Face of Fire (1959)
After watching a rather minor film like this in the careers of three well known character players I’d like to think they were all very proud of what was captured on camera by director Albert Band.
This tragic story is a smartly written tale of what happens when a well liked individual is horribly disfigured and subsequently alienated by those he has known all his life. James Whitmore takes the lead role with strong support from a first rate Cameron Mitchell and a solid Royal Dano.
From Allied Artists, this release was actually filmed in Sweden with Albert Band directing. From a director who has given us Dracula’s Dog and Ghoulies 2, this is easily his best effort. Whitmore plays an easy going farm hand in 1898 working the stables and land that are owned by his employer Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell is a fairly well off village doctor.
The film opens with Whitmore taking many of the local boys fishing and moving on to his sitting in with his fiancé while being properly chaperoned. Whitmore easily sells us on his gentle character who would be the least likely to ever harm anyone without just cause.
When the Mitchell home goes up in flames, it is Whitmore who saves the young son of Cameron from certain death. Sadly he himself does not escape the fire and suffers massive trauma to his face and head. For a time it looks as is if death is imminent. There are those in the town that think his death would be considered a blessing.
Mitchell on the other hand carries a tremendous amount of both guilt and gratitude towards the now disfigured Whitmore. It isn’t just the face that is gone but also the mind seems to have been damaged leaving him as no more than a four year old might behave.
Most would prefer he be shut away. Out of sight. The film almost takes a turn into Frankenstein territory as if he has turned into a monster terrorizing the countryside. At least in the eyes of those who would judge him. Royal Dano leads a pack of angry townsfolk to the point of being a lynch mob. Mitchell does his best to fight them and their notions that Whitmore has turned into a “halfwit freak.”
Each of our three well known faces has a chance to shine. Whitmore has always excelled as a genteel character and fits into the role perfectly. Mitchell offers a low key performance as a man carrying a tremendous amount of guilt over the whole proceedings and becoming tangled up with right or wrong. His practice is suffering because of his refusal to turn his back on Whitmore though if he did he’d be better off financially but not emotionally. Lastly, Royal Dano gets a great scene when he realizes what he has become and faces down his wife, Lois Maxwell and her prejudices against Whitmore and what has become of him.
Apparently this was adapted from a story by Stephen Crane who gave us The Red Badge of Courage. The direction from Band is done with a flourish of angles that almost comes off as experimental at times compared to the other films of the era.
Think of this film as an early template for an episode of Michael Landon’s Little House on the Prairie and I think you’ll grasp what the producer/director Band was aiming for.
Recommended and for me a rewarding movie to watch that deserves to be more widely known. Thankfully TCM has aired it allowing me to get another look at it after many years.