DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews
 
FACE OF FIRE (director/writer: Albert Band; screenwriter: from a Stephen Crane story The Monster/Louis Garfinkle; cinematographer: Edward Vorkapich; editor: Ingemar Ejve; music: Erik Nordgren; cast:  James Whitmore (Monk Johnson), Cameron Mitchell  (Dr. Ned Trescott), Bettye Ackerman (Grace Trescott), Robert Simon (Judge Hagenthorpe), (Dr. John Moser), Miko Oscard (Jimmie Trescott), Jill Donahue (Bella Kovac), Richard Erdman (Al Williams), Royal Dano  (Jake Winter), Lois Maxwell  (Ethel Winter), Howard Smith (Sheriff Nolan), Harold Kasket (Reifsnyder, the barber); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Albert Band/Louis Garfinkle; Allied Artists; 1959-B/W)

"Perceptive tale about small town prejudice in America, in 1898."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A well-realized offbeat social conscience drama, shot in Stockholm as a Swedish-American co-production. It's based on the Stephen Crane short story ``The Monster." Albert Band  ("The Young Guns"/"Robot Wars") adroitly directs and co-writes with Louis Garfinkle this perceptive tale about small town prejudice in America, in 1898.

In the peaceful New England village of Whilomville, the popular and dapper handyman Monk Johnson (James Whitmore), on the day his girlfriend (Jill Donahue) accepts his wedding proposal, heroically rescues Jimmie (Miko Oscard),  the only son of his employer Dr. Trescott (Cameron Mitchell), in a house fire. The child is unharmed but the chemical fire leaves Monk disfigured and mentally unsound.

Rather than treating him with respect, the good citizens turn their back on him and some consider him the Devil. They even blame Dr. Trescott for keeping him alive. The doctor loses most of patients and must find another place for Monk to reside and a way for Jimmie to reconnect with his kind friend.

Its monster theme reminded me of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), though less powerful in scope than that masterpiece.

It's a small gem, at least for the first half of the film, that slipped under the radar and is well worth seeking out. What's flawed is the uneven screenplay and the unreal pacing, as the town so suddenly turns against Monk was just unconvincing.

REVIEWED ON 5/1/2017       GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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Face of Fire is a dramatic phrase, but it isn't quite accurate for the 1959 film of that title, since the main character's face is not fiery at all. Quite the opposite, in fact - fire has destroyed his face, leaving him a physical and psychological wreck at the mercy of his small-town environment and the small-minded people who dwell around him.

The story takes place in a quiet village called Whilomville around the end of the nineteenth century. James Whitmore plays the unfortunate Monk Johnson, a kind and conscientious man who makes his living as a helper and jack-of-all-trades for physician Ned Trescott (Cameron Mitchell) and his family. Although he was once a rascal who sewed lots of wild oats, Monk settled down to a respectable life years ago, and now he's a well-liked member of the community.

Then disaster strikes. On the very day Monk's lovely girlfriend accepts his marriage proposal, the Trescott house catches fire. Getting there just as the place goes up in flames, Monk heroically enters to rescue Jimmie, the Trescotts' only child. The little boy comes out unscathed, but Monk is so badly burned that no one expects him to live. Although he ultimately survives the ordeal, thanks to Dr. Trescott's dedicated efforts, his face is charred beyond recognition and his mind is traumatized beyond comprehension.

Adding insult to injury, the people of Whilomville refuse to honor Monk as a hero. Instead they shun him as a monster, as if his exterior wounds were signs of an evil nature within. Just as bad, they blame Dr. Trescott for allowing the deformed man to live. Now the doctor's medical practice is vanishing and his unyielding commitment to Monk is the only thing standing between the disfigured, demented man and homelessness, maybe even starvation. Will the good physician yield to pressure by his neighbors and put Monk out of his house? Or will he honor his obligation to do everything possible for the patient who risked everything to save his child?

Face of Fire begins with an on-screen text announcing that the story is taken from The Monster, a novella published by the great Stephen Crane in 1898. What the movie doesn't mention is that the main character of Crane's novella is an African-American man, not a dapper white gent like the one played by Whitmore in the film. Whitmore is a wonderful and versatile actor, and he obviously wasn't responsible for erasing the rescuer's blackness from the screenplay, but it's scandalous that a 1959 production didn't think it fitting to portray an African-American man as a courageous hero. Adding to the irony is the fact that in 1964, just six years after this film, Whitmore starred in Black Like Me, playing a thinly fictionalized version of an actual white author, scholar, and civil-rights activist who darkened his skin and traveled through the South in order to write about anti-black bigotry from the perspective of a victim, if only a temporary one. It's regrettable that Face of Fire couldn't muster that kind of courage.

The racial aspect aside, Face of Fire is an interestingly offbeat drama with an interestingly offbeat production history. Before making it, the young filmmaker Albert Band had been an assistant on John Huston's legendary 1951 misfire The Red Badge of Courage, also based on a work by Stephen Crane, and had gone on to produce and direct The Young Guns (1956) and I Bury the Living (1958), not prestige projects by a long shot. Hoping that a socially conscious problem picture would boost his career to a new level, he put together Face of Fire as a Swedish-American coproduction, shot in Sweden with a largely Swedish crew and cooperation from the state-supported Swedish film industry. This arrangement evidently gave Band some latitude to flex his artistic muscles, which had clearly been constrained in his low-budget Hollywood quickies, and he was able to bring a solid American cast along on the Scandinavian journey. Face of Fire did not particularly elevate his career, though, and his subsequent pictures were back on the level of his first ones, as titles like Grand Canyon Massacre (1964) and Dracula's Dog (1977) suggest.

Whitmore's contribution to Face of Fire is somewhat diminished by the fact that he disappears from the middle part of the story, when Monk is hidden from public view by Dr. Trescott, who takes over as the protagonist for quite a while. But the rest of the cast compensates for Whitmore's absence by doing solid work. Cameron Mitchell, who shares top billing with Whitmore, makes Dr. Trescott a believable figure of quiet integrity, and Royal Dano is equally strong as Jake Winter, a Whilomville citizen with mixed feelings about the Monk situation.

Special challenges confront the women in the cast, since the picture sometimes makes them seem more prejudiced against Monk than most of the men - especially after he scares a little girl by peering through a window at a birthday party - but Bettye Ackerman and Lois Maxwell make credible characters out of Grace Trescott and Ethel Winter, respectively. Capable work also comes from cinematographer and art director Edward Vorkapich, film editor Ingemar Ejve, composer Erik Nordgren, and writer Louis Garfinkle, who penned the screenplay with Band and must share the blame for turning Jimmie's rescuer from black to white, and tacking on a bogus happy ending to boot.

Critics have compared Face of Fire with everything from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and Elia Kazan's Pinky (1949) to David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) and Peter Bogdanovich's Mask (1985). While those are more ambitious pictures with more polished production values, the similarities show that Band and company were exploring terrain that has attracted many serious filmmakers before and since. To get a bolder reading of American prejudice and xenophobia, though, follow up Face of Fire by reading Crane's excellent novella The Monster.

Director: Albert Band
Producers: Albert Band and Louis Garfinkle
Screenplay: Albert Band and Louis Garfinkle; based on "The Monster" by Stephen Crane
Cinematographer: Edward Vorkapich
Film Editing: Ingemar Ejve
Art Direction: Edward Vorkapich
Music: Erik Nordgren
With: James Whitmore (Monk Johnson), Cameron Mitchell (Ned Trescott), Bettye Ackerman (Grace Trescott), Miko Oscard (Jimmie Trescott), Royal Dano (Jake Winter), Richard Erdman (Al Williams), Howard Smith (Sheriff Nolan), Lois Maxwell (Ethel Winter), Jill Donohue (Bella Kovac), Harold Kasket (Reifsnyder), Robert Simon (judge)
BW-80m.

by David Sterritt

In a small American town, Monk Johnson works as a groom for Dr. Ned Trescott and his family. When not working, Monk enjoys fishing with the town's children and Ned's young son Jimmie, whom he affectionately calls "Pollywog." One afternoon after visiting the barber shop, Monk dresses in his finest suit and calls upon Bella Kovac, whom he has visited many times. Pleased by Monk's charming manner, Mrs. Kovac approves of his visits and is happy when Monk proposes to Bella. Later, Monk makes his way back to the Trescotts, stopping at the post office to greet a neighbor and then to play briefly with a friendly collie dog. Clanging fire bells shatter the calm evening and the townspeople follow the fire wagon to the Trescott house, which is engulfed in flames. Neighbors prevent Ned and his wife Grace from entering the burning house, despite Ned's hysterical cries that Jimmie remains inside. Unknown to the crowd, Monk enters the house to find Jimmie and, wrapping the frightened child in a blanket, searches in vain for a way out of the blazing building. Monk descends the rear stairs to Ned's laboratory, but stumbles on the burning steps and falls, knocking himself out against a table, after which chemicals on the flaming table explode and fall directly onto Monk's face. Meanwhile, Ned breaks away from the crowd and dashes into the lab where he pulls Jimmie to safety. When someone calls out that Monk was seen entering the house, Ned and two firemen rush back into the lab and pull out the horribly burned man. That evening, Ned and Grace stay at the home of close friend Judge Hagenthorpe while Dr. John Moser treats Jimmie. Relieved to learn the boy has suffered relatively mild burns on his legs, Ned is distressed when John reports that Monk's severe burns have literally scalded off his face. Ned sends Grace and Jimmie to stay with his parents while their house is rebuilt and he personally tends to Monk. Over several weeks, Ned operates on Monk and has him treated by specialists, but in addition to remaining grotesquely scarred, Monk's mind has been affected. When the judge suggests that in his dreadful condition Monk would surely want to die, Ned is shocked and reminds his friend that Monk saved Jimmie's life. Later, just before the new house is completed, Ned arranges to take Monk, wearing a black veil over his face, to stay with poor farmer Al Williams, his wife Mary and their two sons. After Grace and Jimmie return to the new house, Al goes to the judge to demand more money from Ned for looking after Monk, revealing that his children, wife and the neighbors are frightened by Monk's appearance and believe he is the devil. A few days later, however, Al is alarmed when Monk goes missing from his locked room. Unnoticed, Monk wanders into town where he peers into the window of a house, terrifying young Mary Winter and several children at a birthday party inside. Monk then interrupts a dance party and when he approaches a girl, she collapses in shock upon seeing his face. Although confused, Monk nevertheless retraces his activities on the night of the fire and makes his way to the Kovacs', where a shocked Bella breaks down when he addresses her. After playing briefly with the friendly collie, Monk continues to the post office where he greets a woman, but his appearance causes her to panic and run into the street where she is nearly knocked down by a horse and wagon. When Monk tries to help the hysterical woman, several townspeople chase him and, frightened, he runs away, seeking refuge on top of a railroad car. Later, Mary's father Jake goes to Ned to inform him that he and several men believe Monk is dangerous and must be found. Alarmed by Jake's shotgun, Ned accompanies the men, but asks the judge to alert Sheriff Nolan. Nolan catches up with the group in the woods and demands they surrender their guns. Jake and the others initially resist, but when a figure is spotted running through the woods, Ned and the others chase him, believing it to be Monk. The man turns out to be Al, wearing Monk's suit. Nolan's deputy then arrives with a telegram reporting Monk has been killed at nearby Three Track Junction after being run over by a train. Although deeply saddened, Ned later confesses to Grace a sense of relief. After a funeral service in which Monk is declared a hero, Ned is disheartened when several of his patients, who days earlier had demanded Monk's confinement, praise him. One afternoon while Ned is consulting with John, Jimmie arrives home stricken. Under questioning, the boy describes seeing a man with no face down by the river. Ned and John rush to the park and find Monk and Ned takes him home. Later, Nolan discovers that the body identified as Monk's was a stranger who had been robbed and murdered. Over the next few weeks, tensions rise in town over Monk's presence and rumors spread that Jimmie has been in shock since seeing him. When Ned calls on the Winters to treat the still fragile Mary, Jake's wife Ethel hysterically blames him for Monk terrorizing the town. One afternoon a weary Ned returns home and is amazed when Monk, wearing his veil, steps forward to tend to the horse. Although Monk remains confused, Ned is uplifted by the apparent partial return of the injured man's memory. A few days later the judge and several men visit Ned to reveal they are aware of his gradual loss of business and have raised money to send Monk to an institution. Distressed, Ned nevertheless tells them he will consider their offer. Meanwhile outside in his veil, Monk sits carefully cleaning a bridle when Jimmie and several school children arrive and taunt him. The children dare one another to get closer to Monk, but the ringing of the fire bells interrupts their cruel game. Monk comes to his feet in distress, frightening the children. As Ned and Grace watch from the window, Monk cringes in fear, then holds out his hand and calls for "Pollywog." Moved to hear his old nickname and remembering that Monk saved him, Jimmie comes to his friend and, taking his hand, leads him into the Trescott home.

D: Albert Band. Cameron Mitchell, James Whitmore, Bettye Ackerman, Royal Dano, Robert Simon, Richard Erdman. Unique adaptation of Stephen Crane short story ``The Monster'' about man disfigured while saving child from fire. Uneven cast, good direction.

Director
Carl-Henry Cagarp Assistant Director
Cameron Mitchell Ned Trescott
James Whitmore Monk Johnson
Bettye Ackerman Grace Trescott
Miko Oscard Jimmie Trescott
Royal Dano Jake Winter
Robert Simon Judge Hagenthorpe
Richard Erdman Al Williams
Howard Smith Sheriff Nolan
Lois Maxwell Ethel Winter
Jill Donahue Bella Kovac
Harold Kasket
Aletha Orr
Charles Fawcett
Vernon Young
Robert Trebor
Doreen Denning
Lorena Holmin
Hjordis Petterson
Annabelle Lee
Calvert Cross
Edward Vorkapich Director of Photography
Lars-Goran Bjôrne Camera Operator
Bjôrn Thermaenius Cam asst
Louis Garfinkle Screenwriter
Albert Band Producer
Louis Garfinkle Producer
Gustaf Unger In assoc with
Frank Sullivan Supervising Film Editor
Ingemar Ejve Film Editor
Erik Nordgren Music
Uddo Funck Music Editor