Stolen Face (1952)

Hammer Films came to prominence thanks to the series of bold horror films they made in colour from the late 1950s and throughout the next decade, the best of which were directed by Terence Fisher. But they both got their start making dozens of modest black and white B-movie thrillers often featuring emerging , or waning, Hollywood actors. Stolen Face is one of these lower berth productions, though it does stand out from the mix for the way that it seems to presage many of the elements in the company, and Fisher’s, more celebrated later output. In fact, this is a real gallimaufry of a movie, combining as it does a slew of (then) popular genre elements, including classical music, a romantic triangle, plastic surgery,  psychiatry and a wild finish on a train …

This review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the other selected titles.

From 1951 to 1955 Hammer Studios, through an arrangement with Robert Lippert Pictures in Hollywood (and bankrolled by 20th Century Fox through a backdoor for quota purposes), became one of the most industrious of UK film companies, cranking out tightly budgeted features at a prodigious rate. These were mostly thrillers and melodramas that helped establish the studio and the production team that would largely be responsible for its greater successes later on. But first things first. Once upon a time in postwar London, a leading plastic surgeon is very successful but is clearly in need of a rest …

Paul Henreid plays Philip Ritter, a surgeon who seems imminently due for sainthood. When we first meet him he is checking the results on the latest of a series of free surgeries he has been conducting to restore hand movement to a young boy from a deprived background. He then meets another potential patient, an aging but very wealthy woman. Recognising that she has already been put under the knife by less expert hands, he tells her that he cannot in good conscience make much of a difference anymore, flatly turning down her offer of £1,000, much to her fury. He then heads over to the local prison for the latest in a series of operations that have helped many of its inmates become rehabilitated though his medical treatment, all of which of course is provided pro bono. It is here that the kindly warden (a nice cameo from playwright and future Dad’s Army co-star, Arnold Ridley) asks Ritter to talk Lily (played Mary Mackenzie though voiced by Lizabeth Scott in a nice touch), a persistent recidivist who seems to have taken up a life of crime following her severe facial disfigurement during a wartime raid. While the scars on her face are severe (and put well on display in what would become Hammer’s best manner), Ritter thinks he may be able to help her. On the way home he nearly crashes his car – burning the candle at both ends has really taken its toll and his partner succeeds in making the doctor take a well-earned holiday.

Stopping at a country inn, the romantic part of the narrative takes over. Ritter’s sleep keeps being interrupted by the sneezes emanating from the woman in the room next door and in the end he puts a note under their connecting door, suggesting she take some aspirin and a little brandy. She pops a note back to say she only has the aspirin … he takes his bottle over and meets concert pianist Alice Brent (Scott). The two, having ‘met cute’ in the time-honoured movie tradition, start a whirlwind romance in the warm embrace of the local folk, all of whom seem to have been won over by the obvious rapport of the couple. Ritter declares his love, but the next morning she is gone. Despondent, he goes back to work more obsessively than ever, and decides to put all his energy into giving Lily a new shot at life with a beautiful new face, one that he first sculpts into a statue with all his love and skill. In an act of what can only be described as romantic folly, he uses it as a guide to give the woman a new face – or rather, one that looks exactly like Alice’s, finally giving reason to the title of the movie. Lily proves to have a very different personality, no matter whose face she is sporting.

This plot development, in which a scientist creates in effect a dangerous new person through his surgical skills, certainly looks forward to Fisher’s Frankenstein films for the studio, but the movie also deserves some kudos for preempting many of the themes and motifs that Alfred Hitchcock would use several years later in his classic plunge into morbid romance, Vertigo (1958). In scene after scene, moments that we remember from the classic Hitchcock movie all get their first airing here – first there is the romantic obsession with a beautiful but unobtainable blonde who vanishes from a man’s life. He then makes another woman over in her image – dying her dark hair blonde, than buying her a new wardrobe, obsessing as he tries to recreate his lost love. We even get a scene centered on a broach that indicates the woman’s criminality, much as we would in the later film. Here though it indicates that Lily is in fact slipping back into her old habits – just having Alice Brent’s face and marrying her surgeon-cum-saviour seems not to have been enough to curb her darker impulses, the story switching course again into what would seem to be a crime plot crossed with a psychiatric case history about a woman suffering from kleptomania.

But what happened to Alice? We discover that she fled her romantic idyll as she has long been engaged to David, an older man (André Morell) to whom she feels a great sense of obligation. She travels through Europe successfully playing variations on the highly attractive piano concerto that Malcolm Arnold wrote especially for the film. As the concert tours extends, David realises that Alice is not really in love with him and so nobly bows out. All seems set for a reconciliation with Philip – except of course he is now married, very unhappily, to a woman that he has surgically altered to maker her look exactly like Alice … Scott has a great time playing both roles, a traditional good-vs-bad girl triangle rendered truly delirious by the movie’s bizarre plot twists. The story then contrives to lurch again into another genre as Alice becomes convinced that Philip is being driven to murder by the cruel antics of his wife, whose behaviour has become ever-more erratic after taking to alcohol. The scene is set for a race to the rescue and a climax aboard a speeding train.

This being a low-budget movie, there are few scenes in which Scott has to appear in both roles at the same time and all of them are handled through the use of a double, avoiding the use of time-consuming opticals. The results are actually pretty successful in the circumstances and the climax builds up some fair suspense as we wonder just who will try to kill who. The finale is a little bit too pat and, like Vertigo, doesn’t really solve things satisfactorily at a plot level, though one could argue that emotionally it is the only way the story could go in what is a variant on the story of beauty and the beast. Henreid makes for an appealing if rather stiff protagonist and it’s a shame that Mary Mackenzie i by necessity only seen int he early stages of the film before her surgery as she gives a fiery performance that contrasts well with Scott’s smoother style.

Along with two nice performances from the top-billed Scott (who does a fair in not completely convincing imitation of a cockney accent), Malcolm Arnold deserves a lot of credit for providing the film with an extra patina of gloss with his fine orchestra score – those wishing to hear a suite can listen to an arrangement for piano and orchestra, the ‘Ballade’ arranged by Philip Lane and included in the album, The Film Music of Malcolm Arnold Volume 2 released by Naxos.

My dedicated microsite on Hammer Studios and its thriller films is here.

DVD Availability: The film is available in no frills but perfectly acceptable versions in the US and the UK. The former is technically the better of the two and is available as part of the Hammer Noir box sets released by VCI.

A Stolen Face (1952)
Director: Terence Fisher
Producer: Anthony Hinds
Screenplay: Martin Berkeley & Richard H. Landau (story: Alexander Paal & Steven Vas)
Cinematography: Walter J. Harvey
Art Direction: Wilfred Arnold
Music: Malcolm Arnold (played by London Philharmonic Orchestra; solo pianist Bronwyn Jones)
Cast: Lizabeth Scott, Paul Henreid, André Morell, Mary Mackenzie, Arnold Ridley

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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23 Responses to Stolen Face (1952)

  1. Colin says:

    This film seems to be acknowledged as the best of Hammer’s noir cycle. That’s understandable enough bearing mind the casting and the technical accomplishment. Still, I can’t really rate it as a favourite of mine. Scott has one of her best roles playing the two opposite characters but Henreid was always too stiff and somehow unconvincing for my taste.

    I think I’ve mentioned before that, of the Hammer/Lippert noirs I’ve seen, Heat Wave was the one I found most enjoyable – perhaps it’s not the best of the bunch, but something just clicked for me.

    • Cheers Colin. To be honest, I think one could seriously question the Noir credentials of this movie anyway, though you could argue that it’s a testament to the versatility of the style that it can be applied to a story that goes off in som many genre directions! This is a movie that is a lot more fun for the thematic content and the way out plot than any particular distinguishing characteristics in the way that it is shot or directed. I agree that Heat Wave (aka House Across the Lake) is a good movie and that stylistically it conforms much more closely, and siccessfully, to the Noir typology shall we say? I’ll be reviewing it here soon along with a lot more of the early black and white Hammer movies.

      I also really love the music score, but then Malcolm Arnold sems to be a British composer forever in need of re-assessment. He was just too prolific for his own good I suspect, though he generated an enviably diverse body of work both inside and outside the concert hall.

      • Colin says:

        True – A Stolen Face is basically a melodrama, albeit a weird and bizarre one.

        I’ve made the point myself in a number of pieces that British films rarely qualify as true film noir; the class concerns frequently sabotage them. The likes of They Made Me a Fugitive and The October Man come pretty close though, as does Heat Wave.

        • The class issue is an interesting point Colin and I think a fair one, though in a way the use of American actors in the Hammer thrillers (and those made by others) tends to facilitate the idea of Noir as an import, but also as a way to expand on what some (not me necessarily) might see as a parochial attitude in British cinema of the day. Of course you also end up with a lot of copycat films just trying to cash in, but that’s what low budget cinema usually starts out as, with only the cream of the crop managing to rise above that. As a style I think it was certainly prevalent in a lot of British films of the period, with Brief Encounter being probably the most unlikely British Noir, though one that I believe has a strong case for being seen as canonical. Carl Reed’s masterpiece Odd Man Out certainly qualifies. Night and the City is a fascinating cross-cultural hybrid, especially given its literary source.

          • Colin says:

            Odd Man Out is definitely a film noir – a rare example of Irish noir in fact. It’s actually strange that Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, wasn’t used as a backdrop more often – even in the years I lived in the city there was still a menace, with the threat of violent, meaningless death very much a reality.

            I know Night and the City is essentially an British movie, but I can’t help but feel it’s more American in feel.

            I hope I’m not coming across as sniffy regarding BritNoir – I’m enormously fond of British crime and thriller pictures of the period – but there was a restraint, which I do believe was a result of the predominance of more middle-class themes and characters, present which dilutes much of the cynicism found in US productions.

          • Until recently I think it was very hard to do stories with a political edge and set in Northern Ireland, full stop.

            That there is a lack of the necessary cynicism in the movies of the 40s and 50s is I think true enough, and frankly not a lot of poetic realism either. Clearly there are going to be films that fall outside of that on occasion and Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sunday certainly springs to mind but I don’t disagree with you. Andrew Spicer has written a useful book on European Film Noir, which includes a chapter on Britain, and there are some interesting lists available of British movies that might be said to fit the bill. Yhe one I find most amusing was by the late William K Eeverson, which you can read at the Films in Review archive here. It includes a lot of unlikely candidates frankly and lots of obscuities too, but intersting none the less – though including The Ladykillers and Paranoiac is surely more than stretching the point …

          • Colin says:

            Even today there’s a reticence about delving too deeply into the Northern Irish fiasco. I grew up in South Armagh in the 70s and 80s, a wildly dangerous and anarchic place at the time, and there was a lot of dirty business undertaken on all sides. I think it may be a long time before filmmakers feel comfortable enough to tackle the issues of those years.

            Robert Hamer produced some of the strongest examples of British noir; aside from those titles mentioned, Pink String and Sealing Wax and, more especially, The Long Memory are further examples of his contribution.

          • I only ever went to Belfast during the ‘troubles’ (my brother stidied at Queens) and even that was pretty scary. Have you seen the 1982 TV adaptation of Harry’s Game? I did a brief review of it ages ago (which you can read here) and I think it still holds up fairly well actually.

          • Colin says:

            Nice review of Harry’s Game, which I remember watching when it was first broadcast. I haven’t seen it since though. I think nearly everyone in Northern Ireland watched it at the time as it wasn’t all that common to see ourselves portrayed on screen. Gerald Seymour wrote a number of books based around “The Troubles” and he made a reasonable fist of getting into the opposing mindsets.

          • Cheers Colin, glad you liked it. An interesting corrective to the critically more lauded but much more oblique films like Alan Clark’s Elephant. I have a lot of time for both sorts of films frankly.

  2. curtis evans says:

    “including classical music, a romantic triangle, plastic surgery, psychiatry and a wild finish on a train”

    And they said it couldn’t be done! I’m sold!!

    • Well, quite! I found it a really entertaining B-movie – not sure how persuasive it is, but genre by genre (scene-by-scene) I think it sorta, kinda works, without too much in the way of special pleading necessary … and at 71 minutes it positively zips along!

      • Colin says:

        Actually, that’s a very valid point; the (generally) short running times of these pictures means that they move at a snappy pace and hardly ever outstay their welcome.

        • Defitiely part of the appeal – and of course a necessity to be a B-movie in the literal sense of the word, taking up the space on the bottom half of a double feature. Some fo the Hammer Noirs were made as potential A movies and have running times around the 90-minute mark – some work better than others shall we say …

  3. Todd Mason says:

    Frankly, it certainly sounds like one of the best films Lippert would’ve had a hand in…

    • It’s great fun Todd and not at all cheesy – silly maybe, but told with a straight face (sic). I’m going to be covering quite a few of these early Hammer films in the months to come and I hope you’ll find them interesting – thanks for including me in your meme roundup, as always.

  4. John says:

    I liked this one though Lizabeth Scott doesn’t do much for me. This dual role in which she does some admirable work should’ve led her to better things. She had a relatively short career from what I see in her filmography at imdb.com. Her best role, however, I think is in TOO LATE FOR LIVING – a top notch crime drama. She pulls out all the stops in that one. A real transformation and real acting — no posing or simpering. The director must’ve really tapped into something hidden. She never managed to capture it again in any other film I’ve seen her in.

    • Hi John – Yeah, she was one of Hal Wallis’ discoveries int he 40s but it seems as though once her contract with him at Paramount ran out her career petered rather. She could be a bit stiff and maybe cast too much in the mould of Lauren Bacall but she gives a great performance here – as you say, she deserved to get more of a lift from such a juicy role. But then, with all the best wishes in the world, as a movie it is fun but undeniably small beer.

      I’ve never caught up with that movie (we’re talking about Too Late for Tears – aka Killer Bait – right?)- I know it’s available online (see YouTube here and the Internet Archive here) but apparently the only decent DVD copy is on a rather pricey DVD compilation so I have never caught up with it. Obviously I must try harder as, apart from Scott, I’ve always wanted to see it as I’m also a fan of its writer Roy Huggins, though I have not read any of his novels yet. I was always a bit disappointed to discover that he was a friendly witness in the McCarthy era who ‘named names’ – but he was a talented TV producer and writer (often using the pseudonym ‘John Thomas James’, the names of his three boys).

  5. John says:

    Yes, I meant TOO LATE FOR TEARS. What the hell made me type Living as the last word? A bad day at work today and to relieve my stress I was sneaking in a lot of blog reading and commenting. Must’ve been distracted by a phone ringing. Do try to track it down. I rented it via Netflix. I rarely buy DVDs since I’m not much of a re-viewer and I need space for books not discs! : ^)

    • Cheers John – I really will try to get hold of it. Netflix has just started here in the UK (end of January I think) but I have never managed to watch a whole movie streamed though i dare say I’ll get over th etechnical phobia. I do rent DVDs though so I’ll see what I can get from LoveFilm – my shelves are heaving with all the books, DVDs, VHS tapes – and did I mention the 200 Laser Discs …?

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