STOLEN FACE is an early production from Hammer Films, directed by Terence Fisher, the team who would later unleash CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and (HORROR OF) DRACULA upon an ill-prepared world. Like Fisher’s first film for Hammer, THE FOUR-SIDED TRIANGLE (a tedious tale about creating artificial life of the female variety), the 1952 movie looks forward somewhat to the horror films he would make his name with in a few years, and like the earlier movie it’s a somewhat dreary affair that takes forever to get going.
Paul Henreid (blacklisted in the States but still fairly popular with audiences) is hard-working, philanthropic plastic surgeon Paul Ritter. This being a Hammer noir, Ritter is not only kind-hearted (Jekyll-style, he is first encountered restoring movement to a child) he also nurses a crackpot theory: that many hardened criminals are really acting out the frustrations caused by suffering some facial disfigurement. He’s obviously seen A WOMAN’S FACE, either with Ingrid Bergman or Joan Crawford, and it’s deeply impressed him.
Like a lot of B pictures (FIRST MAN INTO SPACEis a classic example), STOLEN F starts the action before anything’s due to happen and just sort of drifts around hoping some promising line of narrative development will suggest itself. The real master of the premature opening at Hammer was Michael Carreras, idiot son of the founder Sir James, who would later run the company into the ground in the ’70s. He begins CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT with his central characters being born, and then just kinda follows them around as they grow up, on the assumption that sooner or later something interesting is more or less bound to happen, it being the Stone Age and all. (This assessment proves over-optimistic.)
As STOLEN FACE ambles aimlessly through its first thirty minutes, Paul (so relaxed, it’s a pleasure to spend time with this actor), meets Lizabeth Scott, treating for a head cold when he’s on holiday and falling for her. But Liz is already engaged to vacuous plot function André Morell (a fine, authoritative performer, hopelessly miscast as loverboy) so she gives Ritter the elbow, leaving him to assuage his desire by sculpting a scar-faced cockney kleptomaniac into an exact replica of his lost love, and marrying her. Oh dear.
This at least justifies the title, and gives the film it’s weirdest pleasure: the buzz of hearing Mary Mackenzie’s cockney guttersnipe dialogue emerge from the lips of a classy Hollywood star.
The holiday romance doesn’t seem QUITE intense enough to justify this bizarre, VERTIGO-like course of action, but one is relieved that at least something is happening. Before you know it, Ritter is attempting to mould his new wife’s personality as he did her physog, and she’s bridling at his controlling behaviour and starting back to her felonious ways.
Anyway, Morrell gives Liz the heave-ho and she hastens back to Henreid, only to learn the peculiar truth: she’s mildly disappointed. “Oh Paul,” she remarks. This doesn’t seem to quite meet the dramatic needs of the scenario. The Scott duplicate goes from bad to worse and is sort-of accidentally chucked out of a moving train. The emergency cord is pulled and various British Rail personnel gather round the corpse to offer their expert views. “Must’ve been a pretty girl,” and “At least she’ll never know what it is to go through life disfigured,” they observe, as Paul and the unusually forgiving original Liz walk off down the tracks, arm in arm.
What a deeply conservative film! When Ritter goes off the deep end and starts trying to transform a captive subject into his lost love, without telling her, we expect tragic consequences — for HIM. But his actions, while destroying his victim, don’t rebound upon him at all. The only conclusions to be drawn are that cockney criminals are just no good, and that a woman is better dead than disfigured. This would be bad enough as a message, but since 90% of the story is concerned with Henreid, whose psychological drama never resolves itself at all, the film is both reactionary and incoherent. This wouldn’t be the last time the inherent conservatism of Hammer Films would come oozing to the surface in an unpleasant way. Comparing the film to VERTIGO is a fascinating exercise in narrative construction — one film takes the least dramatic and satisfying route, while the other drags its characters through admittedly improbable story developments, but undeniably pushes them to breaking point — and beyond.
(Weirdly enough, for a film concerned with duplication, the copy of STOLEN F which I got my mitts on refused to be duped. The VHS tape held two off-air recordings, a later Hammer horror called THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, and SF, but while the first film yielded readily to my DVD recorder, the second firmly resisted, and the recorder flashed up a sign saying “You May Not Record This, You Bad Boy.”)