In this soapy melodrama, Joan Crawford plays the Eva, a controlling narcissist who makes everyone around her utterly miserable, who traps people with secrets, verbal abuse and threats, and causes a few deaths, including her own. We’re introduced to this family and toxic environment through the entry character, Jen (Lucy Marlow) Eva’s young cousin who comes down South to visit the Phillips mansion. Innocent, grateful, sensitive Jen is initially shocked by the family’s “mean” treatment of Eva, and totally charmed by the glamorous matriarch’s larger-than-life personality and insincere generosity and sweetness. Soon the “queen bee”–as candid sister-in-law Carol (Betsy Palmer) calls Eva–stings Jen and the ingenue’s eyes are suddenly “wide open” to reality, a moment Eva’s long-suffering, dejected, and hard-drinking husband Avery (Barry Sullivan) predicted.
Jen then learns their histories and witnesses the many ways in which Carol and Avery, plus Carol’s fiance Jud (John Ireland) are Eva’s badly damaged, bitter victims, struggling to break free, fearful of her disproportionate reactions and increasingly willing to die rather than live another day in her clutches. After Eva’s cruel meddling causes tragedy, Jen could flee, but stays on, and through her growing attachment to Avery and to Eva’s two troubled kids, and her defiance of a nasty governess, Jen shifts the dynamic enough to nudge Avery and Jud toward actions that fulfill a child’s prophetic nightmare and satisfyingly end Eva’s reign of terror.
This is meaty, campy material with a fine cast for Eva to work her evil on. They’re unpredictable and sympathetic as they stew in the tension, and exchange some great barbs with their tormentor. Naturally, Crawford does wonders with all Eva’s angles: she’s vain, threatened by youth and beauty, with shame enough to hate the sight of herself, signaled by her love/hate relationship with mirrors (there’s a great bit where she smears cold cream on one to cover her sobbing reflection). She knows and admits she’s not nice, but skilled manipulation is her way of getting and keeping what she wants, so she goes on belittling people, invading their personal space, literally walking all over their puny plans, overstepping every boundary, insisting everything revolve around her and orchestrating matters to ensure they do. The first scary outburst where Eva lets her true colours fly with Jen is a textbook example of guilting people; Eva goes wild with a riding whip, casts herself as victim in her version of the truth, then claims to be dependent on Jen, deeply hurt by her non-existent selfishness and cruelty and asks her to prove her loyalty. Eva is used to these tactics working on decent people, so when one of them finally says a simple but firm “no,” it feels like an earthquake.