The Face of Fear (1971 TVM)

US / 74 minutes / color / QM, CBS Dir: George McCowan Pr: Adrian Samish, Arthur Fellows Scr: Edward Hume Story: Sally (1967) by E.V. Cunningham Cine: Ben Colman Cast: Ricardo Montalban, Jack Warden, Elizabeth Ashley, Dane Clark, Roy Poole, Charles Dierkop, Burr DeBenning, Regis Cordic, Fred Sadoff, Brooke Mills, Dallas Mitchell, Shirley O’Hara, Joel Lawrence, John Yates.

Elizabeth Ashley as Sally.

Based on a novel by Howard Fast (under his E.V. Cunningham pseudonym), this is a riff on a theme that I traced in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir back to a German movie called Der MANN, DER SEINEN MÖRDER SUCHT (1931; vt The Man who Searched for his Own Murder; vt Jim, der Mann mit der Narbe; vt Jim, the Man with the Scar). The premise is that someone, rather than commit suicide, hires a hitman to do away with them—usually for insurance reasons—and then discovers a reason why life is worth living after all. But then the hitman proves impossible to find. Somewhere, out there, he lurks, ready to strike at any moment . . .

Other movies I found that used the premise were The WHISTLER (1944)—probably the most famous example, at least among noirish aficionados—The PRETENDER (1947), FIVE DAYS (1954; vt Paid to Kill) and even The Odd Job (1978), a comedy, dir Peter Medak, with Graham Chapman, David Jason and Diana Quick. But I missed The Face of Fear, and I’m kicking myself for my lapse.

So here it is now.

In the opening moments small-town Idaho schoolmarm Sally Dillman (Ashley) gets the bad news from her doctor that, despite her symptoms, she does not in fact have leukemia. It’s bad news because, having believed herself to have just four months to live, she came to San Francisco to blow her savings on a few weeks of luxury living but instead hired a contract killer to off her.

Ricardo Montalban as Frank.

Trouble is, she has no idea who the hitman is, having worked through intermediaries.

Sergeant Frank Ortega (Montalban) of the SFPD takes charge of her, despite the skepticism of his boss, Lieutenant George Cory (Warden), and together they try to track the killer down. To add to the general tension, the killer believes in rubbing out anyone who might link him to the upcoming hit . . .

Jack Warden as Lt Cory.

Dane Clark plays Tamworth, the barman who agreed to find Sally a hitman. Roy Poole plays hotel dick Glenn Kennedy, a friend of Frank’s, and Charles Dierkop plays another of Frank’s pals, punchdrunk retired pugilist Patsy Fain. Burr DeBenning is the hitman, Peter Fennington.

Dane Clark as Tamworth.

Roy Poole as house dick Kennedy.

Charles Diercop as ex-pugilist Patsy.

The production standards are more or less as you’d expect from a TV movie of the era (it’s a Quinn Martin offering), and Ricardo Montalban’s heavy-handed performance matches them: trying to give the impression of mercuriality he instead makes Frank seem to be suffering some kind of exaggerated mood disorder. Jack Warden has very little to do except be Jack Warden in all directions, which he half-heartedly does.

The movie’s really held together by Elizabeth Ashley as the flighty schoolteacher. She manages to be very charming in a Pam Dawberish way while at the same time distracting our attention from the fact that Sally’s supposed independence of spirit is being expressed in her making as many foolish decisions as humanly possible: if Sally’s told to stay put, she wanders off—that sort of thing.

Fans of VERTIGO (1958) may get a kick out of some of the scenery in the movie’s final minutes.

Burr DeBenning as Fennington.

4 thoughts on “The Face of Fear (1971 TVM)

    • Was amused when Warren Beatty re-used the plot for BULWORTH.

      Well, sort of. Not really the same plot, but near enough that I should have added it to my strand of Der Mann, der Seinen Morder Sucht derivatives. Off to get the DVD from the library so I can cover the movie here somewhere down the line. Thanks for the tipoff!

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