Saturday, May 13, 2017

Face of Fire

So I was looking for a movie to watch on my DVR this morning that's available on DVD so I could do a blog post on it. My selection was Face of Fire, which you can get courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

Based on a story by Stephen Crane, this one is set in the fictitious small town of Whilomville circa 1898, and informs us in an intertitle just after the opening credits that it portrays small-town people as fully human, and neither with the doe-eyed saintly view or as pure evil rubes. Monk (James Whitmore) works as a handyman for local Dr. Trescott (Cameron Mitchell) and is generally beloved around Whilomville, as can be seen in the opening scene where's returning from taking a group of local boys fishing at the local watering hole. He's also got a girlfriend whom he's planning to marry.

But tragedy strikes the town. The Trescotts' house catches fire. While the good doctor and his wife are able to get out, their young son Jimmie is trapped in his bedroom. Monk goes into the house and ultimately saves Jimmie, which ought to make him a hero. There's a catch, though, in that in trying to get Jimmie to safety, he has to go through the doctor's laboratory, where there are all sorts of dangerous acids around. One of the flasks spills open, dripping hot acid on Monk's face.

It looks as though Monk isn't going to survive the fire, but if that were the case, the movie would end then and there and we'd have a pointless two-reeler. So you know that Monk is going to survive, except that he's got a horrendously disfigured face and has likely suffered brain damage as a result of the fire. (Amazingly, the smoke inhalation didn't get him.) Trescott sets Monk up with a farm family just outside of town where Monk can recuperate without being bothered by anybody.

Apparently something about Monk's presence has frightened everybody, since nobody wants to visit the farmer any longer and Monk decides to escape. He makes it back to town, but when he shows up anywhere, his appearance scares the bejeezus out of people the the point that they suffer breakdowns or something. (OK, at least in one case the injury makes sense as a woman's screaming spooks a horse which results in a carriage running the woman down. But most of the others are just ridiculous.) The "proper" wives in town all decide that no, dammit, we're not going to have this monstrosity frightening us, and husbands, you're going to do what it takes to get rid of Monk. Eventually, Monk hops aboard a freight train and the next morning his body is found in the next town over.

Meanwhile, the men of Whilomville are still searching for Monk not knowing that the station-master in the next stop has announced Monk's death, and their posse nearly kills an innocent man. And of course, the wives (led by Lois Maxwell who's married to a character played by veteran character actor Royal Dano) has a feeling that Monk really isn't dead and she won't be satisfied until her husband sees the body. He sensibly tells her to go look for herself, and when there's a funeral you'd think the snotty wives would insist on an open-casket funeral.

All this obvious foreshadowing is leading the viewer to think that, of course, Monk is not dead, and that he's going to show up soon enough. But will the town ever get over its fear of Monk?

Face of Fire is a good movie with some interesting ideas, but at times it goes over the top. I found it faintly ridiculous that the townsfolk would go from loving Monk to absolutely hating the idea of his presence in the town. Also, you'd think Dr. Trescott would have tried to prepare the townsfolk for the idea that Monk had suffered a terribly disfiguring injury, and that any brain damage might have left him acting a bit childlike. Sure, some children would probably still be frightened by the new face, but the adults, on being informed of what happened to Monk, would have at least made a good faith effort to treat him well. Harold Russell's character in The Best Years of Our Lives comes to mind here, although to be fair the people around him are mostly family.

Face of Fire also has an interesting visual look. That's because Allied Artists produced this movie in a co-production with Svesnk Filmindustri (the studio that produced a lot of Ingmar Bergman's work) in Sweden. Indeed, quite a fair number of the behind-the-scenes crew are Swedish. If you went into the movie not knowing this, you might get the impression from the exteriors and cinematography that there's something vaguely "off" about the movie compared to other 50s movies from the various low-budget studios. That doesn't really distract from the movie, however, especially since it's a story that could have been set almost anywhere.

All in all, Face of Fire is a pretty good movie that probably deserves a better DVD release than the over-priced Warner Archive Collection. It's certainly worth a watch.

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