Directed by Alfred E. Green
Written by C. Graham Baker and Teddi Sherman
The joy of this marathon, when I can keep up with it, is watching these movies back-to-back-to-back, etc. etc., as it affords me the opportunity to compare and contrast these films to their contemporaries (another reason I like to marathon chronologically). I bring this point up as a point of comparison between this film, Four Faces West, and the previous film in the marathon, Fort Apache. Fort Apache was a film which fells more and more impressive the more I think about it, and especially after having seen Four Faces West. This may make the reader believe Four Faces West is a subpar entry in the western genre, quite the contrary. In fact, I enjoyed the film quite a bit for everything it does differently from many other films in the genre. But I must say the quality of the film and filmmaking is stark. Now, getting the chance to see Fort Apache on Blu Ray versus a second rate DVD release for Four Faces West may have something to do with it, especially after seeing the high quality screen captures of the latter, but John Ford is still operating on a different filmmaking level than his contemporaries, which includes Alfred E. Green.
Ross McEwen (Joel McCrea) is not your typical outlaw or bandit. No, he is simply down on his luck and in need of a $2,000 loan, a loan he takes by force with no collateral at a nearby bank at the same time the heralded lawman Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) is being treated to a welcome festival across the street. After getting away with the cash, McEwen hops a train and meets up with a friendly nurse named Fay Hollister (played by McCrea’s real life wife Frances Dee), who mend’s McEwen’s snakebit arm, and Monte Marquez (Joseph Calleia), who quickly learns of McEwen’s secret, but decides to help him evade Garrett and his posse. But Garrett and his men eventually catch up with McEwen, and only then will the measure of the man be truly tested.
I found this film fascinating for more than a couple of reasons. It is obviously a much smaller film than anything John Ford might do, but the West needs small stories too, and sometimes the smaller the more interesting. By containing such a small story to this film, Green is able to make a rather taut and efficient film, which runs just under the 90 minute mark. But the narrative on display here is also unique in that McEwen is a lovable outlaw. There has been some mild outlaw worship thus far in the marathon, perhaps most notably Angel and the Badman and The Outlaw, but this is also different than that because, well, is McEwen even that bad of a man. Sure he “robbed” $2,000, but he took it as a loan. What were his motivations? Why is he planning on repaying? Why couldn’t he swing a real loan? Is it his lack of collateral? All signs point to McEwen being a good, reasonable man who wants to work hard and earn an honest living, he just needed a bit of a jump start on the process.
Unique too, and perhaps just as unexplained, are Monte Marquez’s motivations for helping McEwen. Joseph Calleia turns in one of my favorite supporting performances of the marathon thus far as Marquez. I can’t put my finger on his performance, or his motivations, but Calleia turns in a warm and welcoming performance, which somehow reminds me a bit of Clark Gable with his charm. I think what held be back most were those motivations, of both Marquez and McEwen. Otherwise, this was a small film which captured my attention easily from start to finish. Those mysteries surrounding their pasts are never revealed, and perhaps some might think the film better that way, but I kept anticipating, watching the film to figure it out, and to be left with nothing other than McEwen stole the money because he wanted to steal it and Marquez helped hide his secret because he wanted to hide it just felt a little off to me. Still, it makes the film no less entertaining to watch, and would perhaps motivate me to revisit it at some point to delve even deeper into these two men.
While it would be easy to say I wish every film was as big and important as Stagecoach, or My Darling Clementine, or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, what makes both this marathon and the Western genre so magnificent is small films like Four Faces West, little films which work as vehicles for smaller stars like Joel McCrea and character actors like Joseph Calleia. They add the type of color to the genre that is necessary for it to remain fresh and not some regurgitation of the same 7 stories over and over and over again, just with different names, or different actors, or even the same actors but at varying stages of their careers. Four Faces West will not likely make my essentials list when this marathon is complete, but it is one that perhaps I should consider, as it would be a deep cut I would recommend to any fan of the genre.