Jun 4, 2015

On DVD: James Whitmore in Face of Fire (1959)

The devastating, but beautifully filmed Face of Fire stars James Whitmore as a handyman whose face is burned beyond recognition when he rescues a young boy from a house fire. I had this DVD release from Warner Archive for quite a while before I had the nerve to watch it; it looked unbearably bleak to me, but it is a fascinating movie, with great performances and an unusual look.

Whitmore stars as Monk, the charming and popular employee of small town doctor Ned Trescott. The happy handyman strides around in overalls during the day, caring for horses, doing odd jobs around the house and taking neighborhood kids fishing. 

At night, he becomes a sophisticated, well-dressed gentleman, beloved by all the ladies in town and admired by the men. He visits his fiancĂ©e and her mother, and they adore his friendly conversation and impeccable manners. In his story, The Monster, upon which the film was based, Stephen Crane writes, "no one would have suspected him of ever having washed a buggy."

Then one night some of the dangerous chemicals Trescott uses in his experiments ignite his lab and the house is soon engulfed in flames. Monk runs into the blaze and saves Trescott's son, while he collapses on the lab floor. Before the townspeople can rescue him, he is badly burned--his face all but erased and his mind reduced to that of a child.

Suddenly, Monk is a figure of fear. The once beloved gentleman is now looked upon as a "half-witted freak." Dr. Trescott remains loyal to the man who saved his son though, and he tries to find a way to protect him.

In the opening titles of Face of Fire, the characters in Crane's stories are referred to as, "neither evil nor saintly, but all too human beings." That about sums up the way the townspeople react to Monk after his accident. When they are away from him, they are sympathetic and sorry for the fate he has suffered. Once he shows his face though, they are repulsed, their every action driven by fear.

The man who once charmed the town is now being chased by men with guns and pitchforks. When he approaches the ladies who once adored him, they run in fear. In any of those scenes you could turn off the sound and not be able to tell if a drama or horror film is playing.

I found it curious that Monk was played by a white actor, rather than the African American in Crane's story. It would have been interesting to address the racial element. However, I also appreciated the way the film had a tighter focus, because the results of the accident are the only thing influencing the townspeople.

Filmed in Sweden, there's a lovely eerie light to the outdoor scenes. Everyone seems to be floating in their own brilliant halo. The inside scenes are also remarkably lit, with the clean, composed look of a classic painting. Director Albert Band only helmed a dozen films in his career, and it's a shame, because he has a novel way of staging his scenes, playing with perspective in ways that reveal the emotions of his characters.

I can understand why a film with such a downbeat subject would be a hard sell for audiences (the inaccurate horror flick look of the poster doesn't help), but this really does deserve classic status. It's always compelling and fascinating to look at, and infused with just enough compassion and kindness to keep it from being too bleak.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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