In a 2013 Los Angeles Times article on ‘B’ movies, film historian Alan K. Rode was quoted as saying, “These ‘B’ features were shorter in time, lower in budget. To me, a ‘B’ movie is something that is fast, it moves, and is entertaining first and foremost.” Another aspect of ‘B’ movies that contributed to their quality is that often they were the result of an ideal convergence of veteran and fresh talent, some on their way up the ladder and, sad to say, some on the way down. One such ‘B’ film that reflects this kind of cinematic “perfect storm” is the 1948 film noir Hollow Triumph, which has just been released by Film Chest on DVD remastered in HD from the original 35mm film elements.
Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar in the UK) was a product of the short-lived (1947-48) production division of Eagle-Lion Films, a company that was initially established by British producer J. Arthur Rank (of the famous “gong” logo) to distribute UK films in the US and then make low-budget movies, with Bryan Foy in charge of production (later an independent producer for the studio). Nobody knew how to make quality ‘B’s better than Foy, who established Warner Bros.’ low-budget programmer unit in the ’30s, where he was known as “the keeper of the ‘B’s.” Hollow Triumph’s star was Austria-Hungary-born actor Paul Henreid, who also made his name at Warners, most memorably in Casablanca. After leaving Warners to try freelancing, Henreid accepted Eagle-Lion’s offer to both act in and produce (his debut in that capacity) his own movie. (Unfortunately, soon afterward, Henreid’s acting career hit a roadblock in the form of the HUAC witch hunts and, except for occasional supporting roles, he mainly spent the last two decades of his Hollywood career behind the cameras as a director.)
Upon having Murray Forbes’ novel Hollow Triumph recommended to him by Hungarian director Steve Sekely, Henreid chose that as his source material and assigned Sekely to helm the picture. An experienced director who got his start making movies in Germany and Hungary, Sekely was an inspired choice for the film, along with screenwriter Daniel Fuchs and innovative cinematographer John Alton. Henreid’s co-star was Joan Bennett (cast after Harry Cohn refused to loan out Henreid’s first choice, Evelyn Keyes, from her Columbia Pictures contract). Bennett was a major romantic star in the 1930s who had reinvented herself in the 40s playing hard-boiled types, most notably her three roles for celebrated director Fritz Lang in his films Man Hunt, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street. Hollow Triumph also boasts some fine supporting performances from a Who’s Who of lesser-known character actors, including John Qualen, Henry Brandon, Herbert Rudley, Charles Trowbridge, George Chandler, Sid Tomack, Lucien Littlefield, Norma Varden, Benny Rubin, Thomas Browne Henry, Dick Wessel, and future TV and film auteur Jack Webb, making his movie debut as a dour hitman called Bullseye. (Rather ironic seeing as Webb would become early television’s most famous cop on Dragnet.)
In Hollow Triumph, a cast-against-type Henreid plays con man John Muller, who, despite his criminal background, also holds a medical degree in psychology (which comes in very handy later in the story). In the opening scene, Muller is paroled from prison with a warning from a deputy (Trowbridge) to keep his nose clean. So, of course, the first thing he does on the outside is get in touch with his old gang. One of his men, Big Boy (Brandon), knows of an illegal gambling den that’s ripe for a knockover, but Marcy (Rudley), another member of the gang, has cold feet because the casino is owned by Rocky Stanwyck (Henry, also making his film debut), a ruthless mobster with a rep for having anyone who crosses him pursued relentlessly and rubbed out.
Taking their places inside and out of the gambling hole, a dingy basement storeroom (which, thanks to Alton’s lighting, looks like something out of a silent German Expressionist film), Muller and his crew set the robbery into motion. However, like so many of the movies’ “perfect heists,” everything that can possibly go wrong does. Although Muller and Marcy get away with the loot, the rest of the gang are captured and eliminated by Stanwyck and his goons, and the two fugitives are well aware that it’s only a matter of time until they’re next.
Marcy opts for fleeing to Mexico and Muller takes it on the lam to LA, hiding out by reluctantly taking the tedious office job the parole board set him up with. One afternoon, while running a work errand, Muller runs into a mild-mannered dentist (Qualen) who mistakes him for someone else. That someone else is Dr. Bartok (also Henreid), a psychiatrist who works in the same building as the dentist. Conveniently, Bartok is a virtual doppelganger for Muller, but with one noticeable difference: a small scar on his cheek. Stepping into Bartok’s office while the doctor’s out to lunch (a nice subjective shot), Muller meets Bartok’s secretary Evelyn Hahn (Bennett), a bitter, disillusioned woman carrying an unrequited torch for her employer.
Ever the louse, Muller seduces Evelyn in order to pump her for info about Bartok as part of a newly-hatched scheme to eventually eliminate the doctor and take over his life. When he learns that Marcy has been bumped off in Mexico and that a couple of torpedoes (Webb and Wessel) are hot on his trail, Muller is forced to speed up his timetable. First, he gets a job working the graveyard shift at the all-night garage where Bartok keeps his car. The next part of Muller’s plot is to duplicate Bartok’s scar on his own face with the aide of a scalpel and some anesthetic. But, as luck would have it, just as the meticulously worked-out robbery unraveled, that act of self-mutilation turns out to be the first fatal misstep in a series of unanticipated events that inevitably doom Muller’s best laid plans.
Thanks to Sekely’s expert direction and Alton’s sharp-edged black-and-white photography, Hollow Triumph has enough visual style to belie its meager budget, which is typical of the ‘B’ movies supervised by Foy. Fuchs’ brittle, cynical dialogue is also a major asset. There are many situations and plot twists in Hollow Triumph that could be described as “Hitchcockian,” although in a manner more reminiscent of the Master of Suspense’s two television anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, than his movies. (Interestingly, Henreid directed several episodes of the former series and one of the latter.) In fact, Hollow Triumph’s “surprise ending” was not only echoed in more than one episode of the aforementioned television series, but it also turned up in an early episode of The Twilight Zone (albeit with a supernatural twist).
Don’t get me wrong; Hollow Triumph is no unsung masterpiece. But it is a tough, spare, expertly-made and well-acted little thriller that demonstrates the virtues of ‘B’ picture making. And thanks to well-done remastering, it looks better than it has in years on Film Chest’s DVD release.