'The Woman with Four Faces' is utterly implausible, but it's enjoyable hokum. Betty Compson stars in a role that gives her plenty of chances to pull the stops out while wearing outrageous disguises. The opening scene finds Liz West (Compson) on a ledge, wearing a mask. She's a cat burglar: she bursts into a posh upstairs parlour, holds a society matron at gunpoint, and makes off with her necklace. A few moments later, with a change of clothes, Compson has tossed the sparklies to her henchman and now she's posing as another victim of the same robber! In subsequent scenes, we see Compson pulling off more robberies with multiple disguises.
Richard Dix (who gave excellent comedy performances elsewhere) is stolid and humourless here as Richard Templar, the tough D.A. who is determined to put Liz away ... if only he can get the goods on her. He manages to get Liz arrested and brought to trial. The results are extremely contrived, but still funny. On trial before Judge Westcott, Liz uses her good looks to vamp the male jurors. (Sorry, but Betty Compson wasn't *that* good-looking!) Summoned to the judge's chambers, Liz lights up a cigarette (this isn't just stupid; it's *illegal*) and then she offers the judge a stick of chewing gum! Despite all this, she walks out of the courthouse smiling, due to lack of evidence.
Templar decides to let Liz go if she'll use her criminal talents to help the law. Templar is trying to put away five narcotics pedlars who have conveniently signed a document outlining their business strategy. (Yes, drugs dealers always put everything in writing.) This document is, of course, just a McGuffin (to use Hitchcock's term). Templar will arrange a full pardon for Marnie (I mean Liz) if she'll break into Judson Osgood's safe and steal this McGuffin.
But Liz is merely the *second* best safecracker in the world. The only person who can open the safe is Jim Hartigan, who happens to be in prison at the moment. Hartigan is a crackerjack cracksman, but apparently he isn't a good enough yeggman to break out of prison. No, I take that back: as seen here, this prison is a nice comfy place where handsome young prisoners spend all their time in the exercise yard playing baseball ... so apart from the total absence of totty Hartigan has no reason to escape. This is the cue for Betty Compson to put on an old-lady disguise and show up in the warden's office, posing as Hartigan's grey-haired old mother and begging the warden to release her 'son'. Amazingly, this brilliant stratagem fails to work. Next thing we know, Liz uses an aeroplane to jailbreak Hartigan from the hoosegow ballgame during the seventh-inning stretch. Question: instead of all this umphery-bumphery, why doesn't District Attorney Templar use his office's influence to get Hartigan released into Templar's temporary custody?
SPOILERS COMING. Hartigan steals the McGuffin document with help from Liz, who passes it to D.A. Templar. Liz is expecting a full pardon, but the D.A. tells her (in a title card) that she's going to get 'a life sentence' ... as his wife! Hoo boy.
'The Woman with Four Faces' is extremely funny without being remotely believable. There are some impressive and elaborate sets (notably the prison, and a mansion in the opening sequence), and there's some splendid stunt-flying during Hartigan's escape from prison. James Wong Howe's camera-work here is well up to his usual superb standard. Betty Compson was never a subtle actress, but her role here allows her to ham shamelessly in several guises. I'll rate this comedy 8 out of 10.
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