Although today Paul Henreid is best known for his roles as the patriotic husband in Casablanca and the dashing yet unattainable love interest in Now, Voyager, his acting career spanned several decades and contained a number of other notable roles. Because of his aristocratic background and foreign accent, the Austrian-born Henreid (a firm anti-Fascist who moved to England in 1935 and came to Hollywood in 1942) played many European characters. Later in his career he directed several feature films and quite a lot of television episodes. In fact, one of his most interesting films, titled Hollow Triumph on its release in 1948 and later re-released under the title The Scar, was produced by him.
Based on a novel by Murray Forbes and directed by Steve Sekely, Hollow Triumph is one of those noir films which lurk (quite appropriately) in the shadows and surprise viewers by their unsuspected excellencies. Shot by famed cinematographer John Alton (whose other credits include The Big Combo (1955) and parts of the 1951 An American in Paris), the movie offers particularly notable instances of the visual darkness and hostile settings which fill noir. Alton does remarkable things with lighting and nighttime photography, as well as shooting from unusual angles and providing some cleverly unusual close-ups, both of the stars and of supporting characters. But he does this in such a way as to serve and enrich the story, lending it a depth which is mirrored in its themes.
The film opens as John Muller (Paul Henreid) leaves prison and immediately gathers his men together in order to pull off one last, profitable heist at a gambling joint. But the plans falls apart as it unfolds, and although Muller gets away, the lethal gangster who runs the joint swears to catch up with him and kill him. Muller initially takes a respectable though lowly job in the hopes of staying below the radar, but a close brush with two hit men and a chance encounter with a doctor (John Qualen) who mistakes him for a distinguished psychoanalyst in his building convince him to change his mind and take a more difficult and perhaps more rewarding path. He soon discovers that this psychoanalyst, Dr. Victor Bartok, looks exactly like him, with the exception of a scar on one cheek. So close is the resemblance, in fact, that it initially leads Dr. Bartok`s secretary, Evelyn Hahn (Joan Bennett), to mistake Johnny for Dr. Bartok. Evelyn and Muller engage in a little romance which is ended by the latter when he decides to take on Dr. Bartok`s identity and position for good…or so he thinks.
The powers of fate and coincidence, so often evoked in noir, are remarkably active in Hollow Triumph. The film contains several marvellously bitter examples of dramatic irony, and is also pervaded by a very real sense of desperation and loneliness, especially in Muller and Evelyn. Henreid gives an excellent performance as Muller, showing the character`s many dimensions and making the audience root for him despite the very bad choices he makes, shall we say. In his few brief appearances as Dr. Bartok, Henreid manages to create a believable portrait of a cold, self-assured, egotistical man quite distinct from Muller; one of the film`s most interesting aspects is its treatment of the doppelgänger theme. Henreid conveys Muller`s almost theatrical understanding of his undertaking–once Muller decides to be Bartok, he engages in detective work meant to serve as study for a new role. Thus there is an aspect of theater which is inherent in the plot itself, and its coupling with the uncanny element of the double increases its complexity. In a sense, Muller is preparing to play himself, or what seems like another version of himself; in another sense, Muller is consciously treating life as a game, a game of chance, perhaps, if we put the real Bartok`s life in contrast to Muller`s. As we see at the beginning, as the heist is pulled off, and later in Muller`s detective work as he prepares to become Bartok, Muller believes in choice and man`s ability to forge his own path, although his criminal record and activities seem to show that he considers these goods only available at the cost of violence. But chance, coincidence, fate, destiny, whatever one wants to call it, is a recurring, perhaps even the defining, characteristic of Muller`s life, as it is also in the lives of Bartok and Evelyn. In a sense, all three of them are playing complicated games which dissolve and deny their mastery at the touch of coincidence.
The theme of the double is thereby paired with the theme of one`s unalterable personality and inescapable fate. Several small moments within the movie build on this opposition; for instance, Muller once comes into his dark room and is startled by what turns out to be only his image in the mirror. Another example is Evelyn`s romantic involvement with two nearly identical men and the parallelism of her relationships with them (it`s worth noting that Bennett`s character is a surprisingly realistic one for the times, and also contrasts a hard-boiled, bitter attitude with a more tender, honest side). The escape seemingly offered to each character through their introduction to a different kind of life–Evelyn through her romance with Muller, Muller through his initial adjustments to his role as Bartok–appear to be breaks from reality, alternate universes, since they appear so unpredictable, so blatantly determined by chance. If Muller had not walked into Bartok`s office when Evelyn was there, if Bartok had not made a previous engagement with Virginia (Leslie Brooks), then things might have been very different–so they think. But in fact the seemingly random and spur-of-the-moment decisions made by the main characters lead to situations from which there is no escape. Again, this is so typically noirish that it is absolutely classic.
Equally classic is the presentation of minor characters as similarly trapped and destiny-plagued creatures. In a series of unusual, memorable, fleeting close-ups during the opening heist, Alton captures the faces of some gambling patrons as they fix their souls and their money on a turn of dice or a spin of a wheel. They too hope that chance will be kind to them, but we can see from their anxious, fixed eyes and obsession-ridden faces that such will not be the case, or at least not for long. This is a doomed world, the film proclaims, and we`re all in it, even you people who think you`re supporting characters and therefore will be spared the melodrama and anguish of the leads. No such luck, we`re told, or rather, luck doesn`t last that long. It has to run out sometime, and if you want a sure bet, the only one we have is that it gives out at the wrong time.
Also in line with the creeds of the noir world is Hollow Triumph`s blistering sense of the egotism and self-centeredness of the average human being. Some of the film`s bitterest humor–and there is a surprising amount of it–comes when Muller realizes how unobservant even Bartok`s most intimate friends and acquaintances are. Qualen has a funny scene in this connection, but the truth of Muller`s realization is only deepened as the film goes on, not least because he himself is guilty–as we all are–of the same thing in his own relationships with others. The triumph of destiny is the only thing that trumps the game all humans play, the game which demands the triumph of the ego over all. To a certain extent, Muller is a prime example of that game, since from the film`s beginning he has been involved in schemes designed to ensure his gratification at the expense of others. Yet once again this game is a dangerous one, since it is so intricately intertwined with a sense of personality and integrity. When Muller needs his own identity back after playing so long with another man`s, it is too late.
In this connection as well, chance and the inherent selfishness of humans plays into the course of events. During the scene at the garage when Muller fills the gas tank, the heist, and the scene with the ambitious garage attendant, the overriding concern of each person with his own affairs serves Johnny well. The gambling metaphor which is present throughout the film is brought out well in these sections, as also in the sections when Johnny appears to be a better Bartok than Bartok ever was. The humorous aspects of the doppelgänger angle and the implications of the psychoanalyst angle are not neglected.
Nor does Hollow Triumph fail to offer its own instances of what is one of the single most fascinating aspects of noir: the poetic introduction or presence of seemingly peripheral yet thematically significant minor characters, highly colored individuals whose brief appearances elevate the film above routine excursions into clichéd plot and endow it with something approaching the richness of a picaresque novel. Notable examples of this phenomenon can be found in Somewhere in the Night (1946) and Cry of the City (1948), among others. In Hollow Triumph we have the garage attendant with Astaire-like ambitions, mentioned above, and later on the humble aged cleaning-woman who provides one of the film`s best moments. (Henreid`s tenderness in this short scene is remarkable and the mark of a nuanced and intelligent actor.)
In conclusion, Hollow Triumph is a worthy and significant part of the noir canon, and should be more openly acknowledge as such. Its themes, while they may sound heavy and academic in print, are treated in consistently cinematic terms which render the film a pleasure rather than a task to watch. Indeed, a more extensive film might profitably have made even more use of the elements discussed above; nevertheless it stands as a beautifully designed and well-acted movie, almost shockingly knowledgable about the toll taken by the inner battles humans wage in their struggle through life. It`s not for nothing that the film could be structurally described as two mirror images facing each other, or as a picture examining the idea of one`s own image versus the image of oneself seen by others. The primacy of the self, and its inescapability, are themes which could and have been discussed at more length, but surely rarely with more impact than in this little 82-minute Eagle-Lion Studio picture.