Saturday, July 18, 2015

Stubs – Hollow Triumph

Hollow Triumph (1948) Starring: Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett, Eduard Franz. Directed by Steve Sekely. Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs. Based on the novel Hollow Triumph by Murray Forbes (Chicago, 1946). Produced by Paul Henreid. Run Time: 83 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Drama, Crime

Paul Henreid is not a name that gets mentioned a lot on Trophy Unlocked. The last time was in reference to his role as Victor Lazlo in Casablanca (1942), but he did have a successful career in Hollywood. An émigré from Austro-Hungary, Henreid began making films in Germany, appearing in such films as Dawn (1933) and The Secret of Cavelli (1934) before moving to Great Britain in 1935. When World War II began in 1939, Henreid faced deportation as an enemy alien before fellow actor Conrad Veidt, who would also later co-star in Casablanca, spoke up for him.

After appearing in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940), RKO brought him to the U.S. under contract. In typical Hollywood fashion, Paul von Hernried became the much simpler name: Paul Henreid. In 1942, he appeared opposite Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and Casablanca. After that, he would appear in several films including Hollywood Canteen (1944), Of Human Bondage (1946) and Song of Love (1947) before wanting to try his hand at producing. His one and only credit as a producer was Hollow Triumph (1948), also known as Scar in the U.K.

Following Song of Love, which he made at MGM, he was being pursued by that studio for a long-term contract. But like many actors in post-World War II, he didn’t like the restrictions that sort of contract placed on him and he looked for another avenue. Against the wishes of his agent, Lew Wasserman at MCA, Henreid signed up with Eagle-Lion, the recently formed American producing arm of J. Arthur Rank. They offered to let him produce as well as star in his own film. With the financial backing of Robert Young, the railroad magnate, not the actor, Henreid bought the rights to the novel Hollow Triumph, written by fellow actor Murray Forbes.

To write the adaptation, Henreid turned to Daniel Fuchs, a screenwriter responsible for Between The Worlds (1944), a film Henreid had starred in at Warner Bros. While Fuchs, who was destitute at the time, initially turned down the job, claiming he didn’t know anything about gangsters even though he had written the screenplay for The Gangster (1947), Henreid persisted and Fuchs wrote the screenplay.

When it came to casting the film, Henreid originally wanted Evelyn Keyes for the role of Evelyn Hahn, the doctor’s secretary. But she was under contract at the time to Columbia Pictures. In order to lend her, Harry Cohn wanted to read the script, which impressed him so much, he wanted to buy it from Henreid. When Henreid turned his offer down, Keyes was no longer available for loan out.

Enter Joan Bennett, who had recently transformed herself from blonde ingénue to brunette femme fatale, having starred in two Fritz Lang films: The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). But her most recent film with Lang, Secret Beyond the Door (1948), was a flop and Bennett was willing to take a chance on an independent studio like Eagle-Lion.

Unlike other film noirs we’ve reviewed lately, this one is not told in flashback. Rather it opens with John Muller (Paul Henreid) already in jail. While he is a smart man, having gone to medical school for a time, he is a crook by nature, having practiced psycho-analysis without a license and other crimes. Because his brother, Freddie (Eduard Franz), works for the government, John's parole officer has found him a job at the Meiklejohn company in Los Angeles. Despite his parole officer’s doubts, John accepts the offer.

John Muller (Paul Henreid) learns of a job waiting for him in Los Angeles from his parole officer.

But before he does, he gets the old gang together for one more heist. A couple of the men have found regular work, but the promise of a quick payout is enough for most to go along with John’s plan, which is to rob the gambling house owned by rival mobster, Rocky Stansyck (Tom Browne Henry). Stansyck is notorious for holding a grudge when done wrong and one of the gang members recounts how years after an attempted heist, Stansyck found and killed one of the robbers in Europe. But John is adamant they can make a clean getaway.

Once out, John gets his gang back together for one more job.

Things do not go according to plan and only John and Marcy (Herbert Rudley) make it out. The others, Big Boy (Henry Brandon) and Rosie (Robert Ben Ali), are caught and questioned and initially told they’re free to go. But before they’ve gone too far, Stansyck tells one of his hired guns, Bullseye (Jack Webb), not to let them get away.

On the run, Marcy and John split up. John goes to Los Angeles to accept the position at Meiklejohn, while Marcy heads south over the border. John’s work at Meiklejohn is routine and dull, but he’s safe. His supervisor, though, rides him and makes him go out on an errand to deliver books to a client. While he’s on the street, he becomes aware of a man following him. A dentist named Swangron (John Qualen) mistakes him for a doctor who works in his building, Dr. Victor Bartok.  John pulls him into an alleyway and works him over just enough to learn the story. John’s a dead ringer for Dr. Bartok, with the exception that the latter has a long scar on his left side cheek.

Curious, John goes to Bartok’s office, where Marcy (Joan Bennett), the doctor’s secretary and lover, mistakes John for Bartok, giving him a passionate kiss before realizing her error. John stakes out Bartok just long enough to realize they are doppelgangers for each other.

But John is gone too long from work and gets into a fight with his supervisor, which gets physical. John is promptly fired. On his way out, one of his co-workers tells him that Freddie has been there looking for him.

His brother, Freddie (Eduard Franz), brings John news about
Marcy. He also unknowingly leads Stansyck's men to John.

That night, John goes to visit Freddie in his hotel room, where he is shown a newspaper with a story about Marcy’s murder in Mexico City. It is clear that Stansyck’s men have hunted him down. John’s concern that Stansyck’s men might have followed Freddie to Los Angeles is proven correct when Bullseye and a sidekick (Dick Wessell) are down the street waiting for him. John tries to go out through the alley, but they’re already there. Shots are fired, but John manages to escape. They almost catch him on Angel’s Flight, but John manages to kick the sidekick out the back of the moving train car.

John is not happy to see two of Stansyck's henchmen in front of his brother's hotel.

John convinces Evelyn, who is suspicious at first, to go out with him and she falls in love with what must be for her a substitute for the man she really loves, Bartok. This allows John to get into Bartok’s office, where he steals a cancelled check so he can practice Bartok’s signature. He also studies Bartok’s voice from recordings Bartok makes for Evelyn to transcribe and he even reads Bartok’s case files. When he feels he knows everything he needs to, he tells Evelyn that he’s going to Paris and breaks off his relationship with her.

Meanwhile, John has gotten a job at the Clover Garage where Bartok parks his car. A full service garage, attendants will accompany a client to work and then take the car to the garage. Working nights, John narrowly escapes notice when Bullseye and sidekick show up one night at the garage for gas. With his days free, John stalks Bartok, getting a photograph of him, which he uses to meticulously carve a like scar in his cheek. Only, as we find out, the lab that did the blow up for him reversed the negative. Instead of his left cheek, the scar is on John’s.

Using a photo, John carves a scar on his face. Too bad he doesn't notice the photo's been flipped.

John waits for his opportunity and when Bartok comes by early in the morning to get an attendant, John goes with him. When the time is right, John kills Bartok with a heavy wrench and dumps his body into the river. It is only as he’s dumping the body that he notices he’s gotten the scar wrong. Undeterred, John assumes Bartok’s identity, takes up his practice, etc., with no one being any the wiser. Even the dentist who had followed John earlier takes that moment to tell him about the incident, not seeing through the ruse.

That night, John receives a call from Virginia Taylor (Leslie Brooks), a woman Bartok has been seeing, and they meet. She doesn’t notice the difference and the couple goes to a gambling club called Maxwell’s, which Bartok apparently frequents and frequently loses at. John notices later just how bad it is as Bartok has sold many holdings and his bank account is low.

Freddie returns to Los Angeles looking for John. He starts out at Meiklejohn and follows his career to Clover. He’s told that after he handled Dr. Bartok’s car, he quit his job, so Freddie goes to Bartok’s office, hoping he might have some knowledge about what happened to John. Evelyn lets Freddie wait and when John emerges, Freddie blurts out that he’s his brother.

Freddie may suspect. but he doesn't know that he's talking to his brother in Bartok-mode.

At this point, Evelyn puts two and two together and realizes what’s happened. She tells Freddie what John had told her, that he moved to Paris. John pulls her aside and admits to what he’s done. Freddie tells John why he’s looking for him: Stansyck has been arrested on an income tax charge and will soon be deported. With his organization broken up, no one is looking for John any longer. John advises his brother to leave him alone and Freddie leaves.

Evelyn (Joan Bennett) figures out what's going on, but still lies to protect John.

Evelyn, meanwhile, has gone home to pack. She’s planning on leaving on a steamship for Honolulu. John shows up and the two argue, with John hitting her, knocking her off her feet. He promises to renew her faith in love and join her on the boat. He quickly makes arrangements to close the office and hurries to the docks. On his way out, a chairwoman (Mabel Paige) stops him and makes mention that she’d noticed his scar had moved, but he assures her that she was mistaken, which she accepts.

Evelyn gives John another chance, even after he hits her.

As Evelyn waits onboard, John is attacked by two thugs (Robert Bice and Dave Schilling) who work for Maxwell's. They accuse him of welching on his gambling debts. John insists to the men that he is not Bartok, even pointing out their scars are on different cheeks, but the thugs don’t buy it. When John tries to get away, the men shoot him. The police arrive quickly and the thugs are arrested, but John manages to limp away. He’s too late for the boat as it starts to depart. Believing she’s been stood up, Evelyn tearfully goes inside.

Convoluted plots are a real mainstay of film noir and Hollow Triumph certainly has one of its own. As a contemporary reviewer pointed out, “There is not quite enough logic in the plot to enable it to stand up under scrutiny, but the story moves along briskly.” Even though you have to follow along closely, the movie never really loses you, the way, say, The Big Sleep (1946) does.

There are holes to be sure; the biggest is the scar. Surely John would have seen Bartok enough to know which side of his face had the scar and then when no one seems to notice it’s wrong, you have to wonder what was the point. Yes, it shows that John is fallible, none of his plans really work out as planned, but the scar neither gives him away nor saves him in the end. It’s sort of like this really cool device that serves no real purpose.

Still, I like the identity theft angle, which is also nothing new (see Nora Prentiss). But I think Hollow Triumph has an interesting spin on that as well. The fact that the identity he’s stolen puts John in as much trouble as his own, if not more, is a great twist.

John Alton, who handled the cinematography, does some very interesting work with not only light and dark, but also with angles, as this film literally looks at things differently than most films.  Alton’s career dates back to silent films, he shot backgrounds for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). He was quite in demand with film noirs, shooting several including T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), Border Incident (1949), The Crooked Way (1949) and Mystery Street (1950). He also was the cinematographer on Father of The Bride (1950), Father’s Little Dividend (1951), worked on An American in Paris (1951) and Elmer Gantry (1960), so his work was not limited to one particular genre.

The film utilizes unique locations with interesting angles.

For the most part, I liked Hollow Triumph. One thing against it though is Paul Henreid himself. Not that he is a bad actor, but his accent was a little jarring. I’m not saying protagonists can’t have one, but when his brother doesn’t have one, it seems a little odd. It was also weird to see a man best known as a romantic lead playing such an undesirable character. Henreid’s fans didn’t really like it much either and many deserted his fan club as a result.

Paul Henreid in Casablanca, the type of roles his fans wanted him to play.

While Henreid managed to make his own movie, he sort of lost out overall. His agent, Wasserman, after their disagreements, turned him over to an assistant to handle and Henreid’s profit sharing for Hollow Triumph was tied to three other pictures which flopped, so he never received his cut from that either. Henreid would continue to act in movies and on television, even directing six features, one, Dead Ringer (1964), starring former Now, Voyager co-star, Bette Davis.

Joan Bennett’s career was definitely slowing down. After Hollow Triumph, she would make only 12 more films, including one starring opposite Spencer Tracy in the aforementioned Father of The Bride and its sequel Father’s Little Dividend. Her role as Evelyn seems very uneven. Wisely suspicious, Evelyn, like so many other women characters in movies at the time, seems so easily swayed into giving even the worst men a second and third chance, all in the hope of finding true love. Sadly, it weakens her character, but that was par for the course in those days.

Evelyn seems smart and suspicious until she decides to give John a third chance.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Hollow Triumph. Not the best film noir, but it’s nice to see an actor try to break out of their mold. Henreid may not have hit a home run, creatively or financially, but you have to admire the attempt.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

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