Face of Fire (1959), based on a Stephen Crane story, is a very affecting and unusual drama about a beloved small-town handyman who suffers disfigurement and a brain injury that make him a pariah and expose the hypocrisy of many who once loved him.
In 1898 the town physician Dr. Trescott (Cameron Mitchell), his wife (Bettye Ackerman) and son Jimmie (Miko Oscard) enjoy the company of their employee Monk (James Whitmore). Monk is a fixture in town, has loads of buddies and is much admired by the ladies for his rugged good looks and self-taught gentlemanly ways. He was an orphan that came from nothing and was taken in almost a decade before by the doctor. One night the Trescotts’ home burns down, and in the course of saving Jimmie’s life, Monk’s face is completely burned and he suffers terrible brain damage.
Dr. Trescott dedicates himself to treating Monk, but his appearance scares the townspeople. When he traumatizes a little girl at a birthday party and causes a minor panic, so many of his “friends” decide he’s better off gone. When he’s assumed dead, they talk about how wonderful he was and how much they miss him, then promptly forget all that when they find him alive at Trescott’s. They shun the doctor until he loses his practice and faces the choice of caring for Monk or providing for his family.
This film opens with a cute picture of small-town life as Monk takes boys fishing, teaches them life lessons and courts a pretty young lady. Once Monk is burned and wears a black veil, the tone shifts to something like a monster movie (director Albert Band made I Bury the Living (1958) the year before). Monk’s makeup is convincingly grotesque, he’s called a creature, is reduced to peeping in windows and creeping about in darkness, and like Frankenstein’s monster, must flee from an angry pitchfork-wielding mob. For most of the film Whitmore must act with just body language and grunts, and only gets a few scenes with his eyes exposed. He creates a highly sympathetic character that anchors this morality play.
The cruel behaviour toward Monk follows naturally from the shallow, gossipy obsessions and marital rifts we’re shown before Monk’s injury. Royal Dano and Lois Maxwell play a bickering couple whose daughter has a breakdown after seeing the faceless man, so Maxwell just changes her nags to demand Dano kill the monster or prove to her that the thing is really dead. She’s nasty and shrewish, as vengeful over her daughter’s suffering as the doctor is grateful for his son’s life. I always love to point out that Lois Maxwell is probably the biggest movie star who ever came from my hometown, best known as Miss Moneypenny from the Bond films. Dano is great as the decent but hopelessly henpecked hubby taking out his frustration on Monk and the doctor until he grows the nerve to stand up to his wife.
Richard Erdman plays an opportunist who takes Monk in temporarily, but he steals his old friend’s clothes and only cares about the extra monthly cash he’s getting for his show of hospitality. Aside from the doctor, the only unconditional kindness Monk receives comes from the hound he always played with. The dog doesn’t care what he looks like, and it’s poignant when that same dog is used to hunt Monk in the forest and snuggles up to his clothes (even though they’re worn by the wrong man).
There are a lot of ugly people here, far uglier than they believe Monk to be, but their reasons are real and the characters interesting, and it all leads to a hopeful outcome. Monk shows hints of progress one day when the doctor comes home, and to his surprise they exchange the same old welcome and pleasantries. He’ll never be the same, but despite the teasing, cruelty and rejection, Monk can become a new kind of fixture in his family and town, and teach another big life lesson about love and acceptance.
This post is part of the Allied Artists Blogathon hosted by Toby of 50 Westerns from the 50s & The Hannibal 8. Please click here to see the other Allied Artists films being covered as part of this event.