Both directed by Terence Fisher
Stolen Face Starring Paul Henreid, Lizabeth Scott and André Morell
Four Sided Triangle Starring Barbara Payton, James Hayter and Stephen Murray
72 minutes/81 minutes
Before Hammer struck the proverbial gold with 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein and began churning out Gothic epics on a seemingly week by week basis, they dabbled with a range of different genres, including comedy, film noir and spy films. It’s debatable whether the true beginning of Hammer Horror came with 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment or 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, but the films we are going to look at today are two early 1950’s Hammer productions which seem to foreshadow the direction the company was going to take in the latter part of the decade. Both are helmed by Gothic Horror legend Terence Fisher, both are in black and white and both feature a plot involving the quest for one’s love and desire through science.
The first of these films is Stolen Face. Released in 1952, it can be seen as a forbearer of the themes that Alfred Hitchcock would visit six years later in his classic film Vertigo. Dr. Philip Ritter (Paul Henreid) is a plastic surgeon who specialises in giving new faces to convicts who are being released back out into the world, on the basis that those that have a mean face are far more likely to go back to crime than those who have a nice face (!) But between his surgery and the extra work at the prison, he is being exhausted. After nearly killing himself and his partner in a car crash, he takes a holiday at a country Inn. There he develops a romance with an American Pianist by the name of Alice Brent (Lizabath Scott). It soon transpires that Alice is engaged to be married, and afraid to tell Ritter she runs away. Ritter becomes depressed, and when he returns to his work appears to have lost all interest. That is until however, he comes across his latest patient at the prison ward, Lily Conover (Mary Mackenzie). A petty crook with a nasty gash on her face, Ritter believes he can both rehabilitate Lily AND make her into the perfect wife, by constructing her new face to resemble Alice and marrying her in the process (after this point Lily is played by Scott, with Mackenzie’s voice dubbed over).
The first thing to say about Stolen Face is that it is a mixture of interesting and completely ludicrous ideas. The premise of there being a special hospital ward set up in prison to give plastic surgery to criminals in order to make them less likely to commit crimes when they are released is the most simultaneously fascist and libertarian thing I have heard in my entire life. To tell us that the reason people commit crimes is because of some inherent ugliness of their face feels a bit uncomfortable to me. On the other hand, criminals getting free face lifts on the NHS? Bah! Now that I think about it, this whole movie has an unseemly classist streak running through it. The upper class are all portrayed as intelligent, civilised individuals, represented by the surgeon Phillip Ritter and the concert hall pianist Alice Brent. While the working classes, represented by Lily Conover and her friends, as all presented are obnoxious, bawdy criminals, constantly getting drunk and ruining everything. I’m trying to say this film is trying is fascist or anything, but it”s undeniably a product of its time and you wouldn’t get away with this kind of representation today. The central plot point of a plastic surgeon moulding a woman into his image of perfection is a great one, a more on the nose approach to the ideas that Hitchcock was discussing in Vertigo, about how people try to mould one another into the objects of their desire, but they are handled in much more basic way. What Ritter does in changing Alice is undeniably perverse, but the film doesn’t make the big a deal out of this you might expect. In fact it portrays Ritter as the victim when Lily grows tired of conforming to his desires and becomes a controlling wife. Lily never asked to have her face changed into the woman who was cheating on her husband to be with you! (Now there’s one of those sentences you never think you’ll write.) Stolen Face is disjointed, and it loses interest and goes for the easy way out in the end, but it’s still recommendable, both for fans of Hitchcock and fans of Hammer. The bare foundations of Fisher’s Frankenstein series are seen here in the unnatural face moulding, as is a similar conundrum to the one Hitchcock would mull over in Vertigo. The following year Hammer and Fisher would play with science and desire again in another film.
Four Sided Triangle is an offbeat title for an offbeat film. Based on a novel by William F. Temple, this plot is another doozy. Bill and Robin (Stephen Murray and John Van Eyssen respectively) are childhood friends who compete for the affections of Lena (Barbara Payton). They grow up to be genius scientists, and with Lena’s help invent a machine called the “Reproducer”, which is capable of making an exact double of any object. Bill is heartbroken when Robin and Lena announce they are engaged to be married, and sets about convincing Lena to allow him to duplicate her. Things go pear shaped when it turns out that Lena’s duplicate, Helen, loves Robin the same as Lena, naturally being an exact duplicate. Four Sided Triangle is a much more even film that Stolen Face, and even though the premise is just as if not more ludicrous, it doesn’t feel as such thanks to better acting, pacing and structure. The whole film is tied together by a fatherly character named Dr. Harvey, played by James Hayter. He introduces the film by speaking directly into the camera, almost giving it a documentary type feel. While Stolen Face was much more concerned with the human drama that the lubricious situation it presented brought to the characters, this one gives just as much room to the science. The mad lab scenes are brilliantly staged, even if the set isn’t a patch on the glorious technicolour ones that Victor Frankenstein would later operate. In fact, this whole film might be considered a dummy run for Fisher and Hammer’s first Frankenstein film, The Curse of Frankenstein. The question of whether or not you should meddle with nature is here, with the arguing of the brothers foreshadow that of Victor Frankenstein and Paul Krempe four years down the line. For this reason I’d certainly recommend Four Sided Triangle to fans of the Hammer Frankenstein series and Hammer Horror in general. Prior to Quatermass, this is probably the earliest indication of the direction they were going to take. In Stolen Face you have a premise that is borderline Horror, but it is tackled as a Film Noir or Drama. In Four Sided Triangle you still have those Noir and Drama elements, but much more focus is given to scientific and ethical issues at the crux of the story than in the earlier film. Overall, it is a considerably more mature and well thought out film than Stolen Face, and establishes the mad laboratories and science that Fisher would continue to explore throughout his Frankenstein series.
Both of these films are worthy of the time of any Hammer or classic Sci-fi/Horror fan, and at just over an hour each they are an easy watch. Watch for an insight into what fantastical British film making was like before Quatermass ‘Xperiments’ and Technicolour Draculas and Frankensteins came along.
Stolen Face is viewable as an extra feature on the Region 2 Blu Ray and DVD dual format release of Hammer’s The Mummy. Four Sided Triangle is available in the same way on the similar Region 2 release of The Curse of Frankenstein. Stolen Face can be found on several Region 1 releases, inlcuding as a double pack with Black Out and a Hammer Film Noir Box set. Four Sided Triangle has a Region 1 release both by itself and a double pack with X the Unknown, but both seem to be considerably overpriced on Amazon.