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"It's a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don't let anyone hurt you."
-- Paul Henreid, Hollow Triumph
Actor Paul Henreid had his first shot at production with the 1948 film noir Hollow Triumph whose fate mirrored its title. Though the picture is a favorite with fans of the genre, particularly because of John Alton's atmospheric cinematography, it ended up a financial failure through no fault of Henreid's.
Like many actors in post-World War II Hollywood, Henreid had been chafing under the restrictions of the studio system. After his second film with Bette Davis, Deception (1946), he had left the studio to freelance. The popular actor found himself courted by MGM, where he had made his first post-Warner's film, Song of Love (1947). Although that turgid biography of the Schumanns (with Katharine Hepburn as Henreid's wife) had been a critical and box-office disappointment, studio executives felt they could profit from his presence on the lot. When Henreid refused the encumbrance of another long-term studio contract, it triggered a rift between the actor and his agent, MCA's Lew Wasserman.
Instead, he accepted an offer from Eagle-Lion, the recently formed U.S. arm of English producer J. Arthur Rank, to produce and star in a movie. With financing from railroad magnate Robert Young, he put together a production based on actor-novelist Murray Forbes' Hollow Triumph, the story of a criminal on the run who scars himself to take the place of a prominent psychiatrist, not realizing his new identity may provide more problems than those he had been fleeing in his own life. Henreid had heard of the novel from Hungarian director Steve Sekely, who had been languishing in B movies since his arrival in the U.S. in 1939. In gratitude, he hired Sekely to direct the film.
To write the adaptation, Henreid approached Daniel Fuchs, a once-promising novelist who had fallen on hard times since coming to Hollywood. Henreid had been impressed with Fuchs' work on Warners' Between Two Worlds (1944), but even though he was broke, the writer initially turned down the offer, claiming he didn't know how to write about gangsters. In truth, Fuchs had dealt with organized crime in his 1937 novel Low Company, which he had adapted to the screen in 1947 as The Gangster. Henreid argued that the Brooklyn locales of his novels made him the perfect writer for crime films, and Fuchs finally agreed to give it a try. His first draft proved to be exactly what Henreid wanted. Ironically, Fuchs would win his only Oscar® with the story for another film about gangsters, MGM's Love Me or Leave Me (1955), starring James Cagney as the mobster behind real life singer Ruth Etting's rise to stardom.
Originally, Henreid had wanted to cast Evelyn Keyes as the doctor's secretary, who was involved in a dead-end affair with her boss. When he asked Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn to lend Keyes to Eagle-Lion for the film, Cohn was so impressed with the script he tried to land the production for his own studio. Having already signed the agreement with Eagle-Lion, Henreid had to turn him down, which cost him the chance to work with Keyes.
Instead he turned to Joan Bennett, a Hollywood star since the early days of talking films who had recently reinvented herself as a film noir "dame," in such acclaimed Fritz Lang films as Man Hunt (1941) and Scarlet Street (1945). She and Lang had just scored a major flop with Secret Beyond the Door (1948), so she was desperate for a hit and ready to take a chance on an independent studio like Eagle-Lion. Henreid would later say he had been delighted with her tart approach to the character.
Another sound choice for the film was cinematographer John Alton. A rebel whose techniques shocked many established Hollywood filmmakers, Alton had left Hollywood in the '30s to help establish the Argentine film industry. On his return, he had worked mostly at low budget studios like Republic and the new Eagle-Lion, distinguishing himself at the latter with his work on Anthony Mann's sleeper hit T-Men (1947). On Hollow Triumph, he would light some scenes from just a single source, creating a brooding, mysterious look for the film that underlined its sense of lives lived in desperation. Although he would move on to more prestigious films later, winning an Oscar® for MGM's lavish musical An American in Paris (1951), he remained controversial, eventually walking away from Hollywood in 1960 and only re-emerging for the premiere of the 1992 documentary Visions of Light, in which his work was prominently featured.
Despite strong work from Alton and Bennett, however, Hollow Triumph ended up costing Henreid at the box office. His quarrels with Wasserman led the agent to turn the contract over to an assistant for review. As a result, Henreid's profit participation was tied to the successes of three other films whose box-office failure resulted in Henreid's never receiving a share of his film's profits. Worse yet, his fan club lost members who were disappointed to see the romantic lead of Now, Voyager (1942) playing not one but two unsympathetic roles. Hollow Triumph eventually wound up on late-night television, where it often plays under the less evocative title The Scar.
Producer: Bryan Foy, Paul Henreid
Director: Steve Sekely
Screenplay: Daniel Fuchs
Based on the novel by Murray Forbes
Cinematography: John Alton
Art Direction: Frank Durlauf, Edward Ilou
Music: Sol Kaplan
Cast: Paul Henreid (John Muller/Dr. Victor Emil Bartok), Joan Bennett (Evelyn Hahn), Eduard Franz (Frederick Muller), Leslie Brooks (Virginia Taylor), John Qualen (Dr. Swangron, D.D.S.), Mabel Paige (Charwoman), Herbert Rudley (Marcy), Thomas Browne Henry (Rocky Stansyck), Lucien Littlefield (Mr. Davis, Patient), Jack Webb (Bullseye).
by Frank Miller