Director Steve Sekely’s hardboiled film noir leans heavily on the talents of star-producer Paul Henreid and camera ace John Alton — the three of them whip up the best gimmick-driven noir thriller of the late ‘forties. Strained coincidences and unlikely events mean nothing when this much talent is concentrated in one movie. It’s also a terrific show for star Joan Bennett, who expresses all the disappointment, despair and angst of a noir femme who knows she’s in for more misery.
The Scar (Hollow Triumph)
KL Studio Classics
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 83 min. / Street Date April 18, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett, Eduard Franz, Leslie Brooks, John Qualen, Mabel Paige, Herbert Rudley, George Chandler, Robert Bice, Henry Brandon, Franklyn Farnum, Thomas Browne Henry, Norma Varden, Jack Webb.
Cinematography: John Alton
Film Editor: Fred Allen
Original Music: Sol Kaplan
Written by Daniel Fuchs from a novel by Murray Forbes
Produced by Paul Henreid
Directed by Steve Sekely
The first burst of film noir awareness hit UCLA with an English-language essay by then-critic Paul Schrader, which became a special publication for one of the first marathon screenings at FILMEX. Various lists of murky- sounding titles began floating around, many of which had the words ‘dark,’ ‘city’ and ‘black.’ Since most noirs without major stars were relegated to the bargain pages at the back of 16mm film rental catalogs (Films Inc. had Out of the Past for $15) they were frequently tapped for secondary screenings at the dorms. But in general, even the museum didn’t have access to revival prints of vintage titles produced independently, as was the case with some of the more exotic noirs. I’d check the late-nite TV logs each week, finally catching things like He Walked by Night and Criss Cross at two and three in the morning.
When one takes the plunge into noir, the first discovery is that many dark thrillers go in for strange, overly convoluted storylines. Often sharply ironic, they frequently come off as little anti-morality tales. The real definition of noir kicks in when one realizes that stories of human pessimism, defeat and despair can be enjoyable. Not unlike Twilight Zone episodes but without the paternal finger wagging, we derive semi-masochistic pleasure in seeing the best efforts of people just like us dashed to flinders. Perfect robberies invariably go wrong, nice guys finish last and average citizens easily succumb to lawlessness. Expose oneself to enough film noir, and everything can seem a conspiracy. Now, think hard about your mother . . . did she have a hidden motive when she wouldn’t let you buy that expensive toy?
One of the most expressive noir stories of twisted ambition foiled is 1948’s Hollow Triumph, also released as The Scar. Seeing that his days as a matinee idol were fading, actor Paul Henreid produced a vehicle to star himself as a ruthless villain who outsmarts himself. Dick Powell had made a successful career switch, morphing from apple-cheeked crooner to tough-guy noir hero. So why not Henreid, the equally well-known star of Casablanca? Henried was surely attracted by the dramatic opportunities in author Murray Forbes’ gimmicky storyline. Daniel Fuchs’s smooth screenplay jams action, suspense and interesting characters into eighty minutes of screen time, making some highly unlikely events seem . . . almost plausible.
Megalomaniac thief John Muller (Paul Henreid) is released from prison, and immediately cons his old cronies into knocking off a casino run by the influential mobster Rocky Stanzig (Thomas Browne Henry). Originally a medical student before going crooked, Johnny considers himself a superior intellect. When the heist goes badly, Stanzig sets his killer Bullseye (Jack Webb) to tracking down Johnny and his thieves. Muller decides to hide out by taking the job arranged for him by the prison. In Los Angeles he finds a new opportunity — successful psychoanalyst Dr. Bartok looks so much like Johnny that they could be twin brothers, except that Bartok has a large scar on his face. By romancing Bartok’s secretary Evelyn Hahn (Joan Bennett) Johnny learns what he needs to know to pull off a diabolical, risky scheme. He calls off his relationship with Evelyn and prepares to take Bartok’s place. But first Johnny has to operate on himself. With a local sedative, he carves a matching scar into his cheek and waits for it to heal . . .
By 1948 the docu-drama trend in noir films was already underway. The romantic, expressionist visuals of earlier pictures were giving way to attempts at gritty realism. But most noir-inflected dramas retained the moody shadow of stylized night scenes, even if daylight coverage might lean toward a newsreel look. The Scar doesn’t have all that many daytime scenes, and even they are stylized, with afternoon sidelight slicing in through Venetian blinds. The cameraman is the dean of noir lighting John Alton. Producer Henreid and director Steve Sekely indulged Alton, who surely helped block out the picture for maximum effect at the lowest cost. Normal scenes are dark and shady rooms are ink-black, with the feeling of eternal night predominating. Close-ups are dynamic and often raked upward to show ceilings hovering over the stars’ heads. A hallway in a cheap hotel is illuminated by naked light bulbs. Alton uses silhouettes and filtered over-exposures to bring out the atmosphere in a gambling den, and the glare of lights when Stanzig captures Johnny’s cohorts. Every John Alton film is a lesson in dramatic cinematography, and The Scar has all the extremes. Johnny and Evelyn’s courtship is a series of misty scenes, some of which are back-projected. Filtered close-ups emphasize Joan Bennett’s almost hallucinatory beauty. Using only a couple of stock shots, The Scar pulls off the illusion of a large cast of extras in the dockside farewell scene, with a luxury liner leaving for Hawaii. Noir would later mostly abandon this expressionism, but Sekely’ show is as visually rich as a silent German classic.
The slightly unreal visual dimension helps sell The Scar’s pleasingly outrageous storyline. Johnny Muller’s scheme to steal another man’s identity stacks coincidences to a giddy height, but we don’t care, as the characters are expressing our own secret desires. Clearly thinking himself a Nietzche- like superman, Johnny doesn’t care who dies so long as he reaches his goal. More than one ‘socially responsible’ story has a fugitive fall in love with a woman he has deceived, only to find redemption through her love. That’s a typical mainstream story conceit.
If The Scar encourages such fairy tales, it is only to tease us. Johnny callously uses Evelyn, not realizing that he might need her when he once again has to run away. Robert Muller is an unbelievable character made plausible by Paul Henreid’s nicely tuned performance. Bits of his sympathetic side show through when he dates Evelyn, and eventually he becomes almost human, as shown in the touching scene with the curious washerwoman who intuits that something’s not quite the same about ‘Dr. Muller.’ Writer Daniel Fuchs had just come from the humble but expressive noir The Gangster, a story of the downfall of a major hood. The lesson seems to be that powerful, violent men can’t afford to let down their guard. When Johnny Muller begins to behave in a decent manner, we know that he’s about to suffer a major comeuppance.
We’re accustomed to noirs with wisecracking characters that express cynical sentiments, often funny-but-cruel put-downs. In Tension, the insulting Audrey Totter gives a withering look to the ‘interested’ guy next to her at a drugstore counter and sneers just one word, “Drift.” Daniel Fuchs often takes a different approach. In The Gangster he imagines a late-night scene at a similar malt shop. The emotion of the hour is despair, with one couple in a booth lamenting the difficulty in finding happiness. A miserable wife arrives to beg her husband to come home.
The most striking character scene in The Scar sees Evelyn suddenly realize that Johnny is calling off their relationship, It’s happened to her so often, she intuits that he’s about to give her the bad news. Before Johnny, Evelyn was also involved with Dr. Bartok, who seems to take her for granted. Evelyn feels the need to adopt a hard, somewhat sour attitude with men, but here she also reveals her vulnerability.
Johnny: What happened did he hurt you?
Evelyn: Do I look hurt?
Johnny: I should say you do.
Evelyn: Well don’t fool yourself. You don’t get hurt these days.
Evelyn: No, it’s very simple. You never expect anything so you’re never disappointed.
Johnny: You’re a bitter little lady.
Evelyn: It’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.
A few seconds later Evelyn continues:
Johnny: Are you sorry for yourself?
Evelyn: No, ’cause for one thing it’s too late, and what’s the use? Because you never can go back and start again. Because the older you grow the worse everything turns out. You don’t see it happening to you, it just happens. You wake up one morning and there you are and anything goes and that’s all right too.
Evelyn’s speech points directly to the core of the Noir Dilemma, the erosion of human values and the negation of the idea that postwar America is a generous society with a solution for everyone’s problems. B&W films and a few shadows are not what define a real film noir.
What Evelyn gives us is a lesson on how dames turn hard: through experience. The Noir Funk is borne of everyday realities mixed with bad morale: disappointment, frustration, resentment, despair, hopelessness. Evelyn feels that she’s losing her chance to find happiness, which for her requires the right man. All she finds are sharpies and heels, and now the strange John Muller. The same thing happens to Yvonne de Carlo’s Anna in Daniel Fuch’s Criss Cross: when finally pressed as to why she abandoned her first love, Anna bursts out with much the same protest about being alone and neglected, and settling for the first guy who comes along.
The Scar isn’t a cheap film. Fine location work and expert, confident direction give it a better look than many ‘prestige’ studio pictures. One chase scene plays out at the iconic Angel’s Flight in downtown Los Angeles. Paul Henreid probably enticed Joan Bennett with the good script and the argument that he would make worthy on-screen romantic partner. She was reportedly a good judge of film material, and had just come from three sophisticated Fritz Lang thrillers. Henreid could also draw from a vast pool of accomplished supporting talent looking for a break. It was the first film for both Thomas Browne Henry and Jack Webb, and the second feature of Eduard Franz. His ‘good brother’ efforts repeatedly ruin Johnny’s plans, providing another example why a successful criminal needs to sever his connections to the human race. The show has dozen of speaking bit parts for old timers trying to get a leg up — Henry Brandon, Norma Varden, Franklyn Farnum. Veteran John Qualen’s larger supporting role helps sell the film’s unlikely doppelgänger idea. Herbert Rudley (Decoy) panics when targeted by Stanzig’s hit men. The meek George Chandler points out the photographic error that causes Muller to make a fatal mistake.
After a century of shows with similar ‘twists of fate,’ many viewers will easily predict where John Muller trips up. After all the preparation, Fuchs script creates a literal criss-cross — the fatal irony comes from a direction Johnny never expected. By the finish he’s almost a sympathetic character, but we know that his status as a cold-blooded murder makes him a goner. All that needs to be filled in is the ‘how.’ The final irony comes when an assassin is the only person to scoff at the film’s unlikely identity switch — everybody else swallowed it whole.
The Scar must have had a spotty release. United Artists didn’t have a lot of clout in theater circuits, and when a film is re-titled the reason is usually distributor desperation: will it do better under a different title? If the name Hollow Triumph is too vague, The Scar seems too on-the-nose. Ad materials also exist for a third variant, The Man Who Murdered Himself, but that title might have been abandoned before release.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Scar (Hollow Triumph) is a good but not exemplary presentation of this favorite noir thriller, one that rewards repeated viewings. The titles seem soft, and even though the balance of the picture improves, it never quite attains the look of films sourced from original elements. A British censor card and ‘Anglo Amalgamated’ distributor logo show that a surviving export copy was used; what’s occasionally shown on TCM, I believe, still has the original Hollow Triumph title. I’m unaware of any previous licensed home video release, so have little to compare it to. The scan is certainly better than a standard-def presentation, and the image is more than good enough to appreciate the film’s finer visual points.
Kino provides some snappy noir trailers, although none seems to have survived for The Scar/Hollow Triumph. The keeper extra is a full audio commentary by author Imogen Sara Smith. Noir commentaries have been dominated for some years by the same three or four expert spokespeople, so a fresher viewpoint is bound to be a good thing. Ms. Smith provides thoughtful analysis and opinions, touching on some new ideas while giving the standard stories a fair hearing. Kino turns to some of the old-reliable commentators but also strikes out in new directions — I think it was they who first put Richard Harland Smith on a commentary.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Scar (Hollow Triumph)
Video: Good +/-
Supplements: Commentary by Imogen Sara Smith, selection of noir trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 21, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson