Monday, May 7, 2018
Noir Watch: Hollow Triumph/ The Scar/ The Man Who Murdered Himself (1948)
Format: TCM Noir Alley on the DVR
If you're wondering why I have three names listed for this movie, it's because this movie was released under three different names at three different times - but I think it was first released under Hollow Triumph (1948). However, I can't find a poster I like better than the one for The Scar, so.. behold!
This movie was a *lot* of fun. It's not a glossy studio movie, but acting talent, direction and cinematography carry you really far in a picture.
Paul Henreid plays a career criminal - a heister - who is released from prison and wants to make up for lost time with a big score. We learn that at one point he was a promising med student, could have had a straight life as a psyhologist, but he gave it up to chase a quick buck.
With the old gang back together - they go after a mobbed up casino. Things go wrong, and the mobsters figure out who they are and are in hot pursuit - so Henreid on his own goes to ground in a new city (New York, I guess).
In a freak occurrence, he finds out he looks just like a Dr. Bartok, a local psychologist - except that Bartok has a scar on his cheek. Curious, he goes to the doctor's office to see for himself where he meets Bartok's admin, Joan Bennett. The two strike up a flirtation and then a romance while Henreid avoids meeting his doppleganger.
But when he realizes he may be found by the mobsters, he decides to take the place of the doctor.
What *should* be a C-movie gimmick plot - and feel absurd given Henreid's distinctive accent (he's an Austrian with a pretty specific accent he never lost) wind s up working out fine. The best comparison I can think of is the willing suspension of disbelief that we all allow Arnold Schwarzenegger when he plays Americans. We'd all sort of just accept that Arnie's doppleganger had an accent and not worry about it too much.
But, really, that gimmick of the switch and what goes wrong with the scar winds up saying a lot about both the characters and how people see each other.
Henreid himself is pretty fantastic in this movie - you can see the calculations and recalculations with every new bit of information and beat. One can imagine this role in the hands of Widmark and how we'd all be squirming as he sweated his way through every beat - but Henreid's cool calculations built of confidence become a defense mechanism.
But you can't talk about the movie and not talk about Joan Bennett's turn as Evelyn Hahn, a girl who is painfully used to disappointment and puts up a good front as a tough dame, but she's still feeling every wound that was supposed to make her tougher. It's a fascinating role in a genre that respects strong women but maybe doesn't always make enough time for nuance. Whatever changed in courtship after the war, she wasn't prepared for, and she's tried to play along, but... that's a lot of heartache.
As Muller noted in the aftermatter for the movie, you can't not note the camera work of John Alton. I honestly think a lot of what we think of as noir lighting must have come directly from this guy. There's some great, innovative camera placement. I loved the stairwell shot - way to use a location, and the heist is really interesting stuff, especially the fight near the switch box. And the use of lighting from seeming natural sources is... well, it makes a lot more sense than the "light everything!" approach to most movies from the era. It isn't a huge surprise he was also responsible for films like The Big Combo and Mystery Street.
The ending of the movie is a tough one - maybe a bit like The Killing. Crime never pays in these movies and the karmic justice can be brutal stuff.
Anyway, if you get a chance to catch it, do so. It's one I'll definitely want to watch again.