas’s gleefully amoral, cynical Paris Pitman thinks nothing of eliminating his accomplices to keep all the money from a burglary committed at the very beginning of the film. Henry Fonda’s Woodward Lopeman could not be more different from Pitman: a principled, idealistic man who believes in rehabilitating the convicts by improving the prison environment. And yet, even though Pitman betrays, cons and manipulates everyone for his own interest, he shows up the limits of Lopeman’s progressiveness and socially determined, rigid moral code, questioning the latter’s plan to hang a 17-year-old accidental murderer. In the end, pushed by Pitman’s destruction of all he had worked for, Lopeman foregoes his moral principles and is the one to profit from Pitman’s crimes â€“ who is the most immoral of the two?
The Honey Pot ends with a similar twist. The mousy nurse of one of Fox’s former lovers, Sarah Watkins, is described throughout the film as the Voice of Morality. She tries to do the right thing, believes love is more important than money, and warns Fox when she thinks he’s in danger. And yet, her very goodness may in fact force the killer to commit another murder. Her innocence is as dangerous as the treachery of all the other characters, because she doesn’t play by the rules of the game â€“ honesty can be just as deadly as dissimulation. And in the end, having done the right thing throughout the film, she performs a little trick of her own, and, as in There Was a Crooked Man, the Voice of Morality ends up profiting from the crimes of others.
The ambiguous morality of the final films and the complexity of human nature throughout Mankiewicz’s work are mirrored in intricate narrative structures: his films are full of flashbacks, labyrinthine plots, dizzying twists and turns and restricted points of view. His work has been criticised as stagey and static, but that may be because he was more interested in human nature than in showy dÃ©cors. His sets may be often stylised, but they are always used to convey aspects of the story visually. The lighting is expressive, the mise en scÃ¨ne meticulously precise, the dialogue razor-sharp, the narrative structures as dense and convoluted as the human heart. It is theatre, yes, but it is the theatre of life.