' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Hollow Triumph (1948)

Friday, November 09, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Hollow Triumph (1948)

Plot holes are generally meaningless in terms of analyzing a movie’s rendering, but in the case of “Hollow Triumph” (1948) I think the seeming inconsistencies in logic are useful references because they shine a brighter light on precisely what Steve Sekely’s 1948 noir is seeking to convey. The alternate title for “Hollow Triumph” is “The Scar”, referring to main character John Muller (Paul Henreid) stepping into the shoes, so to speak, of another man late in the movie to escape the hoods on his tail by scarring his own cheek in the manner of a psychiatrist he distinctly resembles. Alas, Muller inadvertently scars the wrong cheek, not unlike how his attempts to replicate this psychiatrist’s accent just seem to fall away once his impersonation begins, suggesting that it would be easy for anyone to say, “Hey, wait a minute now, you’re somebody else.” But just about everyone in the movie, whether it’s proprietors of a gambling den too focused on the dice to notice a stick-up, or a secretary who just wants to see the man she loves love her back, willfully deludes themselves into see what they want to see. The scar must have always been on that cheek, an old woman says when she notices the facial discrepancy. Surely, she just remembers wrong.

As the movie opens, Muller is released from jail, with the prison ward’s assistant reading from theex-perp’s file, referencing college, medical school, psychiatry. It is a clumsily rendered sequence going all on in exposition, though it nevertheless puts Muller into perspective, particularly when we learn he practiced psychiatry without a license, as if he did not want to wait around and jump through the necessary hoops to do what he wanted to do. Indeed, immediately after being sprung, Muller re-unites with his gang, explaining the scheme he concocted while locked up only to be met by hemming and hawing when his whole crew explains they have gone straight. Henreid plays this moment like he plays most of them, standing ramrod straight, as if looking down on these people around him, and he oozes haughty contempt as his character coerces this crew into robbing a gambling den. That it goes wrong when Muller overlooks certain details is, again, not a plot hole but an outgrowth of the character; he holds himself in such high regard that he fails to account for failure.

When the plan does go wrong, Muller goes on the lam by reluctantly embracing the life he didn’t want, taking a 9-to-5 he barely tolerates, evinced by Henreid with a vocal inflection set at just-about-to-burst. Eventually, though, a couple thugs under the employ of the gambling joint Muller and his guys ripped off come calling, necessitating the need of our anti-hero to disappear. That’s when he seeks out Dr. Victor Emil Bartok (Henreid also), whom we meet earlier in the film, a virtual doppelgänger for Muller, save for the scar on his left cheek, and murders him. To take Bartok’s place, Muller slices up his own cheek, in a scene that stops just short of showing us more than we want to see, though a photo mix-up causes him to scar his right cheek, not the left one. That would seem readymade to expose his ruse to Bartok’s secretary, Evelyn (Joan Bennett), when he shows up at Bartok’s office, acting like he’s the doctor.

Evelyn, however, furthers the movie’s theme by not noticing this seemingly glaring difference, or by not wanting to notice, since she always loved the real Bartok and he refused to reciprocate. This impostor, whom she eventually finds out, gives her the chance to get what she always wanted. And Bennett plays these moments like physically she’s resisting, but mentally, spiritually, despite herself, giving in anyway because he can be who she wants him to be for her own sake. Ah, but in the fatalistic circular logic of so many hard-bitten noirs, Bartok’s past turns out to be as shady as his Muller’s, and just when he thinks he’s gotten away, a different couple thugs come calling. At this point, Muller literally calls attention to the fact his scar is on the wrong cheek, which the hired guns only laugh off. If Evelyn only sees him as Bartok, so do the thugs, as delicious as irony as gets. And the stunning concluding shots of an oceanliner drifting from shore, where all the waving goodbye revelers fail to see Muller down below raising his hand for help seem to suggest that before he merges with the infinite he has vanished between his two selves, an imperious man left invisible.

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