29 March 2006 | Delly
30's enemble acting at its best.
Another Face offers no shattering truths, and was just one of hundreds of time-fillers of its day. But the deeper you go into these sausage-factory productions the more you want of them. Whereas nowadays I can pretty much tell from a director's CV what will be good and what won't, and can immediately cross a director off my list if, for instance, he had a winning film at Sundance or is the protégé of Robert Evans, everything in the frenzied early days of the talkies was much more random and had nothing to do with the strivings of an ambitious individual. The actors and writers were either juiced that day or they weren't, and the director pointed the camera.
The plot: Brian Donlevy is a gangster named "Broken Nose" Dawson who has plastic surgery to elude police and then goes to Hollywood to try his luck as an actor. Wallace Ford, a fantastic character actor whose looks and mannerisms will remind modern viewers of Steve Zahn, steps into the Lee Tracy role of a muckraking press agent who is just itching for a story like this. His girlfriend, played by the hot -- and I mean HOT, like the way you think Jean Harlow will look before you actually see her and realize she looks like Miss Piggy -- Phyllis Brooks, is a conceited actress who doesn't appreciate being asked to play opposite a no-talent thug. And Alan Hale and even Hattie McDaniel are on hand to make you think you're at MGM, an impression that the slick cinematography does nothing to belie.
This is one of those movies that make you wonder why acting is considered more "naturalistic" today. I guess if you consider people being sprayed down with water before each take to look sweaty and scrunching their forehead to show how hard they're working at existing on camera, yes, modern actors are more naturalistic. This cast, however, is not a collection of egomaniacal studs trying to out-emote each other but a well-oiled team that Christopher Guest would have been proud of, the linchpin being the underrated and versatile Wallace Ford. Brian Donlevy really inhabits his role to the point of being unsympathetic and crass, and despite the comedic trappings of the film, may be up there with Joe Pesci in his lived-in portrayal of a sociopath. Try not to be shocked when, cornered by the police, he drops his facade and instantly fires a round at a woman and then shoots the lighting guy!
Before that happens, there are numerous funny moments, like when Donlevy thinks he hears someone spying on him in a closet. As it turns out, someone really is, but her life is spared when Donlevy, remembering he's an actor now, suddenly becomes self-conscious about his profile and starts trying to make his chin jut out in the perfect way. Lots of the movie even feels like old-pro improv, with lines that are written to sound artfully flubbed, like when Alan Hale, not believing that a famous gangster like Broken Nose Dawson is on his set, says, "That's fine, that's fine... Get me Jesse James, too, and Dr. Jekyll, and then we'll have a male... quartet." He only mentions three men, but even if there were four, that wouldn't make the phrase "male quartet" any less awkward. Yet they left it in, and its lack of Hawksian polish makes it feel very fresh. Really cool.
The ending is even action-packed and intense. Check this movie out if they play it on TCM.