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John Muller, medical school dropout and brilliant crook, plans a holdup which goes a little bit wrong, and finds vindictive gambler Rocky Stansyck after him. At the end of his tether, he stumbles onto a lucky chance to assume an impenetrable new identity as psychiatrist Victor Bartok. But irony piles on as Muller finds it's out of the frying pan, into the fire.Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Sekely directs an often forgotten noir masterpiece
Hollow Triumph is a very good film noir that's often missing from Essential Noir lists, usually only because it's not very well known. Now whereas we could debate for hours whether this movie deserves a place in those lists or not (or debate on which noirs absolutely need to go in those lists), why don't we just take a closer look at the film?
THE STORY SO FAR... Johnny Muller is a criminal, planning to rob a casino with the help of a few friends and two cars. The robbery doesn't go too well and only the car with Johnny and 'Marcy' manages to escape. They hide as it's all too clear that the casino people will do all to get their money back. Hiding wasn't a bad idea, Johnny finds out: one day the newspaper shows a picture of 'Marcy' shot on the streets. No points for guessing who's behind it. Johnny is looking for a way out and finds one when a man on the streets takes the gangster for Dr. Bartok, a psychiatrist. Johnny pays a visit to the doctor's office where even Bartok's secretary mistakes Johnny for her boss, till she observes the one difference that can distinguish the lookalikes: Bartok has a scar on his cheek. Johnny takes a picture of Bartok and uses all his surgical knowledge to copy the scar on his cheek. Unfortunately, due to a mix-up at the photo lab, the photo's printed the wrong way round and Johnny finds himself with the scar on the wrong cheek. But who really pays that much attention to people's faces?
SO IT'S A FILM NOIR THEN... Yes, it is. We have the gangster looking for a way out, the femme fatale (the secretary) with no faith left in mankind and we get a hard-boiled vision on life: who really cares about good and bad? Who really observes other people? Ask yourself the question: would you notice a scar moving to the other side of a person's face? That person is still there, the scar's still there and let's face it: scars can't move, can they?
WHAT MAKES THIS FILM SO SPECIAL? Not the beginning, I found it a bit weak, but a very good climax at the end of the film somehow makes us forgive that.
First, let's look at the cast and director. The director Steve Sekely (born in Hungary as István Székely) made 50 films. His career started in Hungary in 1930. Nine years later he moved to the USA. Most of his films are quite unknown, the biggest exception being an adaptation from a John Wyndham novel: The Day of The Triffids (1962).
Starring as John Muller, we find one Paul Henreid, a man you might recognise from Casablanca (where he played Victor Laszlo) or as the lead in the film classic usually watched for the wrong reason, Of Human Bondage. The femme fatale is often essential to a film noir, which makes the choice of Joan Bennett as Bartok's secretary a very good deal. She didn't only play the lead in Max Ophuls's film noir The Reckless Moment, she was also in the three noirs director Fritz 'Metropolis' Lang directed in the forties: Scarlett Street, The Woman in the Window and - save the best for last - Secret Beyond The Door. In Hollow Triumph she may not play the lead, but she's still an essential part of the movie.
But what makes this movie so special is... the lighting technique. Director Steve Sekely observed how one lamp can light (parts of) a room and took all sorts of lights (from natural exterior light to big Hollywood spots) to light his movie in such a way Hollow Triumph is a lust for the eye. The light (or absence of) is also a motiv in the film (e.g. during the robbery disabling the lights is an essential part of the plan, but it's the presence of light that exposes them when they want to drive away). But Sekely uses all those forms of light in such a subtle way it doesn't bother you when you're watching the film. On the contrary, it even adds to your viewing pleasure.
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