Anthony Quinn, chief critic at The Independent, recently compiled an alternative list of the 100 best films of all time. I usually find such exercises an academic waste of time. After all, one man's I Spit On Your Grave (1978) is another's Citizen Kane (1941). However, Quinn's selection was a clear bid to shake up the old orthodoxies and blow the dust off a steadily festering canon and, for that, he deserves credit (though there's no denying it was also plainly a neat wheeze to fill up a week's worth of arts supplements with pretty stills). The usual suspects were still out in force - La Règle Du Jeu (1939), Tokyo Story (1953) - alongside newer, more populist and less obvious fare like The Lives Of Others (2007), This Is Spinal Tap (1983) and Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1971). Kane, no easier to topple from pole position than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (1967), came in a miserable 20th behind a surprise winner, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's theatreland bitch-a-thon All About Eve. Good call.
There's no denying the colossal monolith that is Kane but All About Eve is home to some of the sharpest dialogue you're ever likely to hear. The film stars Anne Baxter as stage door dreamer Eve Harrington, who is granted an audience with her idol, the acclaimed Broadway actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis, only making her screen comeback after Claudette Colbert injured her back). Margo and her entourage, including director partner Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill, soon after to be the real-life Mr Davis) and playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), are enchanted by Eve's sorry backstory and welcome her into their circle of friends as Margo's personal assistant. But after a happy start, Margo's ego kicks in, fur starts to fly and Eve's pallid mask eventually slips, revealing her ruthless ambition and deep hunger for celebrity.
Davis blows the bloody doors off as a fork-tongued neurotic terrified of losing her looks and being replaced by a younger model waiting in the wings. The debonair George Sanders steals the film at the death as acerbic columnist Addison DeWitt while Baxter charms and then repulses as a Uriah Heep in pearls. Great support too from Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter as Margo's more grounded advisers. An added bonus is an early role for Marilyn Monroe playing Sanders' latest ditzy ingenue, batting her eyelashes at suggestible producers across a crowded party in the hope of securing her big break the easy way.
All About Eve is a rollicking piece of writing but is it better than Kane or, for that matter, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), its box office rival and another behind-the-scenes tale of fading stardom in a fickle world? Who can say?