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False Faces (free)

  • Vilas Hall 821 University Avenue Madison, WI, 53706 United States (map)

Lowell Sherman's 1932 film follows the seedy adventures of an unscrupulous doctor. Info

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The 1932 film False Faces captures some of American cinema's earliest deviations from the major studios and their narrow restrictions on “moral” content, and it's a standout in UW Cinematheque’s “Poverty Row” series. These independent films from the 1930s carry with them a sort of free pulpiness not often seen in the industry films of the time. The great Lowell Sherman, showing silver-tongued finesse in the starring role, also directed this low-budget curio, which offers a seedier take than usual on a rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative.

False Faces follows Dr. Silas Brenton (Sherman), sort of a poet of medical malpractice and fraud, as he is banished from New York and begins trying to rip off a new base of clientele in Chicago. Plastic surgery is the name of his new game, and his scams are all the more grotesque for it. Brenton seduces secretaries, sweet-talks film stars, and neglects his patient lover in his long-forgotten former city. All of this behavior puts him on a path to a comeuppance that, while maybe predictable for its audience-friendly moral stance, is no less satisfying in the end.

Sherman made a technically competent film (which impresses given the shoestring budget), but mostly deserves points for his rich, smarmy performance as Dr. Brenton. He projects an effortless scummy energy that elevates his come-ons and cons to an art form. His climactic monologue seems designed to make the viewer question their own impression of all the malfeasance they’ve seen already, mostly due to his convincing oratory. He’s a quintessential villain you love to hate. —Maxwell Courtright