I love Westerns, a taste not widely shared within my sphere of acquaintance. Even the cinephiles with whom I hang are disinclined to saddle up. So I mention the release on DVD of Four Faces West knowing that it’ll be a tough sell. Too bad. It’s a lovely little movie, and if you’ve never seen a Western before, you could do a lot worse than to start here.
Joel McCrea, the star, is now best known for having shared a swimming pool with Veronica Lake in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, but what he really liked was making Westerns, and in the second half of his career he didn’t do anything else. He always played good guys in white hats, and he had the face and voice for it. I won’t say McCrea never made a better Western than Four Faces West–he’s just about perfect in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, a film sorely in need of transfer to DVD–but this one ranks right up there with his best work. Traditional Westerns are all about the myth of the frontier, and Four Faces West, released in 1948, takes that myth at face value. A bit romantic and more than a bit sentimental, it was written and shot with a sharp eye for authentic period detail. The result is a 90-minute-long holiday from cynicism.
Incidentally, Four Faces West isn’t your usual shoot-’em-up. In fact, it’s the only Hollywood Western ever made in which no guns are fired. (Really.) But I bet you wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t told you.