4 May 2015 | lrrap
One of Cinema's True Lost Gems
In 1958, director Albert Band and writer Louis Garfinkle, having produced two low-budget films (including the cult-ish "I Bury the Living"), launched their third project, an adaptation of Stephen Crane's 1899 short story "The Monster". A study of small-town mentality and social attitudes in the wake of a shocking personal tragedy---in which a much-admired handyman heroically saves the local doctor's son from a fire--- "Face of Fire" seemed a rather risky cinematic endeavor during a time when American distributors were clamoring for schlocky, Grade-Z drive-in fare. But Band and Garfinkle forged ahead.
They struck a deal with Sweden''s Svensk Film Studio, filming in a small Swedish town that could easily pass for New England c. 1900. Most cast and major crew were American, including a number of American actors currently working in Sweden, with a few Brits imported for good measure.
Direction and script created a uniquely "foreign" atmosphere to the film--- dreamy, lyrical, almost surreal in its episodic construction, with sensitive and compelling performances by Cameron Mitchell, James Whitmore, Betty Ackerman, and Royal Dano. The artistry of cinematographer Edward Vorkapich (son of the legendary Hollywood cinematographer Laszlo Vorkapich) renders consistently beautiful visuals, which seem to envelop the action in a slightly un-real, pastoral veneer (including an eerie forest hunt scene, when an actual thunderstorm approached in the distance during filming). The musical score is by none other than Erik Nordgren, who scored Ingmar Bergman's major films of the same period.
After handyman Monk Johnson's (Whitmore) face is horribly burned in a house fire (rendering him mentally incapacitated as well), the great moral dilemma begins for his loyal boss, Dr. Ned Trescott (Mitchell); should he keep and care for Monk out of gratitude but jeopardize his medical practice due to the fear and hysteria of the townspeople, or should he abandon Monk, send him away to an institution, and thus save his own livelihood?
Such is the decision that Trescott is forced to make in the penultimate scene, when the townsmen approach him with an offer to take Monk off his hands (a fascinatingly constructed scene which Garfinkle invented for the film--- and excellently played by Mitchell and Ackerman). At the same time, just outside the window, little Jimmy Trescott has "betrayed" Monk---his savior--- by joining his playmates in the yard as they mock and torment the hulking handyman. The scene is almost unbearable for Trescott, who very quietly says to his wife "They're right, Grace", indicating that he's decided Monk has to go. And just at that moment, the church bells begin to ring in the distance...the same bells that rang long ago the night of that traumatic fire, while little Jimmy slept....and Monk, his horribly scarred face now hidden beneath a black veil, seems to remember the agony of that night...seems to relive it, as the young boy watches, at first repelled....until Monk calls out to him by his familiar nickname, "Pollywog", just as he did when he rescued the boy from the fire.
An overwhelmingly moving scene (capped off by Erik Nordgren's grand chorale treatment of Monk's tender love theme), which dissolves into the brief final shot, itself a reverse image of the very opening of the film.
"Face of Fire" accomplishes what it does by the subtlest, most sensitive and imaginative means. The opening credit music, perfectly gauged, is an almost expressionistic rendering of the familiar tune "The Animal Fair" ("and what became of the Monk?...."), performed by a unison children's chorus accompanied by 3 muted trumpets. And speaking of trumpets--- watch (and listen) for the brilliant moment when the fire alarm/whistle is first heard in the distance during a slightly surreal, late-night waltz in the local park. Then there's the breathlessly tense but ultimately painful scene when Trescott returns from his daily duties and finds the incapacitated Monk, his face draped in the black veil, standing immobile but ready to perform his former handyman chores... another scene of Garfinkle's invention of which he was justifiably proud (Garfinkle himself even appears in a cameo as a townsman).
Royal Dano, Lois Maxwell, Richard Erdman, Robert F. Simon and Howard Smith...familiar American stalwarts....distinguish themselves in this compelling examination of the human condition (when I visited Royal Dano in September, 1988, he was absolutely certain that his big dramatic scene with Lois Maxwell had been cut from the final film...until I handed him a VHS copy of the movie and assured him that it was indeed still there). The lovely Jill Donohue, then living in Sweden, was cast as Monk's fiancée, while British character actor Harold Kaskett deftly portrays Reifsnyder, the town barber and dispenser of philosophical nuggets. The pivotal role of Jimmy Trescott is played by young Miko Oscard (who had shone the previous year in MGM's "Brothers Karamazov" and was the nephew of the famous N.Y. talent agent Fifi Oscard); his performance is remarkably restrained and honest; the emotional transformation conveyed by his face during the final bell-ringing scene shows an emotional depth rare in young actors.
A uniquely beautiful film, doomed by its own sensitivity and restraint. Allied Artists had NO idea how to promote it, passing it off as another cheap, horror-matinée filler, sometimes on a triple-bill with "Caltiki" and "Tormented". It was panned and quickly disappeared.
Is "Face of Fire" really as good as I think it is? Buy it and decide for yourself. Don't expect to be blown away---- it's not that sort of experience. But it speaks directly to me on a deeply emotional level. You might shrug it off or, depending on your state of mind, be reduced to a sobbing, blubbering mess as I was many years ago after a late-night local TV showing.
PICTURE QUALITY--- very good; clean and detailed. Good contrast. SOUND QUALITY-- OK; clean but pretty low volume level, as is common with many un-restored releases. Just crank the volume control.