Trying to make his own fate ironically traps a man in an inescapable doom in 1948's Hollow Triumph (a.k.a. The Scar). A hard bitten, underrated film noir, this is a sterling example of the genre’s existential preoccupations. It’s tragic, darkly comic, oddly sweet, and, above all, a nightmare.
Paul Henreid stars as John Muller, a mastermind gangster just released from prison. Henreid is well cast here, his accent and reserved performance giving him an air of sinister mystery even when he’s an open book as the film’s anti-hero. Immediately, he wants to knock over an underground gambling joint, one his cohorts tells him is a million to one odds and, even if they succeed, the gang will hunt them down. But, such is the esteem commanded by John’s intelligence, everyone reluctantly agrees to go along.
Bone white faces in charcoal shadows, the gambling den has quintessential film noir lighting. The plan partly succeeds—they get the money but two of Paul’s gang are caught. Knowing the mobsters are on his trail, John leaves for another town where he finds out there happens to be a psychoanalyst called Bartok who looks exactly like him, apart from a scar.
Already there’d been a few conspicuous lines about how John is the kind of guy who gets his own way, “Still think you got the world by the tail, hey, Johnny?” says one of his cohorts. In the new town, John starts to make time with his look-alike’s secretary, Evelyn (Joan Bennett), who’s cautious about having a relationship with him and says, “If you think I’m going to get myself mixed up with you, you’re crazy. You’re one of those egotistical smart-alecs with big ideas. You think you got a right to get away with murder.”
But she does get mixed up with him, despite her better judgement. Often in films noir, women are innocent lambs or femmes fatale but Joan Bennett in this movie is too worldly for the former and too nice for the latter. She knows when John’s going to break up with her before he says a word about it so she saves him the trouble and seems ready to leave with no more trouble than tired feet. But then she realises she really has it for this sinister stranger.
She’s smart and experienced but, like John, who’s also smart and experienced, this just isn’t good enough. Inevitably, John bumps off Bartok and takes his place, carefully giving himself a scar in the mirror. Only, as fate would have it, the photonegative from the picture he surreptitiously took of Bartok for reference was reversed in the lab so John scars himself on the wrong side.* He’s furious but he has to go ahead, hoping no-one notices. This detail adds terrific tension but results in one of the most fascinating things about the movie. Earlier in the film, when planning the heist, John’s cohorts protested that people in the casino would notice what they’re doing but John, a student of psychology himself, laughs them off; “People, they never noticed. They’re all wrapped up in themselves.”
And so it proves with that scar! Even Bartok’s sweetheart (Leslie Brooks) tells him he looks great to-night while she stares at her own nose in a mirror. It’s amusing but it also adds to the weight of existential anxiety. Once everyone takes him for Bartok, what meaning does “John” have?
There’s a fascinating dialogue between John and Evelyn where they start talking about the value of being smart and trying to take what they want from life instead of . . . It’s not specified but one assumes doing the normal thing, accepting you can’t get what you want. But who would they be if they couldn’t make their own choices?
Hollow Triumph is available on Amazon Prime.
Twitter Sonnet #1351
The embers glow for seasons once again.
A paper harvest kept away from pans.
To all the stars were vision’s suns akin.
Behind the cart we tied the choicest cans.
A pony swam beneath a sea of trees.
The drops of leaves were stars about its charge.
A liquid beam bespoke the Martian bees.
A town of birds observed the small and large.
The choppy stream could carry strangled light.
A shifting scar could move from north to south.
A balanced weight could move the ship aright.
Preceding words create the talking mouth.
An aching peace usurps a windless heath.
Another dream recalled the whitened teeth.
*Due to an error on the filmmakers’ part, forgetting that a mirror reflection reverses one’s image, John actually scars himself on the correct side. It’s best not to notice this and enjoy the movie for what it intends to say but I thought I’d mention it for anyone who thought I might be too caught up in myself.