I’m becoming a fan of Joel McCrea. I didn’t realize it until I looked at how many of his movies I like: Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, Colorado Territory, The Most Dangerous Game, The More the Merrior, Stars in My Crown. And along with Gary Cooper and James Stewart, he has really connected me with westerns. But Four Faces West is a somewhat unusual western. As has been pointed out by others, no guns are fired, though guns are certainly pointed. No punches are thrown. There aren’t even any villains, really. Yet it’s far from a dull film.
While the town of Santa Maria, New Mexico welcomes the arrival of the famous Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) as their marshal, a mysterious man (Joel McCrea) calmly sticks up the bank. Garrett makes a speech, and the man takes $2,000 (and not a penny more) and leaves an IOU signed Jefferson Davis. He then makes good his escape while Garrett and a posse set out after him.
The banker offers $3,000 dollars for the capture of the bank robber, dead or alive, which prompts droves of men to search for him with zeal and little regard for his life, while the unruffled Garrett just wants to do his job and find him before anyone can shoot him. But the bank robber, named Ross McEwan, gets on a train and meets nurse Fay Hollister (Frances Dee – who was also Joe McCrea’s wife), who helps him with a snake bite. He also runs into Monte Marquez (Joseph Calleia), who knows Ross got on the train around the place where the robber went missing and for a while neither Ross nor the audience knows what Monte’s intentions are, though it’s clear Monte realizes that Ross is the bank robber.
But the hunt is on and Ross can’t stay put for long, though he and Fay fall in love. He wants to pay back what he stole (he was perfectly serious about the IOU) because he’s already sent the money to his father for an unspecified loan. Fay realizes that he’s a good man (and she puts two-and-two together to realize who he really is) and wants him to turn himself in. As she tells him, if he keeps running eventually he really will turn into the criminal everyone says he is. He’ll have to kill, steal or be killed and he’ll never be the same man again (her prognosis sounds like the eventual end of Paul Muni in I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang).
Four Faces West was made one year before Colorado Territory, but while Colorado Territory contains a relatively decent train robber who would like to start a new life and finds love unexpectedly, the story is building inevitably to the tragic shootout at the end. In Four Faces, we seem to be building to a shootout, but somehow it never materializes. Instead, the confrontation largely happens in a sickroom, with hardly any words spoken. It’s an unexpected denouement.
Because while Ross is trying to get away from Garrett and avoid several potential shootouts, he comes across a Mexican family dying from diphtheria and instead of making off with their horse and escaping, he decides to stay and nurse the family, even becoming somewhat ill himself. And it is in this house of sickness that we finally have all four characters – Fay, Monte, Garrett, and Ross – in the same place. And still no overt confrontation happens! Everyone knows exactly what is going on, but nobody says anything. Will Garrett arrest Ross? Will Ross turn himself in as Fay wants him to? Will he escape, since Monte wants to help him? Will we finally have a confrontation between Garrett and Ross?
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It is humane and compassionate with almost a chivalrous tone. Bullets are used to heal (Ross removes the sulfur from his bullets to use as medicine for the sick family) and the four main characters are all good. Joel McCrea’s Ross is like a knight of old, chivalrously going to the aid of others (though it’s hard to imagine Lancelot nursing sick people…at least in Thomas Mallory’s version of the knights) and he only “borrows” money because he’s desperate. I also enjoyed Charles Bickford as Pat Garrett – who is so cool he isn’t even disturbed by the fact that the robbery occurred right under his nose. He has no ego, just does his job and wants to uphold the law, but is not Inspector Javert-ish about it. And I love that in the end, when Ross is pointing his gun at him, Garrett doesn’t even feel the need to mention to Ross that he knows there are no bullets in his gun (though now that I think of it, Monte might have given him a gun, but Garrett didn’t know that).
Frances Dee plays the spunky nurse who believes in Ross, but wants him to turn himself in. She doesn’t want him to run for the rest of his life, though she is willing to go with him if he should chose to run. And Joseph Calleia great as Monte Marquez. We never do learn why Monte helps Ross. He likes him, he can see that Ross and Fay are falling in love and Monte and Ross become friends, though they never feel the need to actually acknowledge what they both know about Ross, though they both know the other knows.
As a random note, I have never seen anyone use a longhorn steer as a means of transportation before; it makes for an interesting silhouette against the desert and sky, cowboy riding cow. And as another random note, there is a child on the train with a knack for causing trouble and poking his nose into everything. The mother of this child spends the entire time trying to keep her child out of trouble and I kept thinking that what this bored child needs is a smartphone. Modern technology is wonderful!