And here’s Miss Joan…
After World War Two, it really got to be a thing for studio actors to turn free-agent, and it became way more common for actors to both produce and star in their own films. One of these was 1948’s Hollow Triumph, which is also known as The Scar, and as The Man Who Murdered Himself. Produced by and starring Paul Henreid, it was not only a vehicle for an actor who was having trouble getting lead roles following Casablanca, but it was a way for Joan Bennett to flex her noir muscles. Well, kinda.
The film opens at a prison, where Johnny Mueller (Paul Henreid) has just been released. He’s been doing time for a payroll holdup, and now the warden is giving him a chance to turn over a new leaf, with a job lined up in Los Angeles. The warden has no great hope that Johnny is really reformed, though. “You’ll be back,” he says.
Smart warden. Johnny reunites with his fellow criminals, most of whom have been doing time themselves. They’ve all gotten out before Johnny and taken jobs which are more or less legitimate. Johnny holes up in a house these guys are renting, and he’s bored stiff until he comes up with the idea of robbing Stansing’s Casino. It might be crowded and have lots of armed security, but Johnny’s banking on the place being so busy that no one notices Johnny and his gang making off with two hundred thousand dollars. Not all the men are gung-ho about the plan, but Johnny reminds them that they owe him.
Just as Johnny predicts, the place is busy. Johnny and a couple of his men walk right up to the purser, who readily hands over the money. He’s standing in the room with the stolen money in his pocket book waiting for the lights to go off so he can make his exit. No one looks at him (including someone who appears to be Bonita Granville in a microscopic, uncredited cameo). The purser doesn’t even raise the alarm. Finally, the lights cut out and Johnny beats it. Some of his men are caught by Stansing, who, shall we say, coaxes the truth out of them.
Johnny and one of his other men, Marcy (Herbert Rudley), figure they’ll hide out somewhere. Marcy is as jumpy as a cat and elects to disappear in Mexico or South America. Johnny decides to drive south to Los Angeles, where he takes a desk job.
After doing the nine-to-five routine for who knows how long, Johnny’s boss asks him to deliver a package to someone. While Johnny’s walking down the street, a dentist named Dr. Swangron (John Qualen) stops him and tells him he’s the spitting image of a Dr. Bartok. Except for the good doctor having a scar on his cheek, he and Johnny are like two peas.
Intrigued, Johnny goes up to Dr. Bartok’s office, where Evelyn (Joan Bennett) the secretary falls on him with a kiss. She’s embarrassed when she sees it’s Johnny and not Dr. Bartok, but no harm done. The two of them date for a little bit, but Johnny dumps her because Evelyn is a means to an end.
Johnny has managed to steal Dr. Bartok’s case files, as well as his dictation tapes. It helps that Johnny studied psychoanalysis in his younger days, and he buries himself in research and mimicks Bartok’s speaking style. Sort of. He got fired from his desk job for fighting with his boss, and for some reason he gets another job at a garage where he works nights. This somehow still affords him time during the day to stalk Dr. Bartok and take a point-blank photo of his face. And the scar? No problem. Johnny studies the photo he took and cuts his own. Too bad it’s on the wrong side of his face.
Our anti-hero plugs along at the garage until it just so happens that Dr. Bartok needs his car serviced, and this sets Johnny up to put his plan in motion. It appears to go off without a hitch–the doctor is easily dispatched, and everyone who knows him seems to be none the wiser. No one seems to notice that Dr. Bartok’s scar has gone to his other cheek, and even Johnny’s brother, Frederick (Eduard Franz) is fooled. But where does Evelyn figure into all of this? She knows Dr. Bartok well enough to suspect something’s out of place.
Hollow Triumph (or whatever it’s called) is just…okay. The pacing is really odd, for one thing–the whole premise is that Johnny fools everyone when he stands in for the doctor, only the doctor isn’t taken out of the picture until almost an hour into the film with only twenty-two minutes to go. It doesn’t leave much time for Johnny to deal with the fallout, and it certainly doesn’t leave much time for Evelyn to do anything with what she knows. She’s no dummy, so it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch for Evelyn and Frederick to hatch a scheme to either trap Johnny or get him to come clean. It would have been a very natural progression for the story arc, except that there’s no time.
And pacing is everything. In Double Indemnity, Walter and Phyllis commit murder halfway through the film, but in that case it works because for the first fifty-three minutes the audience has time to become invested in the characters and feel some measure of sympathy for Walter.
We don’t get that in Hollow Triumph–there’s no tension or intrigue, just hints of it. If Johnny is supposed to be hiding from the cops and he’s got all this loot money, why does he bother getting a job? Boredom? A weak attempt at a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities? Any other high-stakes thief would high-tail it for the south of France or Grand Cayman or something. It would have been more plausible for Johnny’s robbery attempt to fail, which would necessitate the need for work.
The film does have its strong points. Hollow Triumph is gorgeously filmed, with distorted lighting and little visual clues as to Johnny’s psychological state. It’s not by-the-book noir–there’s no femme fatale or bullets flying every five minutes, so kudos to Henreid for going in a different direction. The acting is competent, and Joan Bennett particularly crackles, although her screen time is minimal. None of this is strong enough to save a film which, incidentally, did so poorly that it caused Paul Henreid’s fan club to lose members.
Hollow Triumph passed into public domain long ago, and many noir fans have a soft spot for it. I see it as a relic from a time when certain studio stars were trying to find their footing without the backing of a major studio. It might be a frail film overall, but it’s not completely without interest.
For more of the great Joan Bennett, please see Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Crystal–it’s a pleasure as always. Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you next time…
Hollow Triumph is available on Blu-ray from Amazon.