Hollow Triumph (1948)

Hollow Triumph (1948), which is also known as The Scar, and sometimes also by its working title The Man Who Murdered Himself, is a full on fantastical and fun full-fat film noir classic crime film directed by Steve Sekely starring Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett and Leslie Brooks. 

It was released by Eagle-Lion Films, based on the 1946 novel of the same title written by Murray Forbes.

It's everything high noir should be — a story of hardened criminality, deceit, weird and fantastical problems and situations, ambiguity, pursuit, fate, twists and doomed and destructive love affairs — it's incredible what can be packed into this 83 minute ride.

Hollow Triumph is for this reason very much a film of two parts. The first part of Hollow Triumph is a regular heist tale, about a criminal bent upon that one last job, in this case the robbery of a gangster's gambling joint. This goes badly, to say the least, and culminates in some genuine and frightening cruelty.

Paul Henreid in Hollow Triumph (1948)

It also sets the main segment of the story running, as lead robber John Müller goes on the run, and winds up blending into the crowds by taking a dull office job, at which he experiences workplace bullying, although the monotony of this role is brilliantly expressed on Henreid's face and his repetitive stamping of documents. 

The heist in film noir Hollow Triumph (1948)

Excellent Los Angeles exteriors filmed by John Alton await all who have it in them to enjoy this Public Domain Noir classic. Such aficionados will be able to place to one side the contrived coincidences of this plot, which is more firmly embedded in the style of fantasy noir than may be at first expected.

A downbeat conclusion too awaits those who walk the alleys of film noir in search of gloomy satisfaction — it's here in spades. The denouement of Scarlet Street (1945) is somewhat similar in how it lowers the tone directly to the gutter and casts the hero in there.

Joan Bennett in Hollow Triumph (1948)

There is great fun to be had with the subject of the double, and Paul Henreid who plays both parts of the evil-twin combo well —  first the distracted Bartok and then the super-villainous Muller, who really outsmarts himself with noir conceit — almost dreaming his way through a bizarre series of fantasy events — including the 'flopped' negative on which much of the film hinges — only spotted by an elderly charwoman who foils this noir and pulls the schemes of Muller apart.

John Muller is a mastermind of unmitigated villainous noir, and starts by ripping off of a big time mobster and then fleeing the city, not before his boys are murdered for the crime —  a far colder scene than you are expecting. 

"About a month ago I ran into a fella who looked exactly like you. Oh, I don't mean a resemblance. This was you! A real double down to the last detail. Except of course he didn't have a scar on his cheek, naturally."

While laying low and attempting to go straight by getting a proper job —  film noir here tells us exactly what it thinks of proper jobs and going straight and normal people in office jobs — and how that is going to work out — while doing this he meets a psychoanalyst named Dr. Bartok to whom he bears a striking resemblance. 

Jack Webb — street goons — Hollow Triumph (1948)

In order to further deepen his cover and escape the gangsters, Muller decides to next kill Bartok and take over his life, including his office and most fantastical of all his romance with his secretary, Evelyn, who is played by Joan Bennett in a hard-noir style.

The Angels Flight funicular railway in Hollow Triumph (1948)

The world of Hollow Triumph (1948) is grimily real at times and of course, where it can be is oppressively exaggerated. There are huge open interiors which project shadows and great street scenes including some on Los Angeles’ long gone Bunker Hill neighbourhood and the Angels Flight funicular railway that connects it to downtown.

The most distilled creations in the film noir style will feature a devastating moment of recognition when the heel, sap or protagonist becomes aware in an existential crisis that everything has gone wrong and that fate has served a back handed slap.

Face to face with the self in film noir — Hollow Triumph (1948)

Hollow Triumph (1948) delivers this archly-defining film noir trope with a great wallop when Muller is discovers that he has scarred the wrong side of his face in his attempt to become Bartok.

It is a huge kicker and incredibly dark. It means he has to immediately start gaslighting the rest of the world — after all how can a scar move? 

This is a great film noir for irony — one of the best in fact — and it then it seems that Muller discovers he has been accepted as Bartok by the world. Here is where film noir psychology plays far into the minds of its viewers — as Muller has transformed himself into an actual mirror image of Bartok, who it turns out owes something to a casino. 

Muller's brother Frederick (played Eduard Franz) sums up the irony brilliantly, saying: "Sooner or later it always catches up with you."

The fantastic within the storytelling of film noir in the 1940s creates a unique set of stories and circumstances which can bypass almost anything to speak directly into the dark of the mind from the dark of the movie theatre. The implausibility of the stories is not the issue that it would become and remain as storytelling and cinema developed.

Quite the opposite. Only in the 1940s could such plot manoeuvres and preposterous events be told and enjoyed, using the film noir style to speak far beyond the surface elements to tell horror stories in the midst of melodrama.

Here, in Hollow Triumph, the story is told within a small personal circle, as in most films of the period. What this suggests is that this is how we live, too caught up in our own affairs to be bothered with the world at large. What is fascinating is that both men, on different sides of the mirror, Muller and Bartok, both owe money to casinos, although for entirely different reasons, 

"My height, right? Being short isn't as insuperable a handicap as you might think. If your personality is powerful, you can project the illusion of height."

The casino heist that Muller carries out at the start of the movie assumes already that both men are in the same trap, and that one can be substituted for the other — an incredible thought.

The conclusion of Hollow Triumph, more than many a fine noir, rams home the individual's sense of alienation within the film noir city, as the passers-by either do not notice or maybe do not care that another film noir heel lies near death — an exact demonstration that urban society creates its own  hollow triumph over the individual.

Eduard Franz in Hollow Triumph (1948)

Joan Bennett adds enormous power to this film noir, with an innocent power and ease, and a rock-hard sensibility that is not always immediately evident. Her character Evelyn Hahn delivers a line of noir dialogue that might sum up the entire style: 

"It's a bitter little world full of sad surprises and you don’t go around letting people hurt you."

Despite the fantasy powering the story, the conclusions expressed by Hollow Triumph are real: the recurring theme throughout the film is that no one cares enough about anyone but themselves to notice the world around them. This is the office job that John Muller takes, and it is what allows Muller to another man's life. Of course, this total self-centred attitude is what ends up contributing to Muller's tragic undoing.

Hollow Triumph / The Scar was a product of the short-lived (1947-48) production division of Eagle-Lion Films, a company that was initially established by British producer J. Arthur Rank  to distribute UK films in the US and then make low-budget movies, with Bryan Foy in charge of production 

Few knew how to make superior B-movies better than Foy who established Warner Bros.’ low-budget programmer unit in the 30s, where he was known as “the keeper of the ‘B’s.” Hollow Triumph’s star was Austria-Hungary-born actor Paul Henreid, who also made his name at Warners, most famously of all in in Casablanca. After leaving Warners to try freelancing, Henreid accepted Eagle-Lion’s offer to act in and produce his own movie. Henreid was born a member of the Austrian nobility in Trieste and raised in Vienna.

Sadly, soon afterward, Henreid’s acting career hit the rocks at the hands of the HUAC witchhunters and, except for occasional supporting roles he largely spent the last two decades of his Hollywood career behind the cameras as a director.

Film noir does offer the first view of what we call today a thriller, because like its earliest predecessor, gothic literature, it delves into the dark, the violent, the fantastical and was at home with the supernatural. 

These supernatural elements bring strangeness to everyday human desire, isolation and existential dread to everyday human weariness, heightened terror and threat to everyday human confusion, and real and present suspense to the everyday human nightmare 

In noir audiences found an alternate world that was not even pretending much to represent our own — 
the noir world broadcast new atmospheric conditions for storytelling, which when compared to the 1930s before it, highlighted emotion in many deeper and usually darker ways. 

The Double in Film NoirHollow Triumph (1948)

Noir also brought with it psychological themes that had not been prominent in the previous eras, and within this psychology were rampant paranoia and anxiety that possibly viewers could even share.

If psychoanalysis meant the uncovering of subconscious desires and fears, then classic film noir in its golden era, was psychologically profound. Here in Hollow Triumph we find one of the best and craziest film noir expressions of the Doppelgänger — persons who can  be regarded as identical because they look alike. 

Smoke writ large — Hollow Triumph (1948) with Paul Henreid

The theme of the double has been hugely popular across all centuries, but the work of many nineteenth century authors and then twentieth century film directors perfected this. The double as an idea causes an automatic fear in a person, and in cinema this is heightened by the beauties of trick photography and effects which wow the viewers and heighten the simultaneous belief —  and disbelief.

With the presence of another self some essential doubts emerge questioning first the identity of this double — who am I? —  who are you? — who are we? —  and also the identity of the counter-presence. 

The Double in Film Noir —  Hollow Triumph (1948) — with Paul Henreid

The double questions the basic rules of logic by means of an automatic contradiction and in film and fiction there are various use of the double motif — sometimes a dark side —  sometimes a hallucination —  sometimes a question about public persona, as here in Hollow Triumph. 

Usually, in film noir, the double shows up as a fragmented division of the character’s personality or a damaged or differentiated aspect of their psyche. Doubles tend to turn up as physical doubles, reflection doubles, transformation doubles, and narratology doubles.

Eduard Franz in Hollow Triumph (1948)

The double is a strong and exciting factor in film noir, and as a motif can psychologically break the barrier between self-perception and what might be classed as a person's true identity. The double is sometimes a threat, but in noir, more often a separate expression or adjunct to the character, who may be failing in some way and is revived or called to action by the double —  perhaps a threat but always an uncanny factor that protagonist is made to face.

Here in Hollow Triumph, Henreid's character is a a totally amoral man who does not see anything at all wrong with the occasional murder, as long as he feels the need to commit it. Joan Bennett plays a woman who is fixated on the bad version of this character, preferring the bad version because he is more transfixing and never boring. 

The fact that one of the doubles is a psychoanalyst is fascinating and typically noir. It becomes the ironic an ironical story of an intelligent gangster that decides to pose as the psychoanalyst and who in fact succeeds, not knowing where the deceit will lead him.  

Joan Bennett in Hollow Triumph (1948)

The inspiring photography of John Alton helps make this great film great and smashes the adventure out of the park with low-key low-light film noir fright and chops. It's seamy and dead-ended and provides the perfect feel. The absence of light is key, and in fact during the robbery, the disabling of the lights is an essential part of the plan. As the lights come on and the crime is exposed, Paul Henreid's character goes on the run, in and out of the light all of the time.

The smoking helps too — it is very much a kind of mania in Hollow Triumph — suggestive only of a man who wants to hide, who needs to hide, who needs to be concealed in shape-shifting clouds 

Plus, of course — look out for a young Jack Webb — playing a hood called 'Bullseye'.

The char-woman spotted it — Hollow Triumph aka The Scar (1948)

Hollow Triumph (1948) at Wikipedia

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