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Little 1959 independent film Face of Fire is a study of prejudice, fear
This 1959 movie poster for "Face of Fire" takes a horror movie approach, but the film is anything but. It's now on DVD for the first time. - photo by Chris Hicks
Movies that are produced independently look so slick these days that its hard to distinguish them from bigger-budget Hollywood films.

Technical advancements have made cinematography, editing, sound, special effects, etc., so sleek and pristine and seamless on the screen that audiences will be forgiven for expecting nothing less, wherever the film comes from. (Not that screenplays, dialogue and performances have equally improved, but thats a different discussion.)

It used to be that movies produced independently that is, outside the studio system and by filmmakers (amateur or professional) with meager budgets and limited resources were black and white (even as late as the early 1990s) and had a kind of ragged-around-the-edges look, less-efficient production values and camerawork that wasnt always as well-lit or as sharp and clear and, well, flawless as the average Hollywood picture.

Such films came by this somewhat haphazard style naturally, following the example of the lower-tier studios of the 1950s and 60s, the so-called poverty-row churn-em-out-cheap, assembly-line productions of Allied Artists and Monogram and Eagle-Lion and Film Group and American International, among others.

Most of the movies they made were quick genre flicks horror, Westerns, sci-fi, thrillers, film noir, etc. run-of-the-mill, interchangeable movies that played on the lower half of drive-in double features and were forgotten even before The End flashed across the screen.

But once in a while theyd surprise you. Some filmmaker with artistic or socially relevant ambitions would get away with making a movie that was better than the rest even if the studio still treated it like a throwaway.

Such is the case with the Allied Artists black-and-white drama Face of Fire, which was advertised in 1959 as an exploitation horror picture, as misleading an ad campaign as has ever been foisted on the moviegoing public.

It might have had something to do with the title of Stephen Cranes story The Monster, on which the film is based.

But with the posters dominant image of a partially veiled, scarred face, and smaller photos of a man and a woman recoiling in horror along with the tagline, Hell reached out and touched his flesh! The town looked, shuddered, ran! its obvious that Allied Artists was hoping to lure fright-flick fans.

But Face of Fire isnt a horror film at all. And it has much more to offer than the ads suggest.

The setting is 1898 rural America, where handyman Monk Johnson (James Whitmore) has spent the past eight years working for a doctor (Cameron Mitchell) in a small town.

Well-known to the townfolk, all of whom call him by name, Monk works for the doctor and his wife (Bettye Ackerman), and he frequently takes their son Jimmie (Mike Oscard) and other local children fishing.

When hes not working, Monk is a bit of a dandy the local barber calls him my best advertising. Unfailingly polite and considerate, hes also engaged to a local girl (Jill Donohue), whom he visits each Sunday evening.

One Sunday after such a visit, a gas burner in the doctors basement laboratory ignites some combustible materials and burns the house to the ground. In the conflagration, Monk grabs a blanket, wraps Jimmie in it and saves his life. But in the process, Monk is knocked unconscious, and as he lies on the floor, a fiery acidic material drips onto his face, burning him beyond recognition. He is also left with brain damage and takes on a childlike persona, unaware of his appearance.

Although the doctor nurses Monk back to health, he is unable to do anything for his face. But he vows to protect Monk, much to the chagrin of local residents, especially after Monk goes out for his Sunday evening stroll, peeks in on a childrens birthday party and visits his fiance, oblivious to how he is perceived and despite being greeted by screams of revulsion.

Later, as the children who once loved Monks attention now mock and fear him, the film is simultaneously sad, shocking and quite relatable.

Overnight, Monk has gone from someone beloved by all to a reviled freak except to the doctor, whose affection for Monk hasn't diminished a whit.

How this is resolved wont be revealed here, but suffice to say Face of Fire is a riveting film from start to finish, despite being a bit ragtag in its construction and running a scant 80 minutes.

Writer-director Albert Band (whose work is otherwise composed of undistinguished Westerns, horror and sci-fi, including Draculas Dog and Ghoulies II) does an expert job of subtly getting under the skin, allowing audience members to become concerned not just about the character of Monk but also about ourselves: How might we act if confronted by this kind of tragic situation?

I was 11 when I first saw Face of Fire during its initial release in August 1959, and it made a strong impression on me, both in the way I saw movies and in the way I looked at the world.

So I was excited for the opportunity to see Face of Fire again as it became available on home video for the first time thanks to Warner Archive, an online arm of Warner Bros. that has made hundreds of rare, sought-after vintage titles available on DVD (

Often when we go back and revisit a movie we once loved, it doesnt hold up and we find ourselves wondering, What was I thinking?

But I found Face of Fire every bit as moving today as it was more than 50 years ago and can happily recommend it.