The John Wayne melodrama Three Faces West is nothing if not timely, tackling issues of rural poverty, the dust bowl, European expatriots in the U.S., and the threat of fascism all within the span of 80 minutes. A product of Wayne's longtime employers at Reupublic Pictures, the 1940 film arrives on DVD and Blu Ray as the latest in Olive Pictures' line of handsomely reissued vintage obscurities and gems. While it holds some historical curiosity, however, the dramatic components in Three Faces West are too scattershot to fully recommend.
Three Faces West opens in a radio broadcasting studio, during the airing of a public affairs program called We, the People (an actual program of the day, it turns out). For the day's topic of oppressed European professionals fleeing the Nazis and finding asylum in the U.S., one Dr. Karl Braun (Charles Coburn) is brought on to deliver a speech. Dr. Braun discusses how wonderful it's been that America has offered him the opportunity to continue practicing medicine, expressing hope for the new life that he and his musician daughter, Leni (Sigrid Gurie), are embarking upon. The town that the doctor and Leni are assigned to is a tiny North Dakota community which has been ravaged by a variety of maladies. Making matters worse, the town has been under siege by dust storms that have destroyed much of the agriculture that they depend upon.
The Braun's arrival at that dusty hamlet is welcomed by John Wayne's character, an idealistic farmer and community leader. From here on out, Three Faces West goes into full-on docudrama mode. Wayne's John Phillips graciously opens the ground floor of his own home for the Brauns to live in, but there isn't much time for settling in as Dr. Braun is whisked away to care for a host of dying children in the area. The severity of the situation - and the dinginess of their temporary home - makes Dr. Braun and especially Leni believe that they've made a huge mistake. The upset Leni, tearfully prepared for a return to Vienna, tries to convince her father to leave. However, Dr. Braun is drawn to stay by a local mother who desperately needs an operation to repair her young son's damaged leg. In time, Leni comes around and decides to stay - with some persuasion from John, who is falling in love with her.
Had it stuck with the Dust Bowl setting, Three Faces West would count as a decent, WPA-like window on Depression era life in the Midwest. Unlike the characters it depicts, however, the film is never content with staying in one place. As the dust storms continue to worsen, John Wayne's character learns of new and fertile tracts of farmland created by a dam-building project in Oregon. Before long, he faces extreme skepticism from the fellow townspeople as he attempts to convince them that packing up and moving there is a great idea. Succeed he does, however, and this melodrama becomes a mini-Grapes of Wrath as Wayne's caravan undertakes a journey that somehow takes them from North Dakota to California's Death Valley, finally arriving in Oregon. If that sounds like a few too many plots crammed into one movie, the film also sees fit to include another subplot involving Leni's former love, a Viennese soldier whom the Brauns believed died fighting the Nazis in their homeland.
Sizing this film up with the other John Wayne non-Western recently issued by Olive Films, the goofily entertaining A Man Betrayed, I'd have to give the advantage to the other film. Three Faces West does contain a more grounded acting job by Wayne, whose character is more in line with the modest yet commanding one he played in Stagecoach (released just a year prior). Best known as the sugar daddy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, character actor Charles Coburn also contributes a good performance here, although Dr. Braun's constant habit of solemn sermonizing gets tiresome. As the daughter, Sigrid Gurie doesn't make too much of an impression aside from being winsomely pretty. Three Faces West deserves some praise for its willingness to depict the hardships of life in the Dust Bowl. The film is too earnest and inconsistent to truly hold up, however.
Note: image does not reflect the contents of the Three Faces West blu ray.
The Blu Ray:
Although one scene contains an excess of white specks, Olive Films has acquired a relatively sharp and pristine looking print for this Blu Ray. Light and dark levels are excellent and mastering is good. The picture quality is about what you'd expect of unrestored but decent-looking films of this vintage, with some artifacts but not enough to be distracting (except for that one scene, which looks to be covered in the old movie equivalent of dandruff).
A fairly typical, aged yet not terrible mono mix adorns this release as the only audio option. The only problem I found: Victor Young's scoring is pitched at a few notches louder than the dialogue sequences. If you enjoy bombastic music, this is the one for you. No subtitles.
Three Faces West somehow finds a way to incorporate John Wayne in his stoic Stagecoach persona, raging dust storms, childhood illness, Austrian immigrants, and Nazis in one vaguely unsatisfying melodrama. Like Olive Films' recent reissue of another '40s Wayne programmer, A Man Betrayed, this film will pique the curiosity of The Duke's fans. Others oughta proceed with caution, however. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.