…”He passed this way.”
Just when you want to write off Artisan completely, they surprise you with a very fine looking release of an interesting, little-known western. It’s coming across such unexpected treasures that makes the efforts of wading through Artisan’s numerous uninspired transfers all worth while. Four Faces West is the film, the last production of Harry Sherman who was well-known for his numerous B western films (a number of the Hopalong Cassidy westerns, for example). Far from a B western, however, Four Faces West was a million-dollar production that unfortunately was not a box office success despite its positive critical reception. United Artists originally released it, with the rights eventually making their way to Republic — hence the current Artisan connection.
The film’s release title — Four Faces West — was a poor choice, as it really had no significance as far as the plot is concerned. The tale is based on a story by New Mexico writer, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, entitled “Paso por Aqui” which translates to “They Passed This Way” and refers to the many valiant individuals who contributed to the progress of that area of the U.S. Southwest and whose names may be immortalized on Inscription Rock (El Morro National Monument). Rhodes’ story does not stray far off traditional western plot lines. Ross McEwen is an honest man whom circumstance forces to rob a bank. On the run from Pat Garrett, no less, he encounters a somewhat mysterious Mexican, Monte Marquis, who befriends him and a railway nurse who tends to a snake bite that he has suffered and with whom he falls in love. The relentless efforts of Garrett, however, prevent McEwen from being able to settle down and he heads for the Mexican border. Within striking distance of his objective, he finds himself faced with a decision that may mean the difference between freedom and jail.
To balance the traditional plot, the 1948 film offers a quartet of fine portrayals; the picturesque landscape of several national preserves in New Mexico; and a narrative that gives us a bank hold-up, several chases, and zealous cowboys bent on bringing in a fugitive dead or alive, yet in all of which no gun is ever fired.
Intelligent is probably the best way to characterize the portrayals. As Ross McEwen, Joel McCrea added to his portfolio of likable yet robust western figures. In 1946, McCrea had made the decision to specialize in westerns as he enjoyed the outdoors, the sort of morality play that so many of them offered, and their increasingly adult tone in the late 1940s and 1950s. As a result, his career is probably most closely identified with that genre despite his earlier varied work, most notably in the films of director Preston Sturges (The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Great Moment). From 1946 until his last great role, in 1961’s Ride the High Country, McCrea appeared in 26 films, and only one was not a western. McCrea’s wife in real life, Frances Dee, played nurse Fay Hollister and their real-life attraction is clearly evident in the film. Dee was one of the most beautiful and natural of actresses, a positive influence on any film she was in, although she had by this time clearly subordinated her career to her family life. Charles Bickford and Joseph Calleia played the other two main characters (Garrett and Marquis) and both are departures from their standard portrayals (cantankerous in Bickford’s case, and somewhat sleazy villain in Calleia’s).
The basic goodness of all four major characters does telegraph the film’s outcome, but the pleasure is in the playing and the manner in which the various plot threats are resolved. The issue of the lack of gunplay is never accentuated and actually comes as a surprise when one realizes it after the film ends. Bullets, in fact, play a key, unexpected role for good in the film.
Novel touches abound throughout the film, including McEwen’s approach to hiding his presence on a train from a search party and the unique manner in which McEwen transports himself across part of the New Mexico desert. Even the vocation of railway nurse is new. I don’t believe I’ve ever run across such a job in a western before. The film is briskly if unspectacularly directed by veteran Alfred E. Green and photographed effectively by Harry Sherman stalwart, Russell Harlan.
Artisan can’t be accused of using a recycled laserdisc transfer this time, since the film was never released in that medium to my knowledge. The full frame presentation (in accord with the original aspect ratio) is quite pleasing. It’s bright and clear with fine shadow detail and mercifully free of the edge effects that often spoil Artisan’s DVD releases. There’s some age-related speckling and minor debris, but nothing distracting. The sound does suffer from hiss and certainly offers no evidence of the stereo surround that the packaging advertises. There are no supplements.