Sunday, September 21, 2014

STOLEN FACE (Terence Fisher, 1952)


Dr. Ritter falls in love with a beautiful blonde concert pianist and when she leaves to marry another man his morals take a vertiginous turn for the worse. Terence Fisher’s film is a starting point for VERTIGO, filmed years before Hitchcock; after seeing this, you’ll appreciate the Master of Suspense even more!
Once again, the British prove that they don’t quite have the hang of the Film Noir genre. The film begins with a romantic score that seems more adapted to a sappy melodrama or serial than a bleak world of cynicism and despair. The first two acts set up the third but drag on too long. In the first act, we learn that Dr. Ritter performs plastic surgery on criminals because he believes it’s their deformity which can cause a person to resort to a life of crime and recidivism. He is scheduled to rebuild Lily’s face, a once beautiful young girl whose horrible facial scarring causes her to be a social pariah and kleptomaniac. But the good Dr. is overworked and goes on vacation where he falls in love with Alice a beautiful professional pianist. Of course, she fails to mention that she is engaged and the week ends in broken hearts and promises. Dr. Ritter returns sullen and hurt and rebuilds Lily’s face into an exact replica of Alice!
The second act shows an obsessive Dr. Ritter taking Lily out to be fitted for new gowns and having her hair cut and dyed, reminiscent of Judy Barton from VERTIGO. The actress who plays both parts (Alice & Lily after the surgery) is strikingly similar to Kim Novak too. A different actress played Lily before the surgery so we need to stretch our disbelief a bit to accept the complete transformation into another visage including Alice’s throaty and seductive voice. But at least Lily still retains her Cockney accent. Hammer regular Andre Morell has a small role as Alice’s fiancée who is kind enough to break off the engagement when he suspects she is still in love with Dr. Ritter. It’s a breakup that is way too kind and gentle for a seedy film noir! But this leads to confrontation in the third and final act.
The story finally gets around to becoming interesting and generating some suspense and emotional friction. Alice returns to proclaim her love for Ritter and discovers his strange marriage. Unperturbed, she’s soon convinced that Lily wants to murder him and inherit his fortune. Lily may have a new face (more borrowed than stolen, really) but she still retains the same criminal mind…and criminal friends. The film ends aboard a train as a drunken Lily attacks Alice and accidently falls to her death from the moving train. To be clear, there is no mistake that her fall is accidental. Fisher fails to grasp the ambiguities inherent in the genre and the complex moralities often at play. But here Dr. Ritter and Alice are saddened by the death and walk away together into a brighter future.

STOLEN FACE has a very interesting premise (Hitchcock made it the best film ever made!) but Terence Fisher fails to explore the secret depth of Ritter’s character. The story is written blandly and the characters perform as an upright audience would expect. It’s not a terrible film by any means but could have been so much more subtle and devastating.

Final Grade: (C-)  

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