The Face

(Jack Bender, USA, 1996)


This telemovie caught my eye because of two names in the credits: writer and co-producer Duane Pool, who later wrote Raúl Ruiz‘s Shattered Image (1998), and director Jack Bender, who has done a number of notable (if largely unsung) action-thriller-melodrama telemovies.

The Face is a reminder of how, on happy occasions, telemovies can emulate the qualities of hallowed old B movies of the Edgar Ulmer variety. Even the inevitable ad-break structure comes into its own as a structuring, aesthetic device: every fifteen minutes or so, the plot starkly launches itself onto another plateau or into another genre, with the ‘turning points’ recommended by industry scriptwriting manuals becoming merrily demented (and hyper-formalist, à la Ruiz) ‘switchers’.

The Face is a fairy tale melodrama. It begins with a childhood flashback that sets up why Emily (Yasmine Bleeth, a B movie icon for this viewer) has grown into lonely young adulthood with a hideously disfiguring scar over one side of her face. She loses her innocence to Alec (James Wilder), a sensitive soul who, once Emily is carted off to jail for stealing from the vault at her workplace for him, reveals himself to be a cad – to the extent of pairing off with Emily’s conventionally good-looking, blonde sister, Sheila.

After a brief women-in-prison interlude (catfight included) that introduces a best Afro-American pal, Emily is offered radical cosmetic surgery – and at this point the film’s fulsome references to old Crawford-Davis-Stanwyck classics starts paying off. Rather troublingly, the now radiant Emily feels over-indebted to her miracle-working doctor, Matthew (creepily played by a post-Twin Peaks Richard Beymer). And Emily soon learns that she has been made-over, Vertigo (1958)-style, into the double of Matthew’s dead wife.

Now (at the television-hour mark) the revenge motif built into the stolen-face tradition of big– and small-screen melodrama kicks in. "I want to get even", Emily declares. Her pal gingerly asks: "With Matthew?" Emily clarifies: "With the world!" Her career in fashion design – begun, during the ugly-duckling phase, in amateur theatre – also picks up, with the help of a new name (‘Adrian Corday’). And Paul, the shy directorial genius from the theatre days pops up in her life again, now helming an indie feature ("Romeo and Juliet modernised"). Naturally, no one from her past (not even her now battered-wife sister) ever recognises her with a new face.

There are disco montages, steamy bar-blues performances for that obligatory film noir frisson ("You Are Dangerous"), sex scenes, a head through a glass table top in slow-motion, and a dream sequence that morphs Dad in the tragic-accident flashback with the dangerous lover. But the woman’s-film elements – sisterly re-bonding, shock of the mother’s death, self-realisation and refusal of a sad life’s abuse-pattern – take precedence, for a surprising little while, over the thriller plot, until Alec beats the truth of Emily’s identity out of Sheila.

In a final switcher, Emily/Adrian adopts the theatrical props of her youth – wig, make-up, fake gun – to return to the primal scene of her disfigured, letting-herself-be-kicked-around days. And although Alec puts up a good struggle against the armed sisterhood (spitting out lines like "If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!"), this game of artifice turns out to be her best accomplice, and her royal road to truth and redemption – just like in the movie her new man is about to make.

© Adrian Martin May 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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