Monday, November 09, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Four Faces West (1948)

FOUR FACES WEST is a relatively unsung gem of a Western which deserves to find a wider audience. It's a film with an unusual storyline about love, redemption, and the kindness of strangers. The movie has excellent performances, and it improves on repeat viewings.

Ross McEwen (Joel McCrea) politely robs a bank -- he even leaves an IOU! -- apparently seeing it as the only way to get badly needed funds to his father. Ross escapes with famed lawman Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) hot on his trail.

On a westward-bound train Ross is charmed by lovely Fay Hollister (Frances Dee, McCrea's real-life wife), a nurse headed to work at a hospital in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Fay is attracted to Ross and senses that he is in trouble. Ross's presence on the train is also noted by a mysterious man, Monte Marquez (Joseph Calleia); is Monte friend or foe?

Ross, Fay, and Monte get off the train in Alamogordo. Ross gets a job and is able to repay some of the money he stole; during this respite he also courts Fay. But soon Garrett arrives in Alamogordo and Ross must flee. Will he be running for the rest of his life?

This simple outline of the plot really doesn't do the film justice. The magic of the movie is in the interesting script, the four lead characters, and trying to figure out "what happens next," which is anything but predictable. Calleia, in particular, plays a really fascinating character, but I hesitate to delve too deeply into my thoughts on Monte or the plot in general, because first-time viewers should watch the film without any preconceptions. It's not your typical Western.

My favorite parts of the movie are the scenes where Ross and Fay become acquainted. There's a wonderful scene where Fay stands in the train station, thinking Ross is still aboard the train pulling out of Alamogordo; it has a terrific emotional payoff. My favorite scene in the entire movie is later in the film when Ross brings Fay a ring, and when she hesitantly starts to put it on her right hand, he gently says "Oh, no," and slips it on her left ring finger. It's a very tender moment, with added emotional layers for the viewer who knows the actors playing the scene are married.

The charismatic Bickford, a year after his marvelous Oscar-nominated role as the butler in THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER, is excellent as Pat Garrett. It's a multi-layered performance, as Garrett is dedicated to getting his man, yet also fair and compassionate -- unlike those who prefer the "dead" aspect of "wanted dead or alive."

Dan White plays Garrett's deputy, with William Conrad as the sheriff of Alamogordo. It's not often one sees William Conrad riding in a posse!

FOUR FACES WEST is one of several excellent films released in 1947-48 about the redemption of a "bad man." Also worth seeking out are ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947), BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), and YELLOW SKY (1948). The movies share certain themes and character types, yet at the same time they are all quite different in mood. Each title is special in its own way, and each one is very much worth seeing. A later film in this subgenre which is also excellent is A MAN ALONE (1955).

Joel McCrea and Frances Dee had been married 15 years when FOUR FACES WEST was released in 1948; Joel died on their 57th wedding anniversary in 1990. Their first two sons, Jody and David, were born in 1934 and 1935; Jody passed away earlier this year. When Jody and David were nearing adulthood, the McCreas had another son, Peter, in 1955. Peter is married to Courtney Lemmon, the daughter of Jack Lemmon and Felicia Farr.

For more information and some wonderful photos, visit Remembering Frances Dee.

FOUR FACES WEST was directed by Alfred E. Green. It runs 89 minutes. Russell Harlan photographed the movie in black and white; Harlan's credits include classics such as RIO BRAVO (1959) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). The movie was shot on location in New Mexico, as well as California's Red Rock Canyon.

FOUR FACES WEST is available on both DVD (a nice print) and video. (October 2017 Update: FOUR FACES WEST is being reissued by Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-ray.)

FOUR FACES WEST is a special movie which is highly recommended.

Joel McCrea movies previously reviewed here at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: THE SILVER HORDE (1930), THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (1934), BARBARY COAST (1935), ADVENTURE IN MANHATTAN (1936), WOMAN CHASES MAN (1937), THREE BLIND MICE (1938), FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940), HE MARRIED HIS WIFE (1940), THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942), THE LONE HAND (1953), and STRANGER ON HORSEBACK (1955).

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