Showing posts with label Paul Henreid. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paul Henreid. Show all posts

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Scar (aka Hollow Triumph 1948)

Inescapable Fate
by Guy Savage

“It’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.”

In the world of noir, fate plays a pivotal role, and that is never clearer than in the surprisingly good noir film The Scar (AKA Hollow Triumph). Directed by Steve Sekely, and based on the novel by Murray Forbes, this tight little film illustrates fate’s inescapable grasp through its main character, career criminal John Muller (Paul Henreid).

When the film begins, John Muller is about to be released from prison. The warden’s assistant reaches for Muller’s file and begins to read aloud: “college educated, medical school” and then stumbles over the phrase “specialized in psychiatry.” This clever, minor scene establishes that Muller is smarter--at least in some ways--than those in charge of his lock-up. Muller’s background is further explored by the warden who picks up Muller’s file and continues with the details: “respectable background, medical school” but then comes the appearance of the criminal side of Muller’s nature: he “practiced [psychiatry] without a license” and also “sold stock in a non-existent oil well.” However it was the shift from white-collar crime to a payroll holdup that led Muller to the slammer, and now he’s about to be released. The warden has a job arranged for Muller in a medical supply house--a job that pays a measly $35 a week and which the warden either misguidedly or cynically decides matches Muller’s previous line of work. With a bus ticket to Los Angeles, Muller is supposed to step out of prison into a humble job, and the warden predicts that Muller will be back inside before long.

The film’s opening scene and its emphasis on Muller’s background raises the inevitable question, just where did Muller’s life go wrong? Muller seems to have little in common with his hard-working, respectable brother, Frederick (Eduard Franz). In one scene the brothers confront each another, and Frederick, the brother who’s followed the straight and narrow path admits admiring his criminal brother’s refusal to follow a treadmill life of middle-class respectability:

“You ran around, good times, girls. You were special. You never followed the rules. There were no rules for you, would you believe it? I think I wanted to see you get away with it. You were everything I wasn’t. Everything I wanted to be. Everything we’d all like to be. Only we knew better. We don’t take chances.”

While Muller is intelligent, this intelligence is warped by aggression and violence. Muller is obviously a capable man with years of medical school under his belt, but at some point, Muller’s life took a dive off the deep end from a life of respectability into a violent career of opportunism and the dead end of a prison sentence. The underlying--and unspoken question raised by the reading of the files--why Muller decided to pursue a life of crime seems to be answered by Muller’s behavior upon his release. Met at the prison door by his old pal Marcy (Herbert Rudley), instead of taking the bus to LA, Muller wastes no time getting back in tight with his gang. There’s even a hooker waiting for him in the back seat of Marcy’s car, and the emphasis shifts from ‘where exactly Muller went wrong’ to a sense of amazement that this violent hood ever warmed a seat in medical school in the first place.

However Muller’s reunion with his gang doesn’t go smoothly. With Muller cooling his heels for 2 years in prison, his fellow hoods have gone soft. While they haven’t exactly gone straight, most of them now hold jobs on the fringes of society. One of Muller’s pals, for example, works in a poker parlor. When Muller makes it clear that he’s ready to make a hit on a gambling joint, his gang members express reluctance. After all, the intended target, considered almost impregnable, belongs to a vicious hood with a reputation for getting even. Coercing and threatening the gang into cooperating with the heist, Muller argues: “I have to whip you guys into picking up a fortune.” Too afraid to refuse, the men in Muller’s circle of crime bend under intimidation and their leader’s force of personality.


When the heist goes horribly wrong, Muller is on the run from the vengeful owner of the casino, and he decides to head for the job in California originally arranged by the prison. Here, Muller begins the job in the medical supply company, hoping to maintain a low profile and buy time until his enemies forget about him. But Muller has a hard time accepting the humiliations of being a glorified office boy. Punching a time clock and goaded by his boss, it’s just a matter of time before he explodes.

In Los Angeles, fate intervenes when a man confuses Muller with the eminent psychiatrist Dr. Victor Bartok. Muller, ever one to take an opportunity handed to him, waltzes into Bartok’s office. Here he sizes up the place, and it’s as though he’s trying it on for size. We can almost see the wheels turning in Muller’s brain. The psychiatrist has a great set-up. A swanky office, a lucrative psychiatry practice, and there’s even an adoring beautiful secretary (Joan Bennett). It’s almost too perfect. Muller needs to hide out, and Bartok’s life seems made-to-order. Nevertheless there are two problems standing in Muller’s way: the inconvenient presence of Dr. Bartok, and the fact that the good doctor has a scar that runs down one side of his cheek.

In one sense, Bartok’s life seems to represent an ironic alternate universe for Muller. After all Bartok has everything that Muller could have achieved if he hadn’t turned to crime, and Muller seems to realize this. Just as Muller’s brother, Frederick can’t help but feel some envy at his brother’s disdain for working 9-to-5, there’s a degree of envy in Muller’s hungry gaze as he looks around the doctor’s office and absorbs every detail.

While most people would stop with just envy for the sort of life they will never have, Muller decides to go all the way, and he seizes the opportunity to simply step into Bartok’s shoes. It seems to be the perfect plan--almost too good to be true, and of course, since this is a noir film, it is too good to be true, and inevitably fate catches up with Muller. However, while the film sows the seeds of audience expectation in one direction, fate’s merciless, indifferent and leveling hand comes crashing down from an entirely unexpected direction, catching Muller and the audience completely off-guard.

Lovely Joan Bennett as Bartok’s loyal and besotted secretary, Evelyn Hahn plays an interesting role. She’s the second person to mistake Muller for Bartok, but in her case, since she’s in love with Bartok, her mistake is significant, and Muller rather callously courts Evelyn in order to use her. Evelyn Hahn is a woman whose many disappointments in love have created a hard-edged veneer of disdain. She accepts Muller’s courtship even while she tries to preserve her emotional distance. Evelyn is a fascinating character. In love with her employer, Bartok--a man who doesn’t return her affections, she transfers her feelings to Muller. Later, she accepts Muller as Bartok’s impersonator a little too easily, and one scene even registers Evelyn’s shock when she realizes that Muller has stepped, quite literally, into Bartok’s expensive shoes.

Both of The Scar’s main stars, Joan Bennett and Paul Henreid’s careers suffered setbacks shortly after making the film. Joan Bennett, who has the only significant female role in the film, is perhaps best remembered for those noir greats Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Although The Scar wasn’t the lovely Joan Bennett’s last film, her career took a serious nose-dive following the 1951 scandal in which her husband, Walter Wanger, shot and wounded her agent, Jennings Lang. While Wanger’s career managed to survive the subsequent scandal, in Hollywood’s double standards of the time, Joan Bennett’s movie career was virtually destroyed. Joan Bennett’s most memorable line in the film (and one often quoted) rings ominously true: “It’s a bitter little world.”

Paul Henreid’s career also suffered a setback after a brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee. A victim of the McCarthy Red Scare, the fact that Henreid, a native of Austria, became a US citizen in 1946 didn’t help, and he was subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood. And there’s an irony here as Henreid was previously blacklisted by UFA, Germany’s Nazi-controlled film industry. Today Henreid is best remembered for his role as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (1942).

The Scar isn’t a title that leaps to mind when considering film noir, and it certainly doesn’t make many top noir film lists. However, the film’s premise: attempts to escape the inevitability of fate simply result in ironic manifestations of fate is expressed perfectly through the film’s tidy plot. In trying to avoid his fate, Muller steps into a life he could very well have earned if he’d kept on the straight and narrow. But even though fate seems to throw Muller a lifeline, he only steps from one hell straight into another. As both Evelyn and Muller’s last ditch attempts at redemption are smashed by fate’s sheer indifference, the film’s greatest irony remains that Muller is ultimately not punished for the crimes he’s committed but for the sins of another.

“It’s too late and what’s the use? You can never go back and start again. Because the older you grow, the worse everything turns out. You don’t see what’s happening to you. It just happens. You wake up one morning and anything goes, and that’s alright too.”

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Woman's Devotion (aka Battle Shock 1956)

Posted by Bogeyman

Any list of the classic attributes of this thing called film noir congers up images of high heels on wet pavement, dark & gritty urban landscapes, double crosses and that four lettered F word; fate.

So how then do honeymooners frolicking on the sun splashed beaches of Acapulco cut the mustard as noir? In no less the works of noted noir authorities Mike Keaney and Art Lyons in their books on the subject; Film Noir Guideand Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noiris this film found. As the debate continues to rage over the merits of style vs. theme we’ll have to op out for theme on this hard to find entry. The oft told tale of the unstable WWII vet plays out again with disastrous consequents for any female near our protagonist when a loud noise is heard.

Our story opens to find noir pretty boy Ralph Meeker and equally easy on the eyes Janice Rule as newlyweds Trevor and Stella Stevenson on an extended honeymoon. Just off a banana freighter to Acapulco via the canal, the couple plays and teases one another on the dock without it would seem a care in the world. Of course all’s not right in paradise as Trevor soon complains of a headache brought on by the constant banging from the engine noise. It seems Stella, when booking passage made the error of obtaining a stateroom in close proximity to the engine room. Ends up our girl Stella made another big mistake by getting hooked up with Trevor but when a guys good looking, a war hero (Medal of Honor and Purple Heart), well off (inherited a fortune) and a successful painter well what’s a girl to do?

To relive his headache Stella agrees to take a cab to the hotel and check in while Trevor takes a walk. Arriving at the hotel Stella is introduced to our other primary charter, Police Captain Henrique Monteros played by Paul Henreid (who also directs). In that the Captain is the nephew of the hotel’s owner, he’s got plenty of reason to be around the hotel and of course he’ll have even more in an official capacity later on. The others introduced are of little note with the exception of an over the top lesbian couple placed for comic relief and Maria the hotel maid who will end up carrying the load of the femme fatale.

Switching back to Trevor, we find his walk of relaxation has lead him right to the nearest beachside cantina, a glass of beer and the arms of the obligatory alluring female. Here we discover Trevor’s an artist and he’s always on the lookout for models. The cantina’s waitress, who of course lives nearby is open to the idea of making a couple extra Pecos and suggests she and Trevor get better acquainted at her place. They depart the cantina, the scene fades out and next thing we know its early morning and rover boy’s just making his way into the hotel.

Being the perfect wife, Stella blissfully sleeps away as her wayward husband makes his way into their room and into his bed. She’s only awaken from her slumber when a knock upon the door by Captain Monteros rouses her. The Captain’s the bearer of news of the death of certain waitress at a certain cantina and seen in the company of a certain American tourist who just happens to be sawing logs in the next room. The Captain’s curious as to how Trevor can maintain his peaceful repose and it’s revealed by Stella he suffers from headache and takes medication. This seems to satisfy the Captain but he asks for the couple to visit his office later for some “routine questioning.”

At the station when confronted with the sketchy details of the murder the night before, Trevor is obviously unmoved by the event and states he merely left at the same time as the waitress and did not accompany her home. He’s downright cheerful during the entire process and completed detached from the whole ugly affair. The effect upon him would have been the same had the Captain been reading the hotel lunch menu to him so uncompassionate is his demeanor we’re left thinking perhaps he is in the clear.

Lest those thoughts linger long, soon Maria’s knocking on the door and we find Stella cleaning paint brushes while wearing which is most likely the shortest pair of shorts in noir history and putting them to good use I might add. Upon opening the door Maria displays what she says is proof of Trevor’s involvement with the murder by revealing several sketches made by Trevor. Maria goes on to tell Stella these were found by her in the house of the waitress and she’d be willing to discuss their return for a price. Stella of course believing her husband is innocent nevertheless accompanies Maria to the house of the waitress.

Here we meet the nogoodnick crumb of a husband who was married to the waitress and just so happens to be Maria’s lover. He’s completely unmoved by the lost of his wife and is only interested in the possibility of getting a little compensation for the return of the drawings. In that he’s a rumdum boxer and was away at a match the prior evening he has a perfect alibi. With the disclosure to the drawings all fingers points point again towards Trevor and the clear connection between the finding of the drawings by Maria as opposed to the police when they searched the joint.

When Stella confronts Trevor with the existence of the drawings and the blackmail plot his first thought is to go to the police, tell them he made up the story to spare his wife and that he’s completely innocent of anything but a lapse of good judgment. But upon further review they decide the cops will never buy it so the best course of action is to pay off the blackmailers, charter a fishing boat and skip town.

Trevor will make the money drop at the home of the waitress/boxer/Maria’s hangout and upon arrival finds the boxer dead. Drunk, that is. Maria though is another story and after giving her the money she suggest they cement the deal with a couple of shots of tequila between them. This may have worked, out save for the untimely automobile collision outside and the accompanying load noise just has they’d finished off their second shot. As previously noted Trevor doesn’t dig loud noises, just like a certain Frank Bigelow didn’t like it in the gut and the trip wire of Trevor’s emotions is sprung.

From this point on you can pretty much make book that the demise of both femme fatale and protagonist will play out as mandated by the code of noir, one getting their just desserts as a parasite and the other as a sadly delayed casualty of the war.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stolen Face (1952)

Posted by JeffMarkham

Of course this film is never going to get real notice, but I think it should. It is one of noirs more bizarre outings, like Decoy incorporating sci-fi elements that require a HUGE suspension of disbelief, but Decoy was nowhere near as farfetched as this. Add to it you’ve got Bette Davis’s cardboard cutout leading man and Lizabeth “Just grin and look at the camera” Scott. But that being said, it’s over the top premise only makes this noir stand out more than the rest and its actors are far better at this stage than history has credited them to be.

But here it’s really the two leads who give this film life, making it far beyond another noir programmer and adding new dimensions two there characters, making us at least buy the farfetched premise of the story. Of all people, it’s really Lizabeth Scott who delivers the film.

It’s an interesting bridge between Terence Fisher’s gap between his noirs and Hammer horror films. Here we have a story of a man so obsessed with the ideal woman that he creates a femme fatale in the making, and yet he manages to have to technology to make this woman an exact duplicate of the original. It’s not a masterpiece, but certainly an entertaining, and very well done curio. It does of course tread into programmer comedy during the first quarter, but Fisher does add a great montage showcasing Lizabeth Scott’s unhappiness on tour and Paul Henreid’s unhappiness with his new creation.

Though I had poor words to say about Henreid, he really hit his stride in his noir outings. His ‘leading man’ career only served to bounce off the larger than life personalities of Bogart, Bergman, and especially Davis (and though still wooden, he complemented her very very nicely, especially in Now, Voyager). Beginning in the 1947 Davis-noir a different side of him came along. Here he was playing a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown with violent tendencies, and to me he drives the suspense of that film. A year later he would be doing Hollow Triumph, managing to play two roles and a complex anti-hero. In Stolen Face, he gives a very poorly written role something far more, making his Dr. Phillip Ritter someone beyond mere obsession with a woman, so infatuated he will go to the greatest measure to obtain her. His confession to Scott of his creation does not even feel like it is out of guilt, but out of profession of his love towards her.

Lizabeth Scott’s the surprise here. I’m one of the many who finds her acting far too one dimensional and mechanical, but here she’s different. At this point in her career far past her glory, she seems to be actually trying, whether it be to move out of the poverty row rut or maybe finally maturing into an actress. She manages to create two very different characters and breathes life into each. Her Alice Brent, though far less interesting than her doppelganger Lily Conover, is a woman who has no clue what she wants out of life, never certain over the decisions she has to make. Shall she choose a life with a man whom she barely knew but fell head over heels for, or a man who has dutifully stood by and cared for her throughout her career? Should she continue a life as an esteemed concert pianist, or live a simple life with a man who she has been swept away by. Her lack of assertiveness makes her choice to stay with a man who has become psychotically obsessed with her at least somewhat plausible.

As Lily Conover, on the other hand, she truly shows her growth as an actress. Lily Conover is incredibly complex, incredibly vulnerable and yet recklessly destructive to everyone around her. She’s a twisted version of Eliza Doolittle, who only causes more destruction when managing to become a ‘lady.’ She now can both charm her way to get what she wants in addition to her many criminal impulses. However Scott adds a childlike demeanor to this femme fatale, making her vulnerable and incapable of telling right from wrong. I certainly do feel this film marks a real turning point for her (though lets face it, she does a horrible cockney accent and still can not make it believable that she is the same woman as pre-surgery Lily), I’d be very curious to see how she fared in her final two noirs after this, Bad for Each Other and The Weapon.

It’s an incredibly entertaining noir, featuring a very disturbed femme fatale and a man who is both a victim and responsible for her and her actions. And with a story that is of a man who manages to make an exact physical duplicate of a woman with hazardous results, how can this not be at least a fun ride?