A magic little Western
As we have already mentioned on this blog, 1948 was a year of great Westerns, works of art, even, and box-office hits, pictures such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fort Apache, Red River and Yellow Sky (click the links for our reviews). But it was also a time of smaller but still high-quality movies, not huge hits maybe and perhaps not chefs d’oeuvre but nevertheless films of high quality.
One of your own Jeff’s all-time favorite oaters falls into this latter category. It was produced by Harry Sherman, who definitely knew a thing or two about the genre, directed by Alfred E Green, not a Western specialist (this was by far his best) and it starred Mr & Mrs Joel McCrea.
Four Faces West is a truly delightful little Western. A small ensemble piece excellently acted, beautifully shot in black & white by Russell Harlan and directed with loving care by 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.
The Paul Sawtell music wanders from Hollywood angels to romantic violins to Lone Ranger-style dan-der-dan-dan but that’s OK. In fact it’s just dandy.
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. Who will be the more heart-warmingly decent at the end? Keep reading to find out.
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 big-budget nation-building epics from Paramount, had established him as a major Western lead. He had the title role in William A Wellman’s Buffalo Bill in 1944 and though the biopic was something of a whitewash, McCrea was splendid in the part. And of course he was The Virginian in the 1946 remake. Furthermore he had been superb in the André De Toth-directed noir Ramrod the year before Four Faces. Ramrod too 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 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 lead 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. 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.
Frances Dee, who had been the female lead with Joel 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. And Paul E Burns, Walter Bacon and Glenn Strange the Great are (woefully) uncredited as train conductor, baggage clerk and posse deputy respectively.
Actually, though, come to think of it, perhaps Inscription Rock, El Morro, photographed by Harlan, upstages them all.
The screenplay was by Graham Baker, who had worked on Ramrod, and Teddi Sherman, one of six Westerns she did, with an ‘adaptation by’ William and Milarde Brent (their only Western), so a lot of people worked on the script but it was based on a novel, Paso por aqui, by Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Rhodes was 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, which was by MGM.
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.
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. Bounty hunters were respectable by comparison with bankers, in Westerns, as we said recently in our essay on the subject (click here for that). 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 sulfur 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.” Yup.
It was largely ignored by the critics at the time
Budgeted at $1.2m, so not chump change, it sadly only made $1.1m at the box-office, according to a July 14, 1948 article in Variety, so can hardly be termed a smash hit (Red River made $9m and Yellow Sky $5.6m). Still, the Variety article came out before the picture gained general release, so it would go on to make more. In any case, commercial hit or not, it’s a Western well worthy of a fine vintage. Dennis Schwartz has called it “A sensitive and quaint western, with an irrepressible charm.”
In fact Four Faces West is what a late 40s mid-budget black & white Western could be, naïve, simple and 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.