A Moving Poverty Row Production Telling of a Scarred Veteran's Return Home
FACE VALUE, betraying its poverty row origins (it was made in about ten days for $20,000) is a relatively unpolished but still interesting film, notable for its careful construction and visual expression of the narrative. FACE VALUE is an emotional love story, but less traditional, encompassing broken faces as well as broken hearts, and laden with the type of symbolism that would appear shortly thereafter in the avant-garde work of the movie's director, Robert Florey. FACE VALUE is structured around questions of seeing and who sees what, the "face value" or the person behind. Such questions as how the disfigured hero views himself, and how he is perceived by others, are expressed by mirror shots at pivotal moments in the narrative. Another device is the alternation between long shots and closeups to emphasize the protagonist's face or the reactions of others, and his face further serves as an externalization of his anguish. As an intertitle asks, "In a world that takes everything at 'face value,' is there any affliction more cruel than a disfigured face?" Like many of Florey's films, FACE VALUE is not only a precursor of the style and excesses of melodramatic film noir, but also contains the themes of torment, love, and empathy that figure in both his features and experimental work.
FACE VALUE opens with the camera quickly scanning up the form of a German soldier with a broken nose, standing at attention. The opening battle scenes and parade of the wounded cut to a pan of the pitiful faces of the "Societ des Gueules Cassees," whose lonely members find solace only with similarly disabled veterans. They drink to themselves, "To the Broken Faces--may their spirit be unbreakable!," believing that the fortunate ones among their ranks are the dead. The bleak story's concern is not with how the protagonist, the Society's sponsor (played by Gene Gowing), was wounded, but with its effects, asking whether love can withstand the shock of such scars. While wondering whether to risk going home to discover if he is still loved, flashbacks of earlier, happier days, are frequent. Daydreaming of the girl he left behind and the handsome man he used to be, Gowing is convinced to return home after a three year absence.
Numerous shots accentuate the theme and title, evidencing the German and Russian influence. Florey's touch is evident; Gowing's sympathetic father first sees his son's face through tear laden eyes, shown almost subjectively, before the camera gradually shifts into focus. However, Gowing's worst fears are confirmed when he again meets his fiancée. She naively closes her eyes when he enters, so that she first happily sees her fiancé's eyes, then scans down in alarm to the disfigured lower portion of his face. When Gowing first meets his competition for his fiancée, the rival's eyes are highlighted in a reminder of the unblemished portion of Gowing's face. Editing builds the impact as Gowing overhears the rival tell his fiancée that a marriage would be merely one of pity. He sees them with the rival's arm around his fiancée. The film fades into a medium shot of the couple, then a closeup of the hand patting her shoulder, then cuts to an extreme closeup of Gowing's jealous eyes, before returning to the closeup of the hand. The picture fades to the rival whispering into her ear, cuts to a medium shot of Gowing, and finally to a long shot of the entire room as he quietly leaves. Back in his room, Gowing looks into the mirror, the camera placed at a low angle, with a single lampshade providing the shadowy illumination. Reaching his hands to cover his face, the other "Broken Faces" are superimposed, his arms going out to embrace them, revealing that the camera is actually photographing the mirror's reflection, not Gowing himself. Seeking refuge in a seedy club, Gowing saves a girl from suicide and reunites her with her lover. The pair inspire Gowing to withstand his own tortured emotions, and will eventually reunite Gowing and his fiancée after he decides to return to France in a sacrificial gesture. The couple's reunion in France is shown as Gowing gazes into the mirror, sadly, his face then going out of focus to reveal his fiancée entering in the background. Similarly, Gowing had first decided to return home after viewing himself in the very same mirror, and looking again was his first action after a reunion of the "Societ des Gueules Cassees." From a thematic standpoint, FACE VALUE has much in common with several of Florey's later films dealing with facial disfigurement, a plight he also explored in THE FLORENTINE DAGGER (1935), THE PREVIEW MURDER MYSTERY (1936), and most notably in THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (1940). As in those films, the he bleak story carries, despite capable production, a certain unavoidable crudeness because of natural viewer discomfort with the subject. Yet the concern of all these films is not so much with how the disfigurement occurred, but with its effects, exploring the question of whether love can withstand such a shock. In its own way, FACE VALUE, which survives at the Library of Congress, is by turns not only simple and perhaps a bit trite, but also sincere and touching in the manner only achieved by a poverty row production.
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