Stolen Face/Four Sided Triangle (1952/53)

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

UK

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 stolenface-posterAlfred 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 stolen31working 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.

foursidedtriangleFour 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.

Four Sided Triangle laboratory

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.

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The Road to Fort Alamo (1964)

StradaPerFortAlamo_DatabasePageOriginal title; La Strada per Fort Alamo, also known as Arizona Bill
Directed by Mario Bava (under the pseudonym John Old)
Starring Ken Clark, Jany Clair and Michel Lemoine

82 Minutes

Italy

It’s difficult to assess The Road to Fort Alamo as anything other than the work of a talented director working within a genre that was of little to no interest for him. Mario Bava is of course, one of the godfathers of Italian Horror. He helped to usher in a cycle of Italian Gothic with his classic Black Sunday, laid the foundations for the giallo in the offbeat The Girl Who Knew Too Much, set the standard for gialli with Blood and Black Lace, and bridged the gap between Italian and American slashers with A Bay of Blood. Despite his infamy and continued work within the Horror genre, he didn’t limit himself to it for the duration of his career. He proved he could hold his own within other genres with the psychedelic comic book adventure Danger: Diabolik, whose converts range from the Beastie Boys to Edgar Wright. His second to last film, Rabid Dogs, is an intensely disturbing and engaging crime thriller with some of the most despicable criminals ever seen on the screen. Like fellow Italian Horror extraordinaire Lucio Fulci, Bava also had his own Spaghetti Western trilogy, but even the controversial Fulci’s work in this genre is held in higher regard than the acclaimed mastermind Bava. Bava’s three westerns remain obscure and little seen, barely mentioned in discussions of his work. From watching The Road to Fort Alamo, the first of his three westerns, it seems that Bava either didn’t have the passion for the western genre that he imbued in his other works, or that he struggled to implement his trademark style within the western template that he was given.

Made in 1964, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars had been released only a month prior to The Road to Fort Alamo, and it’s easy to tell. Many of the pre-Fistful Spaghetti’s have an off-brand, knock off American quality to them, rather than being an unique Italian take on a classic dish. That certainly applies to this film. The scenarios, characters and music all smack of a 50’s B Western, and Bava’s trademark vibrant technicolor and use of matte paintings only enhances this vibe. The story involves Bud Massadey, a man returning from the Civil War when he finds a troop of dead soldiers who were carrying a bill for the Wagon City bank good for $15,000 in army wages. The citizens of Wagon City don’t exactly give Bud a warm welcome, and so he and his new friend Slim decide to team up with a gang of outlaws. Together they dress in 500fullthe dead soldiers uniforms and try to retrieve the money that the bill promises from the town bank, but things go awry and they end up robbing the bank instead. Things start to get complicated when the leader of the gang, Carson, turns out to be a Mr.Blonde-esque psychopath, and after being beaten and left for dead by the gang, Bud and Slim are picked up by a passing military convoy as one of their own. Now having to play up their soldier disguises, a traveling prisoner called Penny and the psychotic Carson turning back up with the money and a gang of Indians on his tail means that escape is increasingly difficult for the two men. As the tensions mount, Bud is torn between his desire to escape from the convoy with Slim or staying put to do the right thing.

Though it’s very rough around the edges and not nearly up to the standard of it’s director, The Road to Fort Alamo is still rather watchable as a simple entertainment. The tension over whether or not Bud and Slim are going to get found out is handled pretty well, with some near misses and awkward situations along the way. There isn’t much to say about the acting, only that Michel Lemoine gives a nicely psychotic portrayal as Carson. In a moment that caught me completely off guard, when the outlaws are robbing the Wagon City bank in their soldier disguises, he goes crazy and blows away a screaming old lady. You actually see an old lady get shot and killed in this movie! Only in Italian Westerns folks. This is a rare moment in the film where Bava’s dark sense of humor and sadist streak shines through.

The whole ‘Cowboys Vs Indians’ thing is of course extremely stale, and itself rarely seen in Spaghetti Westerns, but the idea of the Indians sending out little rafts of dollars down the river in order to lure out and kill the soldiers is an image that stuck with me. If this had released been a bit later after Fistful, they could have cashed in using the title ‘River of Dollars’. Bava’s usual visual style also makes the film look unique among Spaghetti Westerns, almost like a Western comic book, and the films best moments are the action scenes where it begins to live up to the comic book aesthetic. One of the opening scenes in the Saloon is a good example of this, including a great moment where Slim is held up and made to hand over his gun. He slyly warms it on a candle behind his back causing his aggressor to burn his hand when goes to grab it. Another place where the film shines are in the studio filmed night time scenes. These scenes are lighted in a fantastically tumblr_niz8nkOnP91r344y9o1_1280Gothic way that is trademark Bava, so it’s a real shame that their effect is ruined by a completely baffling sequence late in the film. When Bud is trying to escape from the convoy at night time, Bud and the convoy are depicted in aforementioned studio night shots, but when the film cuts to the river across which Bud is trying to escape, it is suddenly daytime and outdoors! This Ed Wood like blunder, along with the generally detached feeling the film has from the rest of his filmography, makes me feel like Bava either wasn’t particularly invested in the Western genre, or struggled to figure out what kind of Western he wanted to make. If he had concentrated his energies on making either a comic book western in the vein of Diabolik, which can be glimpsed in the saloon scene mentioned above, or a Gothic Western hybrid as can be glimpsed in the studio night time scenes, Bava’s contribution to the Spaghetti Western universe might have be bettered regarded and remembered. As is set in stone, The Road to Fort Alamo is a minor and unexceptionable entry in a filmography that is filled with gems. For Bava and Spaghetti Western completists only.

I saw The Road to Fort Alamo on a Region 2 German DVD from Koch Media, which features the original Italian audio track with English subtitles, as well as German audio and subtitles. It’s also available on a Region 0 DVD from Wild East in the USA, which features only the English soundtrack, and also includes the Eurowestern A Place Called Glory.