“It’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you.”
Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar) is a gem of a movie. A wildly implausible plot adds to the baroque charm of this melodramatic sleeper, which bombed on its release in 1948. The basic plot-line – a hood on the run after robbing a gambling house takes on the identity of a psychiatrist – does not do justice to the moral perversity and spiralling ironies of fate that propel the action.
We have all the ingredients for great noir entertainment: a compelling screenplay and a witty script from Daniel Fuchs (Criss-Cross, Panic in the Streets), a director of pulp-b’s in Austro-Hungarian émigré Steve Sekely, the artful cinematography of noir icon John Alton, and Paul Henreid and Joan Bennet both cast against type in the lead roles – as mirror-reversals of the typical noir archetypes – an homme-fatale of unbounded ambition and no scruples seduces a woman of strong character and with a real job. Paul Henreid is so suave and daring, even when a photo-processor’s diabolical and irreversibly dangerous error threatens to blow his subterfuge wide open, he remains audacious and enthralling. But the imperatives of the noir universe dictate that his one-minute-to-midnight failed shot at redemption is as dramatic and ironic as it is pathetic. On the journey to perdition we traverse a noir topography redolent with noir archetypes: the unreformed con, the old gang coerced into a fateful big heist that goes wrong, the savage intimidation of underlings, life on the run, and the machinations required to find an out from a past that is getting ever close and will not go away.
All this aside, it is Alton’s dark and moody camera-work that defines the cinematic reality that lights up the screen. There is a magnificent scene in a hotel room with Henreid and his straight but sympathetic brother, who has tracked him down to tell him that those out to kill him are closer and more adamant than he thinks. Once he learns the news, Henreid flips off the lights in panic, fearing that his brother has led the killers to him. In the darkness, a flashing neon sign outside the windows rhythmically lights up the slats of the drawn venetian blinds sending streaked shadows across the protagonists. Alton also constructs breathtaking hallucinatory montages that have to rank as perhaps the best I have seen in a Hollywood movie. The stuff that noirs are made of.