An honest man turned outlaw running for his life... A marshall with a conscience more just than the law... A gambler whose greatest risks are taken for a friend... A woman whose love for a fugitive knows no danger...
These are the four unforgettable characters facing the challenge of their lives when their paths cross on an innocent outlaw's compelling flight to freedom. A very different kind of sagebrush saga. This tough and touching classic is as emotionally charged as it is action-packed. Cinematography by Russell Harlan (Howard Hawks' Red River, Rio Bravo).
Sometimes uncomplicated is the best way to go when constructing a film. Simplicity can lead to clean storytelling that doesn't get muddled up with too many plot points or character devices that fail to further the narrative. With 1949's Four Faces West, a western about four intersecting characters, simplicity is why it works. Directed by Alfred Green from a script by C. Graham Baker and Teddi Sherman, stars Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Charles Bickford, and Joseph Calleia stick to genre archetypes and conventions while also working against cliches and expectations to create a well-rounded action drama set in the old west.
Ross McEwen (Joel McCrea) is an honest and good man at heart, but bad times make for desperate folk. With nothing left to his name, Ross quietly robs a bank in a small town at the same time famed frontier lawman Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) is making a speech not fifty yards away. After letting out into the territory, Ross hops a train thinking he's left Garrett and the town's posse behind him. Meeting the kind and beautiful railway nurse Fay (Frances Dee), Ross sees a chance for a normal, quiet life and longs to free himself from the guilt of his theft. Even the help from local career gambler Marquez (Joseph Calleia) isn't enough to square things when Ross learns Garrett is hot on his tail. Now Ross is forced to choose between living as an outlaw or facing the consequences of his actions, even if that act of honesty means losing years of his life behind bars.
As a fan of Westerns of all kinds, it takes a lot to surprise me. After a time you see enough westerns, and you start to think you've seen them all as they quickly become variations of each other. You expect certain events to happen at certain times. So when you've got a film like Four Faces West that bucks a lot of those conventions, it feels refreshing. Director Alfred Green weaves a tight little drama about a man facing the consequences of his actions and injects the right amount of action and romance to make it feel bigger than it is without playing to cliches.
Joel McCrea may not be the first name when you think of the classic westerns, but he holds his own. As we got to see with The Gunfight at Dodge City and Fort Massacre, McCrea knew how to play to the genre archetypes but also made his mark playing honest but conflicted characters who may or may not be past the point of redemption. With Four Faces West, his Ross McEwen is another such character. He knows the difference between right and wrong but has a damned hard time staying on the right side of the line. He does bad things without malice, but also has a conscious. It's why his turn as Steve Judd in Sam Peckinpah's Ride The High Country was the perfect role to come out of retirement for. He plays an archetype perfectly but at the same time the material he got allowed for enough variance to make each of his roles seem unique.
Adding to McCrea's performance was his real-life wife Frances Dee as Fay. If you didn't know going in that the two had been married for sixteen years by the time, you still wouldn't have a hard time spotting their natural chemistry together. When Fay and Ross meet, it's a natural and expected attraction that serves the rest of the story as Fay doesn't know if she can trust a man like Ross. Next, we have Bickford's Pat Garrett, an honest career lawman who has seen it all but still trusts and believes in people to do the right thing and hasn't made any assumptions about Ross. Then we come to Joseph Calleia's Marquez. If there is a piece of Four Faces West that doesn't entirely work as cleanly as the rest of the film is Calleia's friendly gambler character. While it's nice for him to be friendly and all, but it's an unmotivated friendship. Ross has done nothing for him, so it's strange to see this random guy risk his neck by helping him out. It works at the end of the film, but it's a bit odd none the less.
If one character not quite working 100% is the worst I can say about a film, then Four Faces West isn't half bad. It's a solid action movie that skews towards drama when you think the film is leading towards a cliched gunfight. I can't tell you how many scenes I expected the traditional standoff with some character shouting "draw" followed by the cavalcade of gunfire only for it not to happen. It's almost like the movie is teasing audiences expectations by building toward an event but going sideways with the scene in a way that works better. At the end of the day, I found Four Faces West to be a fine film. Not the best Western ever committed to celluloid, but a good and entertaining one none the less. If you're a fan of the genre and hasn't come across this one, make some space in your viewing schedule, I think you'll have a good time of it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Four Faces West arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics Label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc. Housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case, the disc also comes with a booklet containing cover artwork for other Studio Classics releases. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Four Faces West makes a grand black & white arrival on Blu-ray with a 1.33:1 1080p transfer. From the first frames, you can see an appreciable amount of film grain that is never too noisy or pronounced nor is there any evidence of unsightly image smoothing. Details are strong, as you can clearly make out the smallest details from facial features and costuming to the pebbles and sagebrush in the sunbaked landscape. The film's grey scale is particularly impressive as black levels are deep and inky black with terrific shadow separation throughout giving the image an excellent sense of depth and dimension. There is only one small patch later in the film that holds the score back where the image is decidedly softer, more grit and scratches, and black levels aren't quite as healthy as the rest of the image. Thankfully it's only a brief moment and doesn't last longer than a minute or so. Considering this film is nearly 70 years old and not one of the most popular films of its era or genre, I was pleasantly surprised at the condition of the elements with only slight barely noticeable speckling.
Four Faces West also makes an impressive entrance with a robust English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono audio mix. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, allowing even the quietest conversations to come through with terrific clarity. Sound effects have a pronounced snap to them with the interspersed action sounds and galloping horse hooves give the mix that extra punch while keeping things lively. Paul Sawtell who was responsible for such scores as The Fly and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, as well as countless other westerns, delivered a stellar score for this film that plays up the dramatic elements while keeping traditional Western themes and stylings prominent. Imaging is a bit restrained, given the mono nature of the mix, but open space location scenes offer up a great sense of space and dimension. Free of any hiss or pops, this is a damn fine audio mix.
While the Video and Audio elements are in great shape and offer a lot to this Blu-ray release, sadly, the same can't be said of the bonus features as the only thing present is Kino Lorber Studio Classics' traditional trailer gallery.
The Man With The Gun Trailer (HD 2:24)
The Gunfight At Dodge City Trailer (HD 2:15)
The Kentuckian Trailer (SD 2:17)
The Indian Fighter Trailer (SD 2:25)
Rawhide Trailer (SD 2:27)
Man of the West Trailer (SD 3:01)
Yellow Sky Trailer (SD 1:40)
I love it when a Western I've never seen comes along and surprises me the way that Four Faces West does. You see enough of a genre that you come to expect certain things so it's surprising when a movie sidesteps cliches and conventions by not doing what would come naturally for any other film. For a western, I don't think there was a single gunshot! A solid little drama is given the right blend of action and romance from a terrific cast to create a compelling and worthwhile little film. If you're a Joel McCrea fan, you don't want to let this one pass you by. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings Four Faces West to Blu-ray in terrific form with a stellar Video transfer and a fantastic audio mix. Unfortunately, there aren't any genuine bonus features, but that shouldn't keep you from picking this one up. I'm willing to bet there are a number of Western junkies out there who will be pleasantly surprised by this one - enough so that I'm calling it a recommended release. I had a great time with this one and am eager to show it to friends and family who probably never heard of it.