"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Four Faces West (UA, 1948)

A magic little movie

This is a truly delightful little Western. A small ensemble piece beautifully shot in black & white by Russell Harlan and directed with loving care by Alfred E Green, it tells the story of a man, Joel McCrea, who gets a ‘loan’ from a bank at pistol point under the nose of Pat Garrett (we are in 1880s New Mexico) and who boards a train in which two passengers, Joseph Calleia, as a wily, sympathetic New Mexican saloon owner, and Frances Dee (Mrs. McCrea), as a lovely Eastern nurse, guess he is a fugitive but protect him anyway. Of course Joel falls for Frances but it is all so sweet, so gentlemanly and so well, nice that your heart can’t failed to be warmed.
Dee looks like a vamp in the poster but is very demure in the film
The Paul Sawtell music wanders from Hollywood angels to romantic violins to Lone Ranger-style dan-der-dan-dan but that’s OK. It’s fine. Who cares?

Charles Bickford’s Garrett vies with McCrea’s McEwan to see who can be the more decent. McCrea gets ahead by sacrificing his flight in order to nurse a Mexican family with diphtheria. But Garrett overtakes him by offering to speak up for him at his trial and get him a lenient sentence. Joel is also motivated to go quietly by Dee, who will only marry him if he gives himself up.
Joel sacrifices himself to save others
McCrea had been appearing in Westerns since the mid-1930s. His Ramsay MacKay in Wells Fargo in 1937 and his Jeff Butler in Union Pacific in 1939, two pre-War nation-building epics, had established him as a major Western lead. He had the title role in William A Wellman’s Buffalo Bill in 1944 and of course he was The Virginian in the 1946 remake. And he had been superb in the André De Toth-directed noir Ramrod the year before. That had been produced by Harry Sherman, the Hopalong Cassidy guy, and this was Sherman's follow-up - and in fact his last film. So McCrea was a hot Western property and this small movie might have been considered a step down, had it not been such a gem. Oaters were becoming his thing and he always played the quiet, decent, sometimes long-suffering hero. Sherman only wanted McCrea, no one else. he was right: this could be the McCrea Western.
Bickford plays a decent Garrett
Bickford was a tough cookie. Acquitted of attempted murder at the age of nine, he had served in the US Navy and then gone into acting, becoming a friend of James Cagney. He starred in Hell’s Heroes in 1929 and the Michael Curtiz picture River's End in 1930 but he was mauled by a tiger on the set of Fox's East of Java and the scarring incurred made him drop from starring to character parts. Here, he was to join the roll of honor of those who have played Pat Garrett. Later he was to appear in high-class oaters such as The Big Country, The Unforgiven and A Big Hand for the Little Lady.

McCrea is outstanding as the honest bandit and Bickford really authoritative as Garrett but they are admirably complemented by Joseph Calleia, who manages a charming-rogue portrayal: magnetic, intelligent, wise.
Mob boss Calleia
Calleia was Maltese and his looks got him all sorts of ethnic parts, especially Hispanics. He was a classic Hollywood bad guy, often a mob boss, but could also do sensitive, good-badman roles very well, as here. He was in 13 Westerns, including a couple of Alan Ladd ones, Branded and The Iron Mistress.
Calleia shows them Inscription Rock: paso por aqui
Frances Dee, who had been the female lead in Wells Fargo, is certainly beautiful and as the rather prim Easterner does a fine job. Usually, the ‘good’ single women were schoolteachers but this time she is a nurse. Same thing. Just as long as she doesn’t go anywhere near a saloon.

William Conrad has a small part as an (already overweight) sheriff.

Actually, though, come to think of it, perhaps Inscription Rock, El Morro, photographed by Harlan, upstages them all.

The screenplay was by Graham Baker and Teddi Sherman with an ‘adaptation by’ William and Milarde Brent, so a lot of people worked on the script but it was based on a novel, Paso por aqui, by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, a New Mexico rancher who loved the land, and it shows. His books were known for their authenticity about Western life. The project was first known as They Passed This Way, and that title was retained for the British release.
There’s a surreal scene when Joel rides across a Sahara-like desert of sand on a saddled bullock, finely shot in glowing monochrome. Very memorable!

The 1880s railroad car and four-up mail hack are excellently authentic.
Noble nurse meets decent puncher
It is a rare bird, this film: a Western without gunshots. No one shoots. They are all too decent, you see. No one even throws a punch.

Only two bounty hunters and the banker, who pays extra to get Joel dead, are real villains. And even the bounty hunters don’t get to be more than rude to Frances before Garrett decently comes in and saves her. Everyone is a straight-up Westerner, you understand, and it’s only a competition to see who can be more decent than the next guy. Joel wins. He even empties all his cartridges so that two little sick boys can inhale the sulphur fumes. Even Pat Garrett can’t get more decent than that.

Producer Sherman said, "Joel is the greatest natural western actor since Mix and Hart, and he's the first natural horseman I've ever seen. No trick rider, just a guy who knows how to sit on a horse with grace and authority."

This is what a late 40s low-budget Western could be. Naïve, simple, heart-warming. Call it cheesy if you will, I won’t mind. Wait, I do mind. This is a magic little movie and a must-see.


  1. Watching it now. Has always been one of my favorites.

  2. WesternWatcher9/14/17, 10:13 AM

    Watching this also - on you tube. Not a bad move. and Frances Dee can certainly make a man change his spots

    1. True, though Joel had no spots to change. he was already Decent.