After robbing a bank of $2000, cowboy Ross McEwen (Joel McCrea) flees the small desert town of Santa Maria. The `great manhunter of the southwest,' Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) is soon on his trail, starting a movie-long chase to capture the outlaw. The story is taken from Eugene M. Rhodes `Paso Por Aqui,' They Passed Here, that was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1926, later published as a novel. The title refers to a big rock formation in New Mexico on which passing travelers carved their names. If there are a million stories in the naked city, then, as evidenced by the rock, there are at least several hundred in the great southwest.
McEwen, on the run, gets bit by a rattler, hops a passing passenger train, and meets a pretty young nurse from the east who is traveling west to work in a small frontier hospital. The nurse is played by Frances Dee, McCrea's real-life wife, and her character's considerable talent at wrapping a tourniquet around a snake bite is second only to her ability to get McEwen to do the right thing, which, in this case, is turning himself over to Garrett before the bounty hunters get to him. That McEwen did a bad thing for a good reason - Here's the money for the farm, Pa - probably goes without saying. That McEwen and the nurse are a bumpy carriage ride and abbreviated trainboard conversation away from falling in love is no less surprising.
Even including the presence of the free agent bounty hunters there's not a lot of tension in FOUR FACES WEST. Bickford's Garrett is thoughtful and compassionate and we know if he captures McEwen he'll treat him fairly. The movie gathers some wool during its first couple of acts, but gathers steam in its third when McEwen gets serious about crossing the border into Mexico. The location shots are gorgeous, McEwen's wiliness in foiling the persistent Garrett ingenious. McEwen's last-reel flight takes him to the cusp of the border, a half-day's ride to Mexico and freedom, when he comes upon a Mexican family desperately ill with diphtheria.... And that, I think, is where the full whoomph of this movie has surrendered to time. The other major character in FOUR FACES WEST is a Mexican, Monte Marquez, a successful Alamogordo businessman. Marquez is played by Joseph Calleia (who, ironically, is Maltese rather than Mexican.) That McEwen, or any western hero, might befriend a Mexican and possibly stop to help needy Mexicans, was rare in 1948. To that extent FOUR FACES WEST was pushing the envelope of social tolerance, even if modern audiences have to look to see it. Otherwise this is a good enough movie about the good guy beneath the bad guy surface. The location photography verges on the spectacular, and, as always, McCrea is a laid back and comfortable presence.