Produced, directed and co-written by Albert Band, FACE OF FIRE is one of the earlier works from the independent filmmaker behind such later exploitation favorites as MANSION OF THE DOOMED, CINDERELLA and DRACULA’S DOG. Despite its rather exploitive advertising campaign, FACE OF FIRE is not a horror film, but a well-intentioned and hard-to-forget (and nearly forgotten) gothic Americana tale which carried such taglines as “WHO WOULD DARE TO LIFE THE MASK”.
In 1898 in the town of Whilomville (“any home town”), handsome handyman Monk Johnson (James Whitmore, THEM!) works for wealthy doctor Ned Trescott (Cameron Mitchell, NIGHTMARE IN WAX) and enjoys a pleasant lifestyle fishing with Ned’s young son Jimmy (Miko Oscard, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV), being well-respected by the community and he also does quite well with the ladies (having a beautiful fiancé in waiting). One night after being out on the town, Monk returns to the Trescott house and the horrid discovery of the entire place on fire. Monk goes in, up against the roaring flames to save young Jimmy, who gets out unscathed while Monk is left unconscious in the chemical-filled lab. Monk lives, but now has a totally disfigured face as well as brain damage that regresses his mind to childlike state. The kind doctor does everything he can to help the man who saved his son, giving him around-the-clock care, and when Monk is able to get up out of the bed, he is given a black veil to wear in public.
Monk is put up in the home of a poor family (who put greed before hospitality) while Ned and his wife Grace (Bettye Ackerman, RASCAL) have their house renovated. Not comprehending how shocking his appearance actually is, the misunderstood Monk gets dressed up and goes back out on the town like he used to (and without his concealing veil), and with just his innocent stare, terrorizes a child’s birthday party, an outdoor dance and his former fiancé who of course doesn’t even recognize him. Since the townsfolk hold Monk responsible for an accident involving a young woman and horse-drawn carriage, a hunting party is started by a henpecked husband (a very young Royal Dano, MESSIAH OF EVIL) who decides to take the law into his own hands. After days, and the locals believing the discovery of a murdered well-dressed man was actually him, Monk is found passed out in the woods by doctor Ted who brings him back to his home, but things now may be in the hands of a judge (Robert Simon, COMPULSION) and the threatened villagers as to what must be done with this “monster”.
Released by Allied Artists, FACE OF FIRE was based on a story called The Monster by Stephen Crane (“The Red Badge of Courage”) and there was a significant difference in that the character of Monk was an African American (ironically, Whitmore would star in BLACK LIKE ME a few years later). Band went to shoot the film in Sweden shortly after the Richard Boone horror thriller I BURY THE LIVING, and the outcome is a well acted mood piece (boasting some simplistic yet effective black and white cinematography by Edward Vorkapich) with some touching, melodramatic moments and macabre bits. The burn make-up on Whitmore by Ingmar Bergman regular Börje Lundh is quite startling, and the actor gives a fairly good performance as the one-time charmer turned hideous man-child. Playing a nice guy for change, Mitchell is also good as the kindly doctor, yet when you look back on these early leading man roles, it’s hard not to think of the countless Z-grade exploitation films he would later be reduced to. The fine cast includes future Miss Moneypenny in most of the James Bond movies, Lois Maxwell, as the very bitchy and outspoken wife of Dano’s character, and the moving music score is by another Bergman regular, Erik Nordgren (THE SEVENTH SEAL, WILD STRAWBERRIES).
Occasionally showing up on TNT back in the 1990s and more recently on Turner Classic Movies, FACE OF FIRE never had an official VHS release and is now premiering on DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection. The made-on-demand DVD presents the film in a 1.78:1 anamorphic ratio, and though it doesn’t appear that too much restoration work has been done on the title, the transfer is still pleasing. The black and white image has a few imperfections, and some digital artifacting was detectable, but contrast levels are good and blacks are also solid. The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is fine, with very little hiss or other distortion to be found. There are no subtitles or extras on the disc. (George R. Reis)
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