I haven’t done a count yet but I’m pretty sure that this year I’ve watched Joel McCrea more than any other actor. I saw most of his westerns, some I blogged about, like Frenchie, Cattle Drive, The Lone Hand, Stranger on Horseback, The Tall Stranger, Cattle Empire, The Outriders, Saddle Tramp, and several more I never got around to reviewing: Fort Massacre, Colorado Territory, Trooper Hook, Stars in my Crown, The First Texan, The Oklahoman, and Four Faces West. So when Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s announced this blogathon celebrating Joel McCrea, it was the perfect chance to write up one of my favourite Joel discoveries of the year.
In Four Faces West, McCrea plays Ross McEwen, a cowboy down on his luck who “robs” a bank–better to say he politely takes out a loan at gunpoint, which is the only collateral he has. He takes no more than the $2000 his father needs, he leaves an I.O.U. signed “Jefferson Davis,” doesn’t hurt anyone, and catches a passing train to escape. The banker offers a reward for McEwen, dead or alive, but new marshal Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) senses this isn’t the work of your ordinary bandit. Garrett’s also determined to keep things civil and get his man safe in custody before the posse finds and kills him. Meanwhile, a snake-bitten McEwen is treated on the train by nurse from the East, Fay Hollister (Frances Dee). His getaway is delayed and complicated as he falls in love with her, and when she realizes he’s the bank robber, she tries to convince him to turn himself in and rebuild his life instead of constantly running like a coward. Also on that train is Mexican saloon owner Monte (Joseph Calleia) who’s quick to figure out McEwen’s wanted, and he initially keeps us all wondering if he’s truly a protective pal or planning to rat McEwen out and get the reward.
The on-screen pairing and sweet chemistry of real-life couple McCrea and Dee is always welcome and enjoyable, and they get a smart and satisfying story where an apparent crook proves in the course of a manhunt that he’s actually a “valiant gentleman.” McCrea may have been older than the source material indicated, but he’s perfect to play this kind, principled, determined and reserved character. McEwen’s neither given to, nor comfortable with explaining himself, but his actions speak volumes about his nobility, and noble is something McCrea was natural at.
McEwen starts paying back the stolen money while on the run, and you never doubt his promise to return all of it. He wants to stay with Fay but doesn’t dare involve her in his troubles. He leaves some cash for a horse he’s “stealing” during his getaway. He doesn’t even hurt the bratty little tattletale who nearly rats him out after noting his resemblance to the man described on the wanted flyer. (Monte hilariously shuts the kid up with a trip and a faceful of dirt, but pays for it later during a poker game.) McEwen’s most endearing and admirable act comes when he can make a clean escape but stops to help a Mexican rancher’s family dying of diphtheria. McEwen hunts deer, cooks up broth, applies kerosene remedies and most tellingly, even uses all the gunpowder in his bullets to mix a vapour. By the time he crosses paths again with Fay, Monte and Garrett, he’s completely spent, and more than deserving of respect, leniency and a second chance.
Early in the film, washed out railways send our characters on a detour by stage, with a stop at El Morro National Monument. This giant rock formation bears carved inscriptions from those who passed it (Pasó por aquí was the title of the source novel by Eugene Manlove Rhodes) on their way to unknown territory and the promise of a new better life. Monte gives a nice speech there to explain the place’s history and carvings, and they all return in the final scene, so it serves as a nice reminder of the lasting value of ideals, hopes and sacrifices in people’s journeys.
This movie is a total pleasure, with plot threads that weave together nicely and naturally, and many clever things McEwen does to squeak out of tight spots to make the chase entertaining and suspenseful. It’s a sophisticated look at the four main characters as they come to understand each other and become part of McEwen’s redemption. And, as most reviews of this movie point out, it’s a western where not one shot is fired nor punch thrown, and that’s fitting for such a sincere, sensitive and uplifting story about honour, humility, and good deeds being recognized and rewarded.