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Watch It For Free – Steve Sekely’s Hollow Triumph (1948)

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

“First comes you, second comes you, third comes you, and then comes you.”

That’s perhaps the key line in this vicious little film noir from Hungarian director Steve Sekely, who was forced out of his native land by the Nazis, and landed in Hollywood with enormous skill but few connections, and so labored in the 1940s at the minor studios, such as Eagle-Lion (formerly PRC) which produced Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar) as a semi-prestige film. He’s much underrated, and this is a film that proves it.

In the scene above, smooth and over-confident con man John Muller (Paul Henreid), smoking a cigarette, is getting a pep talk from his law-abiding brother Frederick (the always reliable Eduard Franz) on the need to “go straight” after a stint in prison, but as you might expect, John is having none of it.

A college dropout who was headed for an MD, John Muller abruptly quit in his sixth year of studies, and embarked on a run of criminal behavior; practicing medicine without a license, selling shares in non-existent oil wells, until he inevitably got caught. Intriguingly, there’s never any reason given for this abrupt decision – it’s just another mystery in a world without explanations. Somehow, John was always destined to be a criminal.

Now, fresh out of jail, John can’t wait to pull a really big job – knocking over a casino run by mobster Rocky Stansyck (Thomas Brown Henry, another excellent character actor). His pals try to tell him that it’s a lose – lose proposition; Stansyck is notorious for killing anyone who tries to cross him. But John persuades – or threatens – his associates until they play along, and then, of course, the robbery goes wrong.

But in a rather unusual twist, John finds the perfect place to hide in plain sight – as the respected psychologist Dr. Muller, who just happens to be a dead ringer for him, except for scar on his left cheek – or is it his right cheek? One has to be careful about such things. It’s the small details that count. And therein hangs a compelling tale of murder, double-cross, revenge and duplicity.

Joan Bennett – another excellent actor somewhat down on her luck in the late 1940s – is the nominal “love” interest in the film as Evelyn Hahn, but as the line underneath the photo above attests, she quickly sums up John as a hopeless egotist, bound for self-destruction. However, being a noir icon, Joan somehow can’t resist going along for the ride – much to her regret.

As John tells Evelyn early on in the film, “it’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you.” But that’s what everyone in this film is destined for – a world of hurt and disappointment. Superbly photographed by the gifted John Alton on a shoestring budget, Hollow Triumph long ago fell into the Public Domain – so now you see it here, for free.

Hollow Triumph – a sharp, slick little film – well worth the time to check it out.

Between Two Worlds (1944)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Between Two Worlds (1944), directed by Edward A. Blatt, follows a group of people who find themselves on a mysterious ocean liner, bound for who knows where, in the midst of a perpetual fog. Although they don’t know it yet, they’re all dead; failed pianist Henry Bergner (Paul Henreid) and wife Ann (Eleanor Parker) realize this first, because they have committed suicide together in their small London flat. The others – tough guy reporter Tom Prior (John Garfield), Lingley, a brutal industrialist (George Coulouris), grasping socialite Genevieve Cliveden-Banks (Isobel Elsom) and her docile husband Benjamin Cliveden-Banks (Gilbert Emory), the meek Reverend William Duke (Dennis King), merchant seaman Pete Musick (George Tobias), would-be actress Maxine Russell (Faye Emerson), along with other passengers, have all been killed by a Nazi Blitz bomb in a taxi, and have yet to discover the truth of their current situation. One by one, they realize that they’re now in limbo, attended to by the servile Scrubby (Edmund Gwenn), as they wait for judgment from the Examiner, the now deceased Reverend Frank Thompson (Sydney Greenstreet), who is one of many heavenly judges who rule on each person’s final destination – heaven or hell, in a very literal sense.

Based on the 1924 novel by Sutton Vane, Outward Bound, which was filmed in 1930 under director Robert Milton, starring Leslie Howard, Helen Chandler, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Between Two Worlds is an odd wartime project to say the least, even if in the end, it has a somewhat positive narrative conclusion. Many have remarked on Blatt’s curiously flat staging of the project, and indeed, he only directed two more films after this, before returning to his regular job of dialogue director, but when I caught the last 50 minutes of the film this morning on TCM – I’ve seen it many times before – I was struck by the simplicity and sincerity of Blatt’s work on the project, which seems deeply felt, even impassioned. The movie’s main interest seems to reside in offering moral instruction for the audience, of a very direct kind, rather than escapist entertainment – something that Warner Bros. didn’t usually engage in.  It’s an odd, moody film, one that has unexpected power that gathers over the film’s running time, and exerts a hold on one’s imagination, even as it seems still and unhurried – but then again, the characters are in limbo, and so, for the duration of the film, are we.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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