Hammer Noir: Terence Fisher’s STOLEN FACE (1952)

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Classic movie enthusiasts usually associate Britain’s Hammer Films with horror, fantasy and science fiction but the ‘studio that dripped blood’ also released a significant number of crime thrillers. TCM will be airing four of the studio’s earliest films on June 16th in a tribute to Hammer Noir. The four films scheduled to be shown were all directed by Terence Fisher who’s responsible for many of Hammer’s most celebrated productions and include MAN BAIT (1952), BLACK OUT (1954), THE UNHOLY FOUR (1954) and my personal favorite of the bunch, STOLEN FACE (1952). These short, bleak, black-and-white films showcase Fisher’s early attempts at generating atmosphere and maintaining suspense on a minuscule budget. Noir fans will undoubtedly enjoy the June 16th line-up but horror fans should tune in as well, particularly to catch STOLEN FACE starring Paul Henreid as a Dr. Frankenstein prototype who attempts to use his surgical abilities to transform an ex-con (Mary Mackenzie) into the woman he loves (Lizabeth Scott).

STOLEN FACE was Fisher’s 11th film as a director and only his third for Hammer but it’s significant for a number of reasons. As I briefly mentioned above, the plot involves a smart, temperamental, egotistical and somewhat naïve plastic surgeon played by Paul Henreid who meets a beautiful concert pianist named Alice (Lizabeth Scott) at a British pub where the good doctor has gone to escape the hustle and bustle of London. The two begin a brief holiday affair but it ends badly when the elusive Alice disappears in the dead of night to reunite with her fiancé. Henreid’s character reluctantly resumes his work at the hospital where he uses his surgical skills to reconstruct the war scarred face of an ex-con (Mary Mackenzie) into a replica of his beloved Alice. After marrying his creation and providing her with a life of luxury, the straitlaced doctor is surprised to find that she still wants to lead a life of crime and debauchery. Things really begin to unravel when Alice suddenly reappears in the hopes of reuniting with the doctor only to discover that he’s now married to her evil doppelganger.

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The film has often rightly been compared to the much lauded VERTIGO (1958) and I suspect that Hitchcock was a fan but the plot was somewhat typical of its day. Film noirs and thrillers featuring characters that undergo plastic surgery in an effort to escape the past or transform the present were prevalent during the period and include such varied titles as A WOMAN’S FACE (1941), STRANGE IMPERSONATION (1946), THE MAN WHO LIVED TWICE (1946), DARK PASSAGE (1947) and HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951). Another common plot device at the time was the use of doubles, look-a-like characters or twins where one is typically ‘good’ and the other is ‘evil’ found in a number of film noirs such as DEAD MAN WALK (1943), A STOLEN LIFE (1946), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), THE GUILTY (1947), A DOUBLE LIFE (1947), THE MAN WITH MY FACE (1951) and HOLLOW TRIUMPH aka THE SCAR, which also starred Paul Henreid. It’s worth pointing out that similar themes are often found in horror and fantasy films originally made popular by renowned authors such as Edgar Allen Poe (William Wilson; 1836) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; 1886), so it’s not surprising that director Terrence Fisher may have been interested in making STOLEN FACE.

While a few of the Fisher’s earlier films, such as SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950), hinted at his penchant for gothic fantasy and costume drama, STOLEN FACE gave the director the opportunity to begin exploring (and exploiting) his apparent fascination with science, philosophy, psychology and medicine that would later permeate his full-color horror films made for Hammer. Amid the noir elements and abundant melodrama that can be found in STOLEN FACE, Fisher spends a noticeable amount of time lingering on strange medical devices while focusing on the doctor’s interactions with patents and colleagues. The doctor also makes a noteworthy trip to a pub where he mingles with some inquisitive locals. This seemingly innocuous event became a staple in Fisher’s horror films where characters would end up stumbling into a forgotten pub in some nameless village beforeor aftercoming face-to-face with whatever horrible monster was looming in the shadows.

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Paul Henried’s portrayal of a doctor intent on playing God has a lot in common with Peter Cushing’s later portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein in numerous films that Fisher made for Hammer. Both characters share an intensity, intelligence, fiery temper and passion for their work that is undeniable. The alluring Lizabeth Scott also makes an impression in dual roles as the good-hearted Alice and the cold-hearted con-woman Lily. Femme fatales with duel personalities or multiple identities would become a favorite theme in Fisher’s films and can be found in FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE (1953), THE GORGON (1964), DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967). With its moody atmosphere, hospital setting, pub scenes, medical experimentation, thwarted romance, complicated love triangle and all too human monsters you can be forgiven for thinking STOLEN FACE is one of Fisher’s Frankenstein films. This prototypical picture is an educational viewing experience for horror fans or anyone interested in the history of Hammer Films as well as the fascinating career trajectory of Terence Fisher. Although he was often just a hired hand at Hammer, the talented director was able to infuse his films with a genuine vision and the abundant recurring motifs in his work make him a fascinating study and one of my favorite directors.

2 Responses Hammer Noir: Terence Fisher’s STOLEN FACE (1952)
Posted By swac44 : June 13, 2014 10:01 am

Probably as good a time as any to mention that the folks at U.S. DVD company VCI Entertainment have released two six-film sets of Hammer film noir titles (Stolen Face is included in Vol. 1) for those who want to see more of the studio’s take on rain-soaked streets and femme fatales. Vol. 1 has three Fisher titles, and Vol. 2 has four, the man was definitely kept busy by Hammer!

Vol. 1: http://www.vcientertainment.com/Film-Categories/Film-Noir?product_id=694

Vol. 2: http://www.vcientertainment.com/Film-Categories/Film-Noir?product_id=712

Posted By Hammer noir is so much better than Hammer horror : June 16, 2014 1:20 pm

[…] Tonight is “Hammer Noir” night on TCM: […]

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