Stolen Face (1952)

Stolen Face is a slightly wacky, strange fantasy fable 1952 British film noir directed by Terence Fisher and starring Paul Henreid, Lizabeth Scott and André Morell.

Lizabeth Scott and Paul Henreid star in this British oddity, in which a plastic surgeon rashly attempts to both satisfy his love life and solve female criminality ― by means of his skilled rhinoplastic practises.

The resulting fantasy, Stolen Face (1952) is more in line with the fantastic and horrific than it is with the criminal, and its film noir fibre lies only in its paranoid view of male sexuality, and crime.

To get this out of the way before anything else, the oddity in question concerns the notion that the heroical plastic surgeon played by Paul Henreid has concerning beauty, femininity and crime. 

His is an odd thesis: that if only a woman were beautiful, she would not become involved in crime.

Hence this fantasy fable is part mad-scientist story, which verges on horror and suspense, has a stab at being a love story, and is all-in on the misogyny required to tell a story which is all about the moral importance of female beauty.

The bizarre background of this theory is set up with the introduction of a deformed recidivist female prisoner, who has received some substantial scarring.

The skilled surgeons agree with the criminal's own analysis of her crazy lot ― that she will continue to offend, so long as she is not considered beautiful by society.

Wending his way down this darkened path, the surgeon played by Paul Henreid takes the only moral course of action open to him, and makes this woman beautiful ― as beautiful as the beautiful Lizabeth Scott ― surely one of the most beautiful women on screen at this time ― and in making her skin-deeply beautiful like this, he marries her.

On the plus side, this gives us plenty opportunity to see wonderful acting from Lizabeth Scott ― and despite the fact that she is often dubbed when she is playing the Cockney bad-girl version of herself ― she is still highly enjoyable.

Bedroom pick-up with whisky; Lizabeth Scott and Paul Henreid
Stolen Face (1952)

The notions underpinning the drama in Stolen Face, even being seventy years old, point us away from anything that might be other than psychologically symbolic. There is nobody who could ever believe that changing a person's face could change their character ― even though this is something often explored in movies.

What does underpin Stolen Face is rampant and wilful male fantasy. Quite unapologetically so. Stolen Face sits in its own mire of strange and poorly muted ideas about women, beauty and crime. It is not trying to run through a minefield of issues, but boldly phrase its own.

Investigating beauty and criminality in 1952 British film noir Stolen Face

The character of the successful but overworked surgeon is there perhaps in the basics of the script, but Stolen Face is more of a mad scientist story at time ― with Paul Henreid failing to be that mad. He does in fact attempt to convince himself and the audience that it is all going to work.

Lizabeth's Scott's scenes are all terrific, nonetheless. She quickly falls in love with this lunatic surgeon when they bump into each other in a country inn. Romance follows with fireside drinking, carriage riding, fishing and a trip to the pub to drink pints of heavy ― not a flagon of booze that you would expect to see in the hands of one so refined as Lizabeth Scott.

The tagline A criminal psychopath - - remodelled for love, barely fits the bill.

But listen in film noir fans  - - surely the doctor in this set-up is the psychopath; and the criminal in question is actually a petty criminal, interested in shoplifting and fascinated with her new fun face? 

Surely the psychopathic and ant/i-social hubris belongs to the mad doctor, making of Stolen Face something of a mad-scientist flick

Ultimately, it's the hard drinking which takes its toll, because Stolen Face seems to forget that at its start, the good doctor and the respected pianist, Henreid and Scott, are already hard drinking their way through life; albeit it is all right when they do it, for class reasons, obviously.

Fundamentally therefore, we have a story concerning the creation of men by women, the ideal woman, the moral woman, the wife and the accomplice. The fact that Henreid barely smiles throughout helps spread thick this social psychopathy that actually ends up being hard as hell on the poor criminal woman it sets out to help.

The poor criminal woman in question is of course changed, abused for her trouble, unforgiven when she returns to type, and abandoned and killed as a drunk at the end, so that the moral fantasy of the perfect wifelet may be rei-inhabited by the unimaginably beautiful and obliging creatures of dreams.

The women of film noir often play these creatures, and each film must find its way of resolving the complex matching of inner morals and outer beauty, which is in its way one of the other questions lurking around the noir repertoire. It's often beauty, transmuted into lust, admittedly, that is the cause of the male failure and moral collapse in film noir.

However it's the male's reaction to the beauty that is the issue, because the beauty in and of itself cannot be an issue. It's this that makes the story of Stolen Face something of an idiotic tale. The quest is to find out if beauty and morality have a positive link. Perhaps once more, film noir is the only place to ask this question, because when the men fall for the beauty - - transmuted into lust, let us not forget - - then the beauty in and of itself does become a moral issue.

Thieving woman with engineered face, double role played by Lizabeth Scott in Stolen Face (1952)

It's all of this weirdness that makes Stolen Face somewhat camp, as well. Noir and camp is not a natural combination, and something of a strange one, and perhaps the issue is that the British makers of this film could not in fact invoke the right kind of seriousness at all, for it. Consider it against something like Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960) and the difference in weight, tone, frightfulness, horror and existential terror - - and there is no competition.

Dr. Ritter, played by Henried, is a straight, straight guy, a fine doctor, totally professional and generous. The shift from that into obsessed whacko who makes over a thief into the woman he loves and marries her, is harder to grasp, and so can only be enjoyed for the crazy fantasy that it is.

Lizabeth Scott is radiant and beautiful in both roles and Henreid gives a good performance in an impossible role. How do you play a warm, hardworking man who goes bonkers the way he does? And how does a patient who goes under the knife suddenly emerge to be Lizabeth Scott? Trashy she was and trashy she remains and it is quite hilarious as the rough Cockney petty criminal uses her new-found beauty for free love even as she holds onto her cuckolded husband.

Shoplifters of the Female World, untied in Stolen face (1952)

Gleaning from this what we can, Terence Fisher did find a new way to plumb the depths of what noir does to men in particular, because if anything, the entire subtexts of the film are women's behaviours and women's appearances. Hollywood has since it opened its doors been keen to show there is a link between the moral character of a person and their personal appearance.

This does not mean that Stolen Face forms a sharp representation of any of this; it is in fact one of the bluntest attempts of its era to try and suggest that idealised beauty and domestic bliss might be an explosive mix in the male domestic world.

Stolen Face does the characteristic film noir ideas of loss or confusion of identity, here through surgery, as seen in the plots of such titles as Dark Passage (1947), or Hollow Triumph (1958). Stolen Face however has certain echoes of Pygmalion, Frankenstein and Vertigo, although the idea of copying the features of a 'good' woman onto those of a 'bad' woman, is no reason to marry, even in the depths of the imaginative world from which this gem leaped.

And it is a gem, thanks to the slick and maniacal direction from Terence Fisher, who went on to improve on this, with many films, including his great list of Hammer horror classics.

What Stolen Face emerges as is perhaps an early and even tentative stab at a science fiction film from Britain's Hammer Films. With American financing from Robert L. Lippert, US distribution was achieved by importing Hollywood leads, and in this case these were Paul Henreid and Lizabeth Scott.

The script is credited to Universal's Martin Berkeley, for whom see Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis; with Richard H. Landau, who wrote early Hammer films like Spaceways and The Quatermass Xperiment.

Socially however, the idea that convict Lily Conover (Mary Mackenzie), disfigured during World War 2 would despondently and inevitably turn to crime as a result of her looks, is deeply informing.

Frankenstein meets Pygmalion: SPOILER ALERT: dicey double drama dame denouement on a train in Stolen Face (1952)

The mixture of Frankenstein surgery and Pygmalion makeover could maybe never have worked, when one single genre does not fit, and it is this fact that may slip Stolen Face into the noir category. Where one toe dips into science fiction, the rest of the foot is still deep in social and gender questions, silly as they are.

Did we say fantasy? Even with the daftest of film noirs, there is a precedent, something somewhere that rings true about the bizarre happenings on screen:

"For at least five decades, between the 1930s and 1980s, plastic surgeons were involved in a large social experiment: to understand whether they could reduce the rate at which inmates returned to crime by repairing their crooked noses, facial scars and birth defects. Cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries were conducted on thousands of inmates in Canada and the U.S."

This is from an article linking plastic surgery to attempts to curb criminality, in The National Post.


Stolen Face FilmPoster.jpeg

This cover art can be obtained from

Thieving away your Stolen Face (1952)

No comments:

Post a Comment